By Jay Privman
We knew him when. John Gosden returns tonight to Southern California, where his career began more than 40 years ago, rightly hailed as one of the great trainers in the sport, a place to which he seemed destined all those years ago.
Gosden made an immediate, lasting impact in less than a decade in Southern California before returning to his native England at the end of 1988. In that time, he impressed just about everyone who came into his orbit, including another trainer, more than 12 years his senior, who made sure Gosden got a proper send-off.
"Come join us for dinner in your best Calypso Attire to bid John Gosden and Rachel Hood a Bon Voyage," the invitation read. "Monday October 24th at 6:30 p.m. at The Gregsons."
So tonight Gosden, in a way, comes full circle. More than 30 years after Eddie and Gail Gregson made sure Gosden and his wife, Rachel Hood, were properly feted, Gosden, 70, is the guest of honor of the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation's fundraising dinner.
Gregson, who died in 2000, and Gosden had much in common. Gosden, like Gregson, is a passionate, well-spoken advocate for the sport, always making sure that, no matter what, the horse comes first. As with Gregson, Gosden is sought out by journalists for thoughtful, rational opinions, which come in paragraph form, delighting those who ply their trade in print or broadcast. At 6-foot-5, he is tall and telegenic, as was Gregson. The Sporting Life called Gosden "the towering master trainer with the rock-hewn profile that could have graced a John Ford Western."
As dedicated as he is to racing, Gosden, like Gregson, has interests outside the sport, attuned, as was Gregson, to current events, politics, and the arts. Both went to top-class universities - Stanford for Gregson, Cambridge - where he met his future wife -- for Gosden. An appreciation for a proper education is important to Gosden, and was a guidepost for the Gregson Foundation - which financially supports the college education of children of backstretch workers -- after Gregson's passing.
Gosden got his degree in economics, but training horses held more appeal than parsing the rate of inflation to the son of the late trainer Towser Gosden, who died when John was just 16.
He had apprenticeships under Vincent O'Brien in Ireland and Sir Noel Murless in Great Britain before heading to the United States, where he worked for Tommy Doyle before going out on his own during the final quarter of 1979. He was just 28 years old.
Gosden sent out his first winner on Feb. 6, 1980 at Santa Anita when Smooth Journey, his very first starter the previous October, won an allowance race. He won first stakes race on June 20, 1980, with Devon Ditty in the Brown Jade at Hollywood Park. His first graded stakes win came two years later, at Del Mar, when Star Pastures won a division of the Grade 3 Palomar. The next day, he won his second graded stakes, with Take the Floor in the Grade 3 La Jolla Handicap.
The Southern California circuit at that time consisted of Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar, and had a staggering array of world-class trainers and jockeys. Gosden earned the respect of trainers like Gregson, Charlie Whittingham, and Bobby Frankel, and he befriended many of the top riders of that era, in particular Bill Shoemaker and Fernando Toro.
"There is one thing about John that is very unusual in a trainer," Toro told the Thoroughbred Record in 1989. "He always wants to hear the truth about a horse. He asks questions that not too many trainers ask. I had to get used to that, knowing what he expected from me was complete honesty. I think it's just that he cares so much about each horse that he never gives up until he finds out all he can."
Gosden more than held his own in that company. In 1983, Gosden won his first Grade 1 race when Bates Motel captured the San Antonio on Feb. 20, and two weeks later Bates Motel gave Gosden the biggest win of his budding career when he won the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap, that win coming 24 days before Gosden turned 32 years old. He was on his way.
Bates Motel would go on to win two more stakes, and at year's end became Gosden's first Eclipse Award trainee when he was named champion older male.
In the fall of 1983, Gosden sent out the filly Royal Heroine to a victory in a division of the Hollywood Derby. She brought out all of Gosden's skill as a trainer the next year.
In her first start of 1984, Royal Heroine fell over stricken rivals in a terrible accident while heading around the first turn of the Santa Ana at Santa Anita. Given plenty of time to get over that traumatic experience, Royal Heroine returned during the summer and beat males in the Inglewood at Hollywood Park before capturing the Beverly Hills. She then finished second to the ageless John Henry in the Arlington Million, and that fall beat the boys in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Mile at Hollywood Park. Fifteen days later, she won the Grade 1 Matriarch to secure for Gosden another Eclipse Award trainee, as champion female turf horse.
The rest of the decade unfolded in kind. In the summer of 1985, Gosden was the leading trainer at Del Mar, his meet highlighted by Barberstown's victory in the Del Mar Handicap. He was the leading trainer at Hollywood Park's spring-summer meeting in 1986, and that fall won the Hollywood Turf Cup for the third straight year.
He won important stakes with Allez Milord, Alphabatim, Bel Bolide, Bonne Ile, Hatim, Sabona, Sharood, and Zoffany, among others. His last top-class horse during that era was the mare Annoconnor, who in 1988 won such major races as the Ramona at Del Mar, Vanity (now the Beholder Mile) at Hollywood Park, and Las Palmas (now the Goldikova) at Santa Anita.
In less than a decade, Gosden won 38 stakes at Hollywood Park, more than such well-respected, veteran trainers as Buster Millerick and Willard Proctor.
By that time, he and Rachel had two small children - Sebastian and Serena - and a desire to return to his native land.
In the nearly 33 years since then, Gosden and Hood added two more children - Thady and Thea - and Gosden has built a skyscraper of accomplishments atop the foundation he laid in the United States, while Hood lent her legal expertise to such endeavors as chairwoman of the Racehorse Owners' Association and the Suffolk County Council.
Gosden has won major races in Great Britain, France, and Ireland, as well as Germany and Italy, including the Epsom Derby with Benny the Dip in 1997 and Golden Horn in 2015.
"We're lucky that people are kind enough to send horses to us," he told CNN. "It's not like a writer or a poet looking at a blank page or a painter with a blank canvas. You're sent a living creature to shape.
"I enjoy being with them, their personalities, to deal with the frustrations. I find that endlessly fascinating, the disappointments and knocks and having to learn to pick yourself up. It's an ever-changing scene."
This past decade has seen Gosden at the peak of his powers, the combination of his experience and the quality of the horses with which he's entrusted proving a formidable package. He has been champion flat trainer in England five times in the last nine years, including three straight from 2018 through 2020.
Beginning with Kingman in 2014, Gosden trainees were named the Cartier Horse of the Year five times in six years, with Golden Horn, Roaring Lion, and Enable - in both 2017 and 2019 - following.
Enable in 2018 won the Arc de Triomphe for the second straight year and became the first horse to win the Arc and the Breeders' Cup Turf in the same year.
This past decade has seen Gosden win major races with Cracksman, Elusive Kate, Jack Hobbs, Nathaniel, Star Catcher, Taghrooda, The Fugue, and Too Darn Hot, among many, many others.
His list of major British wins is exhaustive, including but not limited to the English 1000 Guineas, Eclipse, Epsom Oaks, Fillies Mile, July Cup, King George and Queen Elizabeth II, Middle Park, Nunthorpe, St. Leger, Sussex, and Yorkshire Oaks, many multiple times. In France, he has won the 1000 Guineas, Oaks, Derby, Prix Marcel Boussac, and Prix Vermeille, among many others. In Ireland, he's won the 2000 Guineas, Irish Champion Stakes, Derby, Oaks, and Pretty Polly.
This year, with Thady having ascended to joint trainer, the Gosdens through the beginning of October won the Saudi Cup, the Sheema Classic in Dubai, and the Juddmonte International with Mishriff, the Dubai Turf with Lord North, and the Lockinge, Queen Anne, and Prix Jacques le Marois with Palace Pier.
At Royal Ascot, where he has won the Prince of Wales's Stakes four times, and St. James's Palace Stakes three times, and where the venerable Stradivarius won the Ascot Gold Cup three straight years, Gosden won 55 races on his own, and he and Thady were at the top of the table this year.
For all his success, Gosden in 2017 was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. That's John Harry Martin Gosden, OBE.
Through the years, Gosden has continued to win major races from limited opportunities in the United States, in particular at the Breeders' Cup, where he has five wins, including Enable's thrilling victory in the 2018 Turf, and Raven's Pass in the 2008 Classic, both, like so many of Gosden's winners, in concert with the ageless Frankie Dettori.
Appropriately, four of Gosden's Breeders' Cup wins have been in Southern California. He's kept in touch with old friends from those days, and was sure to arrive in time before the 2003 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita to speak at Shoemaker's memorial service.
"He stood astride this great sport as a colossus," said Gosden, who called Shoemaker "a man of enormous integrity and class." Gosden put a lump in everyone's throat when he recalled Shoemaker saying he most wanted to be remembered "for being a good father to Amanda."
As he did then, Gosden seemingly can summon the right words for any situation, some serious, some less so. Once asked if he liked cooking, he playfully likened the endeavor to training a horse and then entrusting the finished product to a jockey.
"You spend a lot of time thinking about it, you go out and buy, you get the ingredients together, you prepare it and do everything right," he began. "There's three hours work, and someone rushes in and just eats it in two minutes flat and runs out the door. That is a poor reward-to-work ratio.
"I always say it's a bit like putting a jockey up. . . . Bred the horse, developed it, brought it along, broken it in, two years training . . . and as Charlie Whittingham, my old friend said, 'then you put a guy up with a Size 4 hat', and he messes it up in a minute and a half. A bit like cooking."
He is particularly pointed and passionate regarding how racing's entities often are at cross purposes.
"We as an industry then tried to be more collaborative, but a lot of people wouldn't play ball," he told Thoroughbred Racing Commentary about issues he had with the British Horseracing Authority. "You only have to look at the politics of racing in America to see that factionalism destroys everything. It's incredibly frustrating when people want to guard their own little patch without thinking about the bigger picture."
John Gosden gets the bigger picture, has from the beginning. That is why Eddie Gregson admired him. And that led to Gosden being the honoree tonight.