Writing a Turf column before the Cheltenham Festival, as the Spectator schedule requires, which you are reading only after the four-day jump-racing bacchanal has concluded, was a problem. I could neither revel in the moments of glory some equine fighter pilots will have enjoyed nor reveal hard-luck stories behind others who did not make it. But after a frozen morning near Newmarket last week, watching one batch of Festival combatants going through their paces, I had one hope above all others: that before the Festival ended the words ‘Trained byJ. Ferguson, Cowlinge, Suffolk’ would have entered the official record beside at least one winner’s name.
The great David Nicholson took 18 years to train his first Festival winner. Noel Meade bent and kissed the ground like a pope on making it after 21. But for the energetic John Ferguson this was the last chance. He is giving up the jump-racing life he loves to do still more for a man for whom he has unbounded respect: Sheikh Mohammed.
For 30 years Ferguson has been the Dubai ruler’s bloodstock adviser and discreet right arm, signing for seven-figure purchases and circling constantly around the world’s Flat-racing centres to oversee some 2,000 racehorses and a similar number of breeding stock. He talks compellingly not just about Sheikh Mohammed’s fearlessness in ignoring the world’s travel-business experts and building Dubai into a global city but also about any aspect of the horse world. How does he pick one out at the sales? ‘You look for a horse that is an athlete, that has good conformation and which, knowing the pedigree, looks as it should do on the breeding.’
On the way to becoming a bloodstock expert, via a few years in the Scots Guards, Ferguson worked for three years for leading Flat trainer Sir Michael Stoute.