Through a stormy July weekend our task was to prevent four feisty grandchildren from murdering or mutilating each other before being returned to their parents, so we gave them £3 each to spend at the local car-boot sale. After two hours, the three girls returned with two teddy bears (one the size of a sheep), a folding chair, a catapult, an electric hair curler and an Osmonds LP. Our grandson, clearly a future City wheeler-dealer, employed his wistful ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t got that much’ routine to such effect that he came back with an Xbox, a crossbow (fortunately for his sisters’ health with no arrows), two battery-powered staplers (don’t ask) and a pristine chess set. Mrs Oakley, too, asked for funds and for her £2 she returned triumphantly with two elegantly expensive crystal glasses. It is all about having an eye for quality.
West Ilsley trainer Denis Coakley has that, too. ‘I always worked for trainers who had good horses, Group One horses,’ he told me as we watched the second lot turn out from Keeper’s Stables to exercise up on the Berkshire Downs.
Having started pony racing in Ireland, Denis rode for Cumbrian jumps trainer Gordon Richards and in America for the classy Janet Elliot. There followed ten years as assistant trainer to Lord Huntingdon, just up the road from where Denis operates now, with quality horses like Drum Taps spending time in his 20-box yard, which then served mostly for isolation.
Like many, though, who make the jump from assisting a big battalion trainer to setting up on their own, which he did when Lord Huntingdon quit in 1998, he hasn’t enjoyed quite the same quality of livestock. All the more credit then that Denis has produced Group winners like Steppe Dancer and has caught the eye this year by taking the Victoria Cup with Gabriel’s Lad, a 17,000 guineas purchase, and winning a Derby Day handicap at Epsom with the impressive Miss Marjurie.
Why take the plunge if Lord Huntingdon, with all his connections, could no longer make it pay? The response is a quiet confidence that comes without the slightest tinge of cockiness: an hour in Denis Coakley’s presence is a good-humoured education in the realities of racing. ‘I didn’t have a lot of options but if I didn’t think I was going to make it there would have been no point in starting out.’ He still believes firmly that he will train Group One winners, indeed he remains slightly baffled, you sense, that that target has not yet been achieved, although he acknowledges that the budget he takes to the sales does not make it easy. ‘Getting owners is the hardest part,’ he acknowledges. ‘There are so many other trainers out there and they [the potential owners] all head for the limelight.’ To get those new owners, he says, you have to produce results. ‘Advertising is a waste of time. It all comes by word of mouth.’ It was therefore good news that Miss Marjurie’s stylish win this season came in front of a Derby Day crowd; the only snag was that it was in the race after the big one. ‘Never mind,’ says Denis, ‘they were all still there.’
It is often said that it is the lesser lights in the saddle who go on to make the best trainers. ‘It’s because they have to work in the yards,’ says Denis. ‘The others don’t know what is going on — they just meet the horses at the end of the gallops.’
He certainly knows what to do with the horses who come to the tranquil Keeper’s Stables where rooks caw and swallows divebomb nonchalantly around the hanging baskets of flowers. He knows his gallops intimately and insists, ‘If you can’t train a horse here you might as well give up.’ Certainly the work ethic is obvious: there was no time to sit at a table discussing the equine world. As we talked Denis and his wife Barbara were filling buckets to wash down the horses or he was humping hay bales out of the steamer which reduces the dust and pores. Up on the gallops, even on a light exercise day, the trainer’s eyes never left Cincinnati Girl, Steppe Daughter, King Calypso and Miss Marjurie as they went through their paces.
As she was washed down afterwards, the feisty, deep-chested Miss Marjurie was trying to nibble chunks out of her Pakistani work-rider; the aim now with her is to collect some black type in the stud books in the Lillie Langtry at Glorious Goodwood. Gabriel’s Lad will be harder to win with now he is rated at 110 but his trainer is convinced he can win at Group Level if he gets a race runto suit him run at a fast pace throughout. King Calypso should win again since he has been run over longer distances and Denis adds with a quiet confidence that all the three-year-olds he has run this season should win. Coming from a man who has the true measure of his horses that is advice to be heeded.