Australia in the sights of Palmer

7 min read
There must be plenty of envious looks cast around an ever-chillier Newmarket as the lucky few involved in the Lexus Melbourne Cup prepare to embark upon their travels.

Given that Hugo Palmer has as strong ties with Australia as any European trainer, he will surely be redoubling his efforts to return after what had promised to be a great adventure with Wall Of Fire (Ire) (Canford Cliffs {Ire}) 12 months ago.

The 5-year-old, owned in partnership by Cup fanatic Aziz ‘Ozzie' Kheir, had only been beaten a length on his Victorian prep-run in the G2 Herbert Power S and went off a joint second-favourite for the main event.

Unfortunately, he failed to threaten when finishing down the field at Flemington and has only recently resurfaced for the new training partnership of Ciaron Maher and David Eustace, having been sidelined with a suspensory problem.

“It’s a great shame that we don’t have a horse to go back down there this year." - Hugo Palmer

“It’s a great shame that we don’t have a horse to go back down there this year,” Palmer said. “That is the disadvantage very often of selling your talent abroad. I was very lucky to be able to sell Wall Of Fire and to be able to keep him in the stable for a year and take him down there. He had run an absolutely enormous race in the Herbert Power.

“It was an enormously exciting experience and it was a great shame he picked up an injury in the Cup. In many ways it was quite a relief that we had discovered he had injured himself the following morning because we all went to bed that night scratching our heads as to how he had run so badly.”

Wall Of Fire

First voyage down under

Before taking out his licence in 2011, Palmer spent a year working for the iconic Gai Waterhouse in both Sydney and Melbourne. He also met his future wife, Vanessa, on his voyage Down Under. During the fleeting spare moments away from managing his three-figure string at Kremlin Cottage Stables, he continues to take an interest in affairs.

Kremlin Cottage Stables

“I think one of the great things about Australian racing is their ability to fire almost instant replays onto the internet,” he said. "It means following the racing is incredibly easy and it leaves British racing, as in so many areas, monstrously in the dark ages. Thankfully we can see the replays here these days but it still takes time.

“I’ve got lots of connections down there. I’m married to an Australian and not only is there Gai but some much younger friends in the training ranks, such as Matt Cumani, David Eustace and James Cummings. They are all good friends and I follow their horses.”

Always looking for 3YO stayers

More of Palmer’s equine connections continue to have an influence too. He was understandably sad to lose Home Of The Brave (Ire) (Starspangledbanner {Aus}) when owners Godolphin transferred the horse who had taken him to the G1 Breeders’ Cup Mile to Cummings. He won the G2 Theo Marks S. and was fourth behind Godolphin’s Jungle Cat (Ire) (Iffraaj {GB}) in last month’s G1 Toorak H.

“I’ve got plenty of Australian owners in the yard, only none actually seem to own staying horses." - Hugo Palmer

“My concern with Home Of The Brave is that we always made sure we left at least a month between races in this country with him, whereas Australians tend to campaign them a little bit more aggressively,” he said.

“Two of mine, Best Of Days (GB) (Azamour {Ire}) and Mask Of Time (Ire) (Holy Roman Emperor {Ire}) also dead-heated in a G3 at Caulfield last Saturday.

“I’ve got plenty of Australian owners in the yard, only none actually seem to own staying horses, they’re much more what would hopefully be Royal Ascot 2-year-olds.

“We haven’t got a 3-year-old stayer at the moment, nothing good enough that stays much further than a mile and a quarter, but we’re always looking for them.”

A competitive cup field

Even if Palmer can only be a spectator this year, he has some interesting views on this year’s renewal. One was especially prescient prior to the time of publication with Finche (GB) (Frankel {GB}) making an eye-catching Australian debut when third in this week’s G3 Geelong Cup H.

“It's very hard to find those horses, I think this year more than ever,” he explained.

“It's very hard to find those horses, I think this year more than ever." - Hugo Palmer

“It’s a very competitive field, not that there are many years that aren’t competitive. I think Wall Of Fire is on the same weight as last year but he won’t be getting in the Cup, I wouldn’t have thought.

"I think after his display in the Herbert Power the other week it’s very difficult to make a case for anything else being the favourite other than Yucatan (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}). He absolutely galloped away from them, but they have still clobbered him with a big penalty for it.

“I really liked Finche, who was with Andre Fabre and is now with Chris Waller.

“I tried to persuade an owner to have a go at buying him but I believe Juddmonte have kept a stake in him with Chris. He was my idea of a very likely Melbourne Cup type.”

Cabin fever

Palmer, 37, had never visited Australia before his job with Waterhouse. Despite a well-heeled background which he has never attempted to hide from, he toiled from the bottom up in order to fulfil a long-held dream of a career in racing.

“I was working for Hughie Morrison and I was getting a little bit cabin fevery,” he recalled. “It was a job that I loved but it was in a very small, sleepy village on the A34 road between Newbury and Oxford. I wanted to see the world, do stuff differently and broaden my horizons, and that was the last opportunity to really do it.

“The racing is enormously vibrant. It’s very well funded and it’s part of the Australian psyche." - Hugo Palmer

“It was very different indeed. I was more of an apprentice than an assistant, to be honest. I went where Gai went; to the sales, to the trackwork. I went from the Gold Coast to Melbourne, Sydney, all manner of things. Her horses were always fit and I’ve always tried to make sure that mine were too.”

Unlike some of his contemporaries, who remained in Australia to start their own stables, the call of home proved stronger. Nonetheless, he speaks fondly of his experiences.

The call of home proved too great for Hugo Palmer

“The racing is enormously vibrant,” he said. “It’s very well funded and it’s part of the Australian psyche. I’ve always felt that the Australians got up on a Monday morning to earn the money to have a beer and a bet on a Saturday. People really focus on racing and those things. It’s a real part of their national make-up and it’s very strong as a result.

“To have a bet in Australia is considered a good thing not a bad thing. Australians like the idea that you’d risk what you have to better yourself, whereas if someone is referred to as a gambler in this country, it smacks of pious articles (in the newspapers).”

Putting experience into practice

Palmer implemented his experiences almost immediately. He bought and part-owned Making Eyes (Ire) (Dansili {GB}) before taking her on from Chris Wall when granted his licence.

She became his first Listed winner in France, whilst the standard has steadily increased to include continental Classic winners and the likes of G1 Irish Oaks heroine Covert Love (Ire) (Azamour {Ire}) and Galileo Gold (GB) (Paco Boy {Ire}), who took Palmer to the very highest level in the 2016 G1 2000 Guineas S.

Galileo Gold

In 2018, he is close to eclipsing his highest annual tally of 77 winners.

“It’s been great,” he concluded. “We’ve lacked a Group 1 star but apart from that, I think unless the wheels come off now this will definitely be our second best year in terms of prize-money.

“We’re in the top 20 at the moment and if you added what Galileo Gold did two years ago to what we’ve done this year, we’d be in the top 10. Those horses are very, very rare and hard to find. We’ll just have to find some more.”

“We’re in the top 20 at the moment and if you added what Galileo Gold did two years ago to what we’ve done this year, we’d be in the top 10." - Hugo Palmer