Oscar Yeadon recently caught up with Alec Head to look back on his remarkable career as jockey, trainer and breeder, and his part in the enduring Head training dynasty and development of the thoroughbred pedigree in Europe.
Your grandfather William Head Sr. was a steeplechase jockey in Britain before moving to France in the 1870s and later established the training business that you ultimately became part of. Did you ever have an ambition to have a career outside of racing?
“I don’t know why my grandfather came to France, particularly, but he set up in Maisons-Laffitte and then my father set up in Chantilly and everything followed from there. I don’t think I could have done anything else!”
What was your first involvement in racing?
“It was around 1942, when I started race riding. I won the big race over jumps at Auteuil, and was riding on the Flat as well, but got too heavy. We raced through the war and it was tough, and I used to bicycle everywhere. The Germans would go to the races as well, so racing continued but a lot of the courses were shut, so they organised Flat and Jumps meetings at the few that were open, such as Auteuil and Maisons-Laffitte.
“Racing recovered fairly quickly after the war and I stopped riding towards the end of the decade, because I was by then married and my wife Ghislaine said I should stop!
“So I started training and had always planned to do so - what else could I do? We had very few horses, but the business grew organically by winning races. I had some luck in sending horses to Italy, who won their races there, which attracted some Italian owners, who then sent me horses, including Nuccio.
And Nuccio was your big break?
“Yes, Nuccio provided my big break, when he won the Arc in 1952 for the Aga Khan III, who had purchased him the season before. That led to the development of a relationship with Prince Aly Khan, who was a unbelievable, a superman. He could have bought two mountains.”
The Arc has certainly proven a special race for your family...
“Yes, my father twice trained the winner, including Bon Mot, who was ridden by my son, Freddie, the youngest jockey to win the race at that point, aged 19. My daughter Criquette trained Three Troikas to win in 1979, ridden by Freddie and owned by Ghislaine, while Treve’s two wins followed that of Criquette’s son-in-law, Carlos Laffon Parias, with Solemia.”
Treve was bred at Haras du Quesnay, which has been home to your breeding operation for sixty years. How did it start?
“About 10 years into my training career, I was looking for a stud as I love breeding. The stud had not been in use for many years and was not very well known, but I knew the guy who was dealing with Mrs Macomber [the widow of A Kingsley Macomber, who had owned a Preakness winner and also won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe with Parth].
“The stud was in bad shape, having been unoccupied since the Germans during the war. It took two years to get it up and running, as we could only afford to do it gradually.”
As a breeder, you have been widely acknowledged as a major influence by bringing American bloodlines to Europe. What are your memories of that period?
“The US bloodlines were doing well and we went to Keeneland and were lucky to buy the likes of Riverman, Lyphard and many others. We would later sell some back to the US, for which we received some criticism as some of the stallions were syndicated and the shareholders liked the money to spend on other stuff!
“Some of those stallions injected new blood into the French breeding industry and you can draw parallels with what Northern Dancer brought to Ireland, through Europe.”
What are your thoughts on the recent moves by the European Pattern Committee to enhance the stayers’ programme?
“It’s a very good thing. You can see the interest is these races. Look at the crowd for the Ascot Gold Cup this year. It’s a great race to win, as I did with Sheshoon, but I was fortunate to have a good jockey in George Moore, who was very smart. Sheshoon was difficult and very temperamental. It’s very important for a stable to have a good long-term stable jockey. Look at Dettori with Gosden.”
Do you think it’s harder or easier for the trainers of today to forge a successful career?
“I really don’t think there’s any difference between then and now. Gosden, de Royer-Dupre and others, are all 70-year-olds, or so, and they’re still at the top.
“At my peak, I had around 120 horses and, later in my career, only trained for Pierre Wertheimer and the Aga Khan. They were top breeders and it was wonderful. Mr Wertheimer gave me the money to buy horses from all over the world. I wouldn’t say I was a pioneer; I was very lucky!
“I think maybe it’s harder for younger trainers today, as the bigger owners have mostly disappeared, but it was hard in our time, too!
Of the trainers who were contemporaries of yours, who stands out?
“At the sales or on the racecourse, I would often run against Vincent O’Brien. He was a genius. He trained Derby winners and Grand National winners. He was very smart, he really was something else. You don’t have trainers who both codes at that level these days.”
Is there anything that you would change about racing today?
“I think racing’s wonderful, so there’s nothing I can really say I would want to change. I had everything I needed as a trainer in Chantilly. The track is beautiful, and you have a forest where you can work and the new dirt track is very good. Having lots of trees means it’s very sheltered. But I would also say Newmarket is a beautiful training centre.”
And what do you feel was your greatest achievement?
“Breeding Treve, that was the best accomplishment. She was unbelievable and unlucky not to win three Arcs.”