"I am a developer of horses, and all my horses are for sale”. These words, by Tom Tate, soon give you a balanced view of the Yorkshire trainer when you first meet him. Tate, who has 36 boxes at his two farms in Tadcaster, may come across as a very careful, conservative man. But he is also a gambler.
”It is not always economically wise”, he says, “but, yes, I own a few horses myself. I often buy yearlings hoping to pass them on to my clients or sell them on to others when they have raced a bit”. Tate is not a ‘factory type’ of trainer but improving the product, increasing the value of horseflesh, is very much a part of his job. And racing them on anything but turf to achieve the goals, is seldom, very seldom, an option.
A former amateur jumps rider for 22 years, who partnered some of Tony Dickinson’s best chasers, such as Silver Buck, Badsworth Boy and Bregawn, switched his business interests from cars to horses. Originally from Leeds, Tate tells us how he, like so many in this sport, had a very early start to what was to become a career and a lifestyle. “I was competing at pony shows from about eight”, he explains, “and I was a competitive show jumping rider as a teenager, but moved my attention to racing as soon as I could. Which was a bit late, as I wanted to get my business going first”.
Tate set up as a trainer in 1969, first as a permit holder, training only his own horses. Married to Michael Dickinson’s sister Hazel in 1972, he soon became involved in better horses and his family is horse people through ad through. “My sister Frances Walwyn is a keen endurance rider”, he says, “I don’t know why, but she enjoys that, and has won abroad. We are an equestrian family”. Tate’s two sons, Richard, a business man, and James, a veterinarian working for Mark Johnston, are both amateur steeplechase riders.
The Yorkshire man, who sent out the 7-year-old Welsh Emperor to win the Hungerford Stakes (G2) at Newbury and go very close to winning the Prix de la Foret (G1) at Longchamp this year, has what he calls “a small, but very specialist operation. We have excellent facilities, with two miles of grass gallops, an indoor riding school and an all-weather gallop. ”
“I have everything I need”, he says.
With his background as a jumps rider, Tate first trained hurdlers and chasers. “I still prefer jumping”, he says, “it is more of a sport, but we now have nearly 80 per cent flat horses. Flat racing is the reality of the business, jump racing is not as economically viable.”
Tate never considered turning professional in the saddle. “I was having my businesses at the time, in the motor retailing trade, and never thought about becoming a jockey. Nowadays, however, horses are my business.”
The team is relatively small but may expand. “My maximum number of horses is now 36”, Tate says, “but I have started thinking about having more boxes built. Since I have gone flat racing it has all changed, it is a different job, really, as there is more turnover. We have gradually edged towards the flat. The jumping is closer to my heart but it does not compare with the flat from the business aspect. We also always get some jumping horses from the flat team because I buy big, strong horses – some of them are too slow for the flat!”
Tate has no particular geographical preference when it comes to buying horses; “I go to all the major sales”, he explains, “I buy yearlings mainly. I also like the German horses, and have bought around twenty or thirty horses at the Baden-Baden sales over the past three to four years. The best one is a horse called Gardasee, who is quite a good hurdler”. The 4-year-old Gardasee, a son of Dashing Blade, finished fourth in the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Hurdle (LR) at the Cheltenham Festival this spring.
“There are some nice horses from Germany, they are tough, solid horses from good family and they stay well. France have a big staying breed as well, people should not be surprised when the English buy all their jumps horses. I am a big fan of French bred horses too. Normally I buy at Deauville, although I got involved with the AQPS people down in the middle of France, and got very impressed by their approach. This is the organisation for non-thoroughbred horses, but they are thoroughbreds really - in a separate stud book. They are a fine type of horses, and often cheaper. French horses are cheaper flat and jumps, it is only the upper international end of the market which has a different value.”
The 36 horses trained at Castle Farm stables are mainly racing for private owners, “most of my owners are millionaires”, Tate says with a smile, “as I stand here today I have four or five good owners and I have managed to get them all a Group class horse or a winner at a big meeting. We have not gone into the racing club or syndicate market. It all began with jumping of course, Lo Stregone, one of my best chasers, was among the favourites for the 1997 Grand National, won 13 races. We also had a Tingle Creek winner, called Ask Tom, another I bought as a young horse. My objective is to find a young horse with a future, and be working long term. To be able to do that, you must have a very good relationship with the owners. As sometimes you do not hit it very sharp. My owners are also close friend.”
My father in law, Tony Dickinson, was a very good judge of a horse, and he was who I learnt from first. It is very hard to explain what you are looking for in a horse, or what you like. I have never used a bloodstock agent, by the way, always bought my horses based on my judgement. Sometimes I buy horses with a fault that I think, or at least hope, the horse will be able to live with. There are very few perfect specimens. You need a certain financial strength in this business, but time and time again we have seen that finding a top horse has little to do with money.
“Welsh Emperor is the best horse I have trained, since switching to the flat six years ago. Before him, Another Bottle would probably be the best.”
Welsh Emperor, who was an 8,500 guineas yearling, has won 10 of his 48 races to date. Another Bottle, a top end handicapper, won five races.
Tate feels that the training of flat horses is totally different to training jumpers. “Jumpers are a much bigger beast, and financially it is quite an act of faith o own a jumper, as it takes longer before you get an idea of the horse’s ability, and even longer before you get some results. With flat horses, you get an idea when they are yearlings, and you can get a result for a client within months. It is much more decisive, whereas jumping is still a little bit of a labour of love.”
All Tate’s horses go out for at least an hour to an hour and a half for their daily training, flat horses and jumpers. They also spend much time out in small fields or paddocks. One can’t do that daily with every horse but Tate says he will do it if I can. Welsh Emperor, for instance, spends most of his mornings outside. Such luxuries are seldom possible for trainer with 100 horses or more. The expansion here will not go further than to around a team of 50 horses, which Tate feels is a manageable number.
“This year I buy 15 yearlings”, he says, “but 20 would be a good number. I am interested in quality, not quantity, and I am interested in good value - and getting Group horses”.
Tate’s ambition is to “up the quality while we also up the quantity a bit” and get even better horses. When talking about the sport in general, he soon comments on the current situation with more poor quality horses in training. “Racing has multiplied”, he says, “giving us more moderate horses, and I do not think that is a good trend”.
Does he race his horses on the all-weather tracks?
“Well, reluctantly. I have done it but I do not like it. Nobody goes! And what suits the horse best is good grass courses. Some horses stand it better than others, but if you keep turning them out on these artificial surfaces, they do suffer from strains on their joints.”
Tate is comparing all-weather racing to racing exclusively on turf, and is adamant that turf is much better. When we move on to talking about the North American circuit, he says: “I only know dirt racing through my brother in law Michael Dickinson, who tells me that the attrition rate out there is diabolical. Of course, they will improve the situation by racing on artificial surfaces, because it is better than dirt. But you cannot beat good turf courses. In these islands, we can grow good turf, which is not possible everywhere in the world, and it would be a big, big sin if we all go to all-weather racing. It would be a lazy man’s way, really, and no cheaper, because they do wear out and need replacing. You can’t kid yourself, but obviously there is a place for it. Some horses are very well suited by all-weather tracks, but there needs to be a good, sensible balance between turf and all-weather fixtures.”
The Yorkshire trainer feels that the importance of “keeping the sport enjoyable“.
“It is a great spectacle, and that is how it should be sold to the public, he says. “It is a red-blooded sport, it is a great day out, but racing is also a traditional sport. It wants to be a fun day, with horses at the centre of it. It lifts our lives out of the ordinary, it is a theatre thing, really, and people identify with that. One of my sayings is that everybody is a king for a day with a good horse. The owner, the trainer, the jockey, and the groom – even you, if you backed him!”
Tate is northern regional chairman of the National Trainers’ Federation. On the day after we visit Castle Farm Stables, the yard has one runner at Nottingham and one at Huntingdon. Both will run without Tate present, as he has a federation meeting. “It takes up quite a bit of time, really”, he smiles, “and this is a job nobody wants!”
So, why did the Tadcaster trainer take it? “Because it is important, and the sport is bigger than me. Also, I felt that, with many years of experience, I had something to offer. Someone was needed when I went into this role and I have been involved in racing all my life. I have enjoyed it, I am enjoying it, and I want to give something back”.
Next year, Tate will be the president of the National Trainers Federation, and he is very passionate about the work trainers are doing. “It it at a developmental stage”, he explains, “and unless we do a proper job, racing is in danger. Our sport is at the mercy of commercial forces. This will not necessarily produce good results for the thoroughbred. There seems to be a lack of understanding of the sport, at the BHB / BHA. Take an example, we are now experiencing a severe lack of two-mile chases in the program book. So, I have to make a lot of phone calls, take everyone’s view, get them across, explain the situation, and try my best to improve it. Yes, it does take up a lot of time.”
Any spare time for this trainer is spent on skiing trips in the winter, “normally to Zermatt”, and he is also a hunting man, “I nowadays particularly like grouse shooting when I get the opprtunity”, he explains, “ I do not get a lot of spare time but I enjoy doing what I do.” Well, a day at Castle Farm Stables, after spending a day with Tate’s small, very relaxed team, one can tell. Everyone, be it on four or two legs, is enjoying the daily routines – often a key to success.