Christophe Ferland - A man with a plan

Christophe Ferland – A man with a plan   When Christophe Ferland is talking to you, you have his full attention. He might need to break off the interview for a few moments to deal with something at the yard or on the phone, or to look at a horse, but he will resume exactly where he stopped, without missing a beat. Is this ability to concentrate 100% on what he is doing one of the ingredients in the recipe for the success of French Flat racing’s rising star?   With a jockey-turned-head-lad for a father, Ferland cannot remember the first time he saw a horse. “But I do remember going racing with my father, although he was no longer a jockey at the time, and loving it!” he says now.   So, after a few years riding out in the morning for several renowned trainers including David Smaga and starting in a dozen races as a gentleman rider “without much success or passion, as I really lacked competitive spirit at the time,” he decided that training really captivated him. His mind was made up: he would be a trainer.   Ferland had a plan to make this happen, albeit a long-term one. He went to England and started working in Lambourn for trainers Charlie Mann and Peter Walwyn. These good credentials later enabled him to become Sir Mark Prescott’s pupil assistant in Newmarket. “Sir Mark taught me two invaluable things: to be rigorous and to observe horses. He had his method which he stuck to no matter what, and would observe his horses with the utmost attention to see how they fit in, how good or ready they were. Of course, as any trainer would, I developed my own way. However, these two rules gave me a strong basis.” After two years with Sir Mark, Ferland returned to Chantilly, where he spent nine years with Richard Gibson as an assistant trainer and travelling head lad, a position that took him all over the world. “With Richard, I learned boldness. Nothing would stop him. He was incredibly relaxed about trying new things. For instance, he would think nothing of going straight from a “B”-rated race to a Group race – and sometimes, it would work! To be honest, he surprised me more than once. Now, I make sure I take a leaf out of his book, too.”   This combination of rigour and boldness is certainly another major ingredient, along with his ability to extract the essence of his mentors’ teaching, of Christophe Ferland’s recipe.   Fast forward a few years, to the end of 2007, when Ferland was around the age of 30 and decided it was time to start his own business. Although he loves Chantilly, where he had gained most of his experience, he felt that there are too many big fish in this pond. The southwest of France appealed to him, for its mild climate that enables horses to be ready much earlier in the season and its many good quality racecourses with a rich program. Pau? In the shade of the great Jean-Claude Rouget? No. Mont-de-Marsan? Not his thing. It was to be La Teste de Buch, near the renowned sea resort Arcachon. “It has the mild climate I was looking for, is a pleasant place to live in and, most of all, I felt the training centre had a growth potential,” he says. And grow they did, together. Today, with some 110 horses in training, Ferland is in charge of about a quarter of the 450 horses trained in La Teste. He is one definitely of the big fish. Dream statistics – nearly 70% of his runners win or are placed, with one winner from every five starts – secure him a spot in the top 10 of French Flat trainers. Five or six years ago, he built his own yard near the training centre for a total capacity of 120 horses. All within barely 10 years. At such a pace, there was a risk of being overtaken by events.   “Up to 50 horses, a yard remains a family structure with some 10-12 employees. After that, you have to be very well organised and assisted. I’d be a nobody without my team,” he says. Ferland’s staff has now come numbered around 40, including 25 people riding out every day. They are supervised by the trainer’s assistant, former jockey Goulven Toupel, who has taken over riding the pony to the gallops every morning. “You need one person to watch the horses day after day; he knows them inside out and I can rely on him. We aim to do what’s best for them: regular training and a routine ensure they are well, both physically and mentally.”   Travelling is another key aspect, particularly when you are based so far from Paris (see box). “Long trips are something you really need to take into account when working a horse’s program out. I was extremely lucky to benefit from the wealth of experience and advice of leading trainer Jean-Claude Rouget, who has been studying the subject for over 20 years. The logistics are now in the very capable hands of ex-trainer Thierry Foulon and his son Clément. I don’t always go to the races nowadays as I used to in the beginning. Therefore, I can be on the gallops in the morning and take care of the actual training of the horses – and watch the races from my office on Equidia.”   Last but not least, Christophe’s wife Aude, daughter of former trainer Bertrand de Watrigant, deals with the administration side of running the yard. “I don’t know what I’d do without her. This is a vital part of the business, obviously. Knowing that I can trust her 200% with it frees my mind and enables me to concentrate on the horses and owners.” The Ferlands have two sons, ages six and three; the older of the boys is already showing a strong interest in horses.   Horses, of course, are at the centre of the system. Everything is done to keep them fit and happy. Ever since the beginning, he had young horses in his string. “The only way for a trainer to prove his worth is to start with two-year-olds, according to Jean-Claude Rouget. Of course, this requires a few connections.” Connections that have to be established – and maintained.   “One of my secretaries is in charge of communication with the owners. She will send them monthly reports, pictures... As for me, I make a point of always being available. They know they can reach me anytime by phone or e-mail.” In this respect as well, Rouget is a role model for Ferland, who says, “He has the most special relationship with his owners. They are all more like friends. This is something I strive for.”   Rouget has indeed played an important part in Ferland’s career, even though Ferland did not come up under him. He was one of the first to trust him as a trainer, sending him some of his own horses to train. “I did not know him at all,” recalls Rouget, France’s leading trainer and recent winner of Prix du Jockey-Club. “However, having received the help of my father (trainer Claude Rouget) and some of his owners when I set up my own yard, I felt it was my duty to, in turn, help younger trainers. Christophe was one of the first I tried this with, and it soon transpired he had ‘the gift.’ He is a born winner. I first sent him a filly that was really no superstar and he managed to fine tune her to bring the very best out of her. Then I sent him another horse, and so on.” After four or five years, the younger trainer having grown his own wings, the partnership came to a natural end – but not before they had shared a very emotional moment, winning the very first Prix Claude Rouget (not a black-type race) at Angers in 2010 with Pim Pam, a few months after Jean-Claude Rouget’s father died – a race they also won the following year with Air Shot. “This is a memory I will always treasure,” says Ferland. “Mrs Rouget was giving out the prizes... It was extremely moving.”   It is moments like that Christophe Ferland is after – human adventures. What is his fondest memory so far, apart from the obvious first Group wins with Dabirsim? “Winning the Prix du Calvados (a Group 3 race for two-year-old fillies) with Cavale Dorée, who was the first yearling I bought independently. A group of friends soon joined me owning her, which has made the success we had with her an even stronger experience,” he says. The filly went on to finish third in the 2016 Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.   Ferland continues, “Winning a Listed race for British owner Mr Brian Yeardley, who had come all the way to Marseille, or other good races for bloodstock agent Mr. Frédéric Sauque and his daughter Olivia, my best friend, was also amazing.” One feels he could go on and on and that there is a story behind nearly each horse, each success, and each owner, from the friends with a share to the early supporters like Zafonic S.L. to the most historically classic colours, such as those of Wertheimer et Frère, owner-breeder of Indonesienne, winner of the 2013 Group 1 Prix Marcel Boussac for Ferland.   And it was thanks to Ferland’s first Group winner, Simon Springer’s Dabirsim – winner of three Pattern races, including two Group 1s, the Prix Morny and Prix Jean-Luc Lagardère in 2011 – that the introduction was made.   “Training for such a prestigious owner as the Wertheimer family is a great honour. Our relationship is one of mutual trust. We met at the prize giving after Dabirsim beat (Wertheimer homebred) Sofast in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardère! They send me really good, well-bred horses. It is also fascinating to not only have to win races, but to enhance families and lines as well.”   The hands-on experience of the direct link between racing and breeding is fairly new to him as a trainer. “It makes me feel awfully old, but for the first time this year, thanks to owner-breeder Mr Adolph Schneider, I started training offspring of mares I trained a few years ago. It is actually very interesting and does give a few keys regarding distance or ground aptitude... as long as you avoid being prejudiced.”   Keeping an open mind, being dynamic and reactive, grabbing any opportunity, and finding ways to face adversity are certainly more key ingredients of his recipe. “You have to keep searching – why something went wrong and how to correct it, what could still be improved even when things go well... Never take anything for granted.”   In addition to French highweighted two-year-old colt Dabirsim, Indonesienne, and Cavale Dorée, other Pattern winners to emerge from the Ferland yard are Heshem, Gloomy Sunday, and Spoil the Fun. Last year, the trainer saddled his first Listed winner over hurdles, Isabe.   One thing is for sure: the competitive spirit Christophe Ferland was lacking as a rider has grown tenfold now that he is training “his own” horses. All the same, his long-term plan has come to fruition.   Box: “Paris” vs “province” For decades, in a situation is particular to French racing, there was a strong division between “Paris” – the training centres of Chantilly and Maisons-Laffitte; Chantilly, Deauville, Evry*, Longchamp, Maisons-Laffitte*, Saint-Cloud (Flat), Auteuil, and Enghien (NH) racecourses – and the rest of France, “la province” – the provinces. Classic horses were all trained in “Paris” by leading trainers who would only venture to the provinces at the end of the season to run in the Grand Prix in Marseille or Bordeaux. Sometimes, the likes of Guy Henrot or Henri-Alex Pantall would dare to go and confront the Paris teams on their home turf, but that was the exception more than the rule. At least, it was until Jean-Claude Rouget, who had been the leading “provincial” trainers for years, took Paris by storm some 20 years ago. Since then, and despite a certain animosity from his Paris colleagues, he has firmly settled in the top three on the trainers’ table, finishing season 2016 as number one. He trains his 250 horses in Pau, in the southwest of France, and says, “I once was told by very well-meaning people that one could not train a Group 1 horse in Pau. I proved otherwise, and showed owners that it was, in fact, possible.”   Now that Rouget has paved the way, many young trainers such as Christophe Ferland follow in his footsteps, choosing a better quality of life for themselves and their horses. The younger generation of trainers have known only the current situation and don’t maintain this rivalry. Therefore, as road networks and means of transport as well as racing programmes improve (leading province trainers being very influential in the latter), the gap between Paris and “la province” may soon be a thing of the past.   *no longer in use

When Christophe Ferland is talking to you, you have his full attention. 

He might need to break off the interview for a few moments to deal with something at the yard or on the phone, or to look at a horse, but he will resume exactly where he stopped, without missing a beat. Is this ability to concentrate 100% on what he is doing one of the ingredients in the recipe for the success of French Flat racing’s rising star?

With a jockey-turned-head-lad for a father, Ferland cannot remember the first time he saw a horse. “But I do remember going racing with my father, although he was no longer a jockey at the time, and loving it!” he says now.

So, after a few years riding out in the morning for several renowned trainers including David Smaga and starting in a dozen races as a gentleman rider “without much success or passion, as I really lacked competitive spirit at the time,” he decided that training really captivated him. His mind was made up: he would be a trainer.'

You have to keep searching – why something went wrong and how to correct it, what could still be improved even when things go well... Never take anything for granted.

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First published in European Trainer issue 58 - July - September 2017