Evening Standard

Calm before the storm: John Warren, above at Highclere Stud, admits he will be much more nervous than The Queen on Saturday. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

This is the story of the moment the Queen knew she might have a Derby winner. Just over three weeks ago Carlton House, the hot favourite for this Saturday’s race at Epsom, ran in the Dante Stakes at York, the premier trial for Derby hopefuls. The Queen was watching on television when John Warren, her racing manager, came on the phone.

Warren takes up the story: “I’m not going to go into too many personal details. She managed to get to a television. She squeezed it in which was quite difficult. When I was put through, the race was just off. Carlton House was behind a couple of horses. The jockey, Ryan Moore, thought, ‘Well I can take the easy run on the side or I can shove him in between the two horses and hope that he is going to learn something.’ Carlton House didn’t flinch and the Queen then shouted, ‘Goodness, he’s gone straight through the gap.'”

Warren pauses as he lets the Queen’s words sink in and then adds: “The horse was phenomenal in the way he shot through. You cannot teach an animal to do that. It was exciting to see the horse so committed and so mature. You thought, ‘Wow, the horse is ready.'”

Carlton House’s victory that day made the horse a Derby favourite – he is currently 11-8 to win on Saturday- but both the Queen and Warren have known since last winter they had an exceptional horse.

“In-house, we have been whispering since he won as a two-year-old,” reveals Warren. “He only ran twice and finished second first time out on very, very heavy ground. The second time, at Newbury last September, he won by nine lengths very impressively. After the race, I said to the Queen’s trainer – Sir Michael Stoute – ‘Crikey, that was very impressive. Do we think he is a Derby trial horse next year?’

“Without hesitating Sir Michael said, ‘Absolutely.’ He has been champion trainer and usually the response would be: ‘Well we’ll see what happens next spring.’ But he was immediately thinking we were onto something for the Queen. And I told her Majesty that.”

The result was that the horse’s preparation last winter was very different to what is normally done.

Warren explains: “Sometimes, we bring them back to the Queen’s stud farm in Sandringham to have the winter off, if you like. The Queen and I talked it through and we said: ‘Don’t change the routine, leave him where he is so Sir Michael can have him over the winter.'”

Sir Michael had originally planned to give Carlton House two trials before the Derby starting with the Sandown Classic Trial. But five days before that he rang Warren to tell him: “No, he’s not right. We are going to do the job properly and we are going for the Dante.”

Warren admits: “That was when I was able to speak to the Queen and say, ‘Oh, I think we are dealing with something quite serious here’. And she went, ‘Mmm, that soon eh?'”

For Warren, the Queen’s reaction is typical of the monarch he has served as racing adviser for 17 years.

“She never says ‘Really? Do you think he’s that good?’ She just listens, the Queen is the most amazing listener. Her extraordinary asset is that she takes everything in. She doesn’t ever become overly strong in her views.”

So does it mean that even winning the Derby for the first time will see no reaction from Her Majesty?

For the only time in our conversation Warren becomes a little testy. On the BBC Today programme he was reported saying that the Queen would not react should Carlton House make it a bad Derby for the bookies.

“They put me on the spot because the question they asked me on the radio was, ‘Will the Queen be punching the sky?’ It makes her sound like a football player or a person going to a football match. She will react. But listen, you know enough about the lady to know how she responds. She will be excited inwardly as is her nature and excited like any owner of a horse that even has a run of going into the Derby. Her contentment if he wins will be immense, but her disappointment won’t be dramatic because the lady never dips and rises. We’d all love to have a dose of that wonderful calmness.”

Warren, himself, who will be sitting quite near the Queen in the Royal Box, confesses he will not be as calm and will have sweaty palms. “Oh, it will be very tense,” he says. “The anticipation will be terrible. It won’t be that enjoyable until it’s all over.”

I ask him if, as they swing round Tattenham Corner and it looks as if Carlton House is going to win, whether he will lean over and whisper, “Your Majesty, you’ve done it!”

He replies: “I really don’t know what I will say. There will be a lot of people excited for her. Prince Phillip will be there and will be thrilled for the Queen. I just don’t know how it will all unfold.”

The Queen herself will have a very good idea of how the race is going, according to Warren.

“If you do something year after year you see more mistakes being made or the same mistakes being made,” he explains. “She occasionally says to me, ‘Oh do remind X – whoever the jockey is – not to get caught on that rail in the straight.'”

Warren is well aware that a Carlton House victory will make history – it would be the first time a reigning monarch has won the Derby since 1909 when Minoru triumphed for Edward VII. As we talk in his office at Highclere Stud, history seems to beckon. High above the stud is the castle where a new series of Downton Abbey is being filmed. Just before we talk, I have had a tour of the stud and seen the hill-top grave of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, the man who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The walls of Warren’s office are hung with pictures testifying to his own historic links with great horses. But a Carlton House win would be a greater thrill because he says the Queen is very different to the other owners he works with such as Sheikh Mohammed Al-Maktoum, the Aga Khan and Prince Khalid Abdullah.

“A lot own horses to receive the trophy and hold it up,” he adds. “The Queen’s big thing is not to lift trophies. She is not in for the thrill of owning or winning. Competitive is a word I just never associate with the Queen. She has never said to me, ‘I want to win the Derby.’ Her Majesty once told me: ‘My gamble is the breeding’. She has no burning ambition to go and take on the big guns.”

The big guns, as Warren points out, are very big: “They’ve got thousands of yearlings. The Queen has 20 brood mares. They produce 15 foals on average and half are colts and half are fillies. That is how small her brood is. Her thrill is seeing how the horses develop, of finessing a thoroughbred, a deep satisfaction that you’ve created and put together this animal to beat its peers.”

Warren, who has known the Queen for 26 years, began working for her when his father-in-law, the late Lord Carnarvon – then the Queen’s racing manager – needed help.

“He wasn’t able to do the auctions and have his ear to the ground. He and the Queen asked me whether I would be a consultant to the royal studs.”

Following Lord Carnarvon’s death, he took over as racing manager and now speaks to the Queen every two or three days, except perhaps when she is away on a state visit. The Queen likes detailed information about her horses.

“The Queen has the mares that foal at Sandringham. The day after the foal is born the manager of the farm sends her a document with a photograph of the foal and details of what time the mare’s water broke, what time the foal was born, what time it stood, what time it suckled, how much it weighed.

“The Queen will then come to look at the stock, see them developing and growing until they are handed over to their trainers. It is a bit like a mother sending their child away to boarding school. You know everything about your child and when the headmaster rings you up and says, ‘Little Johnny is quite a naughty boy but he’s got talent and we’ve got to keep him on track,’ the mother is not surprised. The Queen is never surprised by what she is told by the trainer because she has developed the animal just like a child.”

So much so that the Queen has never told Warren which is her favourite horse. “No, because it’s a bit like talking about your favourite child.”

Ironically Carlton House is not a horse she bred but a gift from Sheikh Mohammed in return for a gift the Queen made of some horses to the ruler of Dubai.

But what about the fear of many in racing that Prince Charles may not show the same enthusiasm for the sport?

“Prince Charles once said to me, that it’s like a garden, that you probably don’t show much interest in gardening until you have your own,” says Warren. “We have all felt that. When you saw your parents doing something you are thinking, ‘How ridiculous,’ and then all of a sudden you’ve got your own garden you think ‘Mmm, I’d better go and buy some roses.’ At the moment it hasn’t been his thing but we hope one day it might be.”

A Carlton House victory may prompt Charles to look for roses when he becomes King.


Share |



Latest Tweets

Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo