Trainer Talk: Robert & Lucie Varnham

  • Posted: Friday, 17th November 2023
  • Author: Jake Exelby

Robert and Lucie Varnham have been training a small string of pointers at Guildford in Surrey since 2017. Their first winner came with Sentimentaljourney at Barbury later that year and they enjoyed their best season so far in 2022/2023 with nine pointing winners and one Hunter Chase victory (from Trappist Monk, above) from just four horses, at a strike rate of over 40%.

Unlike so many successful pointing trainers, neither has a background as a jockey between the flags – although Robert rode on the flat and over jumps as a youngster – so an intrigued Jake Exelby met them recently at their Gunshot Paddocks base to discover how they got into pointing, how their training operation has evolved and the ingredients that led to such a great campaign last season.

Robert tells me his story. “I’m 63 and from Aldershot originally and started off as a flat jockey.” Lucie butts in with a grin, “He was only six and a half stone and too small to do anything else!” “Anyway,” Robert goes on, “I’d never ridden until I was 16, having worked as a window cleaner and on market stalls after leaving school, and was in the pub with my Dad one day. The landlord said I was too young to drink, and my Dad said, ‘He’s just small – he’s going to be a jockey!’ Well, the landlord was Terry Lyons, who owned Frimley Park Stud, so I went to work for Peter Arthur, who trained for Terry. Peter was a right character – I remember wanting to go as stable apprentice for Richard Hannon, who had phoned him to ask if that was OK, but he wouldn’t allow it at all, letting me know with a few expletives that he’d taught me everything I knew about horses and I wasn’t leaving!”

“I had one winner and about ten placings,” says Robert of his flat racing career. “I then went to work for Charlie James, for whom I rode my only winner on Miss Worth at Brighton. I got too heavy for the flat so took out a conditional licence with Charlie, but only had one ride for him, finishing third in a bumper at Cheltenham. I moved to a permit trainer in Chertsey called O J Henley, who trained on his farm, and had about 15 rides for him – I wasn’t very successful as I’d only schooled one horse over a single jump three times before my first ride over fences. I probably jumped more fences on the course than I did schooling at home! I retired in the mid-eighties and started my company, Cahala Cleaning Services, named after my daughters – Carlie, Hannah and Lauren.”

Gunshot Paddocks is a picturesque setting, with a purpose-build all-weather round gallop and four schooling jumps, both of which encircle paddocks where Robert and Lucie’s mares and their foals nibble contentedly on hay as the pointers work. “We’ve been here 11 years – when we arrived, it was just four stables and a field and we’ve built everything else ourselves,” Robert tells me. “We still rent but are hoping to buy it next year. When we arrived, our first horse was Cahala Dancer – named after my company, and of course my daughters, who are all dancers! I owned a wine bar at the time and some of the customers had racing links, so we set up a syndicate. We pre-trained her here, then raced her on the flat, and she won two races for Robert Mills. She’s the reason we got into training pointers – it was so expensive to have horses in training under rules, so we went down the pointing route.”

A bucolic view of Gunshot Paddocks

“We’ve got three of her foals, including Spirit Of Cahala, who’s been running on the flat,” continues Robert. “I’ll keep the other two for pointing, as they need time. Every penny we earn seems to be spent on the horses,” confirms Robert. “But it’s the choice we’ve made and we both love the job we do. The only way to make money in pointing is to sell four-year-olds. We’ll have four again next season – we can’t train any more than that and run the business. We’d like more outside owners – we own three of them ourselves and part-own Ripper Roo with Miles & Maxine Kavanagh and Kate Kidney.”

Lucie then tells me about her own background with horses. “My elder sister rode and put me on a horse one day – I can’t remember it, as I was only about two or three. After that, I didn’t stop and have always loved horses. I worked at a riding school, then ran a livery yard. I rode for enjoyment – I wasn’t competitive – though I did a bit of show jumping and dressage but galloping flat out towards a big fence never appealed! I met Robert when he sold me a horse – I brought it back, along with four more, and we’ve been together ever since!”

She responds to my question about why last season went so well. “They were the best horses we’ve had – you’re only as good as your horses. We love winning races, as well as taking on the big trainers when we’ve got the right horse. We get a buzz and we adore our horses. It’s our lifestyle, and we wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s great fun, and we thoroughly enjoy it, but I do think prize money should be higher – you go into it knowing you’ll lose money, even if you win.”

Lucie would like increased prize money, and Robert’s idea of something the sport could do differently is to introduce off-course betting. “It would make it more interesting,” he asserts. “You’d have to have 24- or 48-hour declarations, of course, but they did that during Covid, and it was great, because you knew what would be running. The pointing authorities really helped during Covid, although I had bad horses and was pumping money into it If Tangoed hadn’t won at Aldington, I might not still be in business. I was beating myself up about it.” Lucie sighs and smiles, “And I had to suffer!”

We watch Robert’s string canter twice in each direction round his gallop before popping over the jumps. Imperial Esprit (Daniel Kyne) and Trappist Monk (Keagan Kirkby) go out first, followed by Count Simon (Keagan) and the grey Ripper Roo (Daniel). “I ride work but don’t school any more,” explains Robert. “Lucie no longer rides out, but Kate does – she used to ride in Arab races. Then Daniel comes down once a week to school. All the horses are fed in the morning – Lucie’s in charge of feeding – then are turned out all day before coming in at night. We feed them at 10.30pm – that may seem late, but they don’t get a lunchtime feed as they’re out grazing.”

Keagan on Count Simon and Daniel on Ripper Roo

As the horses work, Robert goes into plans for next season. “They’ll start early – Imperial Esprit and Trappist Monk at Badbury Rings and Count Simon will run a couple of weeks later at Larkhill in the veteran horse series. He could possibly go to Cheltenham for the Foxhunters – I’ve always thought he was nice and he’s no slouch when he’s in the mood. Trappist Monk is qualified for Aintree and is a brilliant jumper – two miles six on a flat track will suit him. Imperial Esprit wasn’t fit most of last season and we’ll look to pick up a couple of Conditions races, before finding a little Hunter Chase and taking him to the Cheltenham or Stratford evening meeting. And I think Ripper Roo could go through the grades in Conditions races – he won under rules for Olly Murphy, who thought he’d be a good horse. He’s crying out for three miles.”

Daniel on Imperial Esprit leading Keagan on Trappist Monk

“Daniel is first choice when he’s available,” Robert adds, “While Keagan will ride mine in Novice Riders races. Then Ella Herbison (who won on Count Simon at Peper Harow) will have the mount in Ladies Opens – I’ll be sending one of mine to the Ladies Final at Stratford.”

As for the future, “I’d like to build up our string of pointers, but with other owners involved,” admits Robert, “And also have more members in our Gunshot Paddocks Racing Club, which has Trappist Monk, Count Simon and Imperial Esprit (who won ten races between them last season). Maybe one day I’ll take out a permit, while Lucie trains the pointers. It’s always been an ambition to train under rules and pointing’s given me great base to start from, if I decide to go down that route.”

Put – like many of my interviewees – in the PPA hot seat, Robert cackles when I ask the first thing he’d do. “Give myself a pay rise! Seriously, I’d spread the racing out more. Having up to 16 meetings on Easter Saturday and Monday is ridiculous and the fields are tiny. Why not race on Good Friday, or Easter Sunday? (He’s obviously looked at this season’s fixture list). I’d also – every now and again – have handicap races, for horses rated no higher than 100 or 110 under rules. It would be fairer for people who can’t afford to spend big money – you haven’t got a chance in hell taking on something rated 120 if yours has a handicap mark of 70.”

“I do like the Conditions races,” confirms Robert, “Because they’re the closest we have to a handicap system. All mine can run in Level 3s, even though they’d have penalties – which can make a difference – apart from Ripper Roo, because he hasn’t won for a couple of years. But I wouldn’t introduce more tiers because there wouldn’t be enough horses. I also think that allowing horses to run in Restricteds with a 5lb penalty is good, because it keeps them racing longer.”

The two jockeys get involved as we talk about race programming. “Schooling races are a win win,” says Daniel with enthusiasm. “But they shouldn’t be treated as a race. It gives horses experience jumping alongside other horses and educates them on a racing situation. There should be more before Christmas. Likewise, bumpers. It introduces horses to racing and crowds, with no fences to worry about. They’re a stepping stone for younger horses.” Keagan agrees, but admits, “It baffles me why a novice rider with no Category A or B licence can ride a four-year-old debutant over fences but can’t ride in a bumper.”

My final question is about the decline in horses and, specifically, how to get more owners. Keagan looks at it from a different perspective. “Yards are struggling for staff – even the bigger ones – and you can’t get more horses if you can’t find staff. The industry’s suffering and I’m not sure Brexit helped. To make racing more attractive, you’d need to increase pool money, which means – again – higher prize money.”

Robert is determined to have the final word, jumping in half-seriously with, “People would sooner be on their phones. Why muck out when you can make a You Tube video?” So, do you want to be a celebrity, Robert? “I already am!”

Daniel Kyne

25-year-old Daniel is from Galway in Ireland. “My father has breakers and trains a couple of pointers, and my brother rode as an apprentice for Declan Carroll, he tells me. “I was a competitive boxer – I made the Irish finals as a welterweight – before I started race-riding. When I came over here, I worked for Warren Greatrex then for Alan Hill and I’m now with (former jockey) Mark Grant at Lambourn. Technically I’m a freelance, but as well as for Robert, I ride out a lot for Georgie Nicholls and hope to have a few rides for her this season if (daughter) Olive’s not available.” He has had 12 winners between the flags, won a Fontwell Hunter Chase on Trappist Monk, but cites taking the 2022 “Amateur Derby” on the Flat at Epsom on Saratoga Gold as his proudest moment. Asked about his future, Daniel is pragmatic. “I’ll see how this season goes and, if I’m not busy, I’ll start training a few, which is what I want to do long-term. I’m already involved in buying and selling a few with Mark.”

Daniel cantering Ripper Roo

Keagan Kirkby

Keagan, 24, hails from Midsomer Norton in Somerset – “Just down the road from Ston Easton point-to-point”. He says, “I have no background in racing, but went to work for Jeremy Scott for three years and had my first rides on my own horse, Lad From Highworth. I then went to Will Biddick’s which really got me going, and I’ve been with Paul Nicholls for five years now.” Keagan didn’t ride his first winner until his fiftieth ride, before his career took off with five winners last season, so did he ever think that elusive success wouldn’t come? “It crossed my mind,” he admits. “But I thought Ask For Glory would win (at Dunsmore) and he did, and I’ve had a steady flow of rides since.” He tells me how the association with Robert came about, “Robert phoned Paul and asked if he knew anyone available to ride at Aldington on Easter Monday, as Daniel was going to Lockinge, and Paul recommended me. It was a 350-mile round trip but worth it, as I rode a treble – two for Robert and one for Hannah Grissell.” As for this season and the future, “I’ll be trying to be champion novice, though I think Ed Vaughan (son of leading National Hunt trainer Tim) will have something to say about that. But I intend to be at Paul’s for the long haul.”

Keagan and Count Simon in full flight