The Fugue bids to take on the world's best in the richest day of racing on the planet
The horse, owned by musical maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber, boasts a colorful pedigree
Her trainer John Gosden got his first big break through a horse called Bates Motel
Jockey William Buick labels her a "superstar" before her $5 million race on Saturday
He’s created some of the world’s highest-earning stage shows, so it’s only fitting that Andrew Lloyd Webber will be in the limelight on the day of the planet’s most expensive horse race.
The man behind hits such as “Cats,” “Starlight Express” and “The Phantom of the Opera” also has a big interest in the sport of kings, through which he met his third wife Madeleine – a former equestrian rider who competed alongside Britain’s Princess Anne.
Married since 1991, they have owned a stud on a 5,000-acre site in Watership Down (setting for the 1970s novel and film of the same name) which has produced a series of winners.
The latest is The Fugue – a filly who has already amassed earnings in excess of $1.5 million and boasts her own Twitter page with more than 1,000 followers.
The name is befitting of her owners – the fugue being the most complex polyphonic musical form, involving imitation – while the literal translation of “to chase” is considerably more apt for the animal.
“I’ve ridden a lot of good horses in a relatively short period of time and she’s right up there with the very best. She’s a superstar,” says jockey William Buick, who rode her for the first time less than two weeks ago.
The Fugue will not be lining up in the showpiece $10 million Dubai World Cup, which is run on artificial turf, but will compete earlier Saturday in the Dubai Duty Free Stakes – which has a relatively paltry $5 million on offer and is held on a traditional surface.
It is the richest day of thoroughbred racing on the planet, with $27.25 million up for grabs in total.
“She’s a filly whose best form, her only form, is on the turf,” says trainer John Gosden. “Had it been the end of the season we might have thought differently.
“But this is her very first race of the year so we felt it best as a filly to run her on the surface she knows and likes best even if the distance is slightly shorter than she might normally run over.”
Last year The Fugue won the Irish Champion Stakes Group One race and came second at the prestigious Breeders’ Cup in the U.S. She is the bookmakers’ favorite this weekend – though punters at the $1 billion Meydan Racecourse will not be able to bet on the outcome due to Dubai’s rules against gambling.
“She’s a talented filly and she’s won some lovely races but a couple of times she’s been unlucky and not had the rub of the green,” says Gosden, a former economist who – with Buick – makes up an unconventional team behind The Fugue.
If Madeleine Lloyd Webber – who met the theater impresario through his horse-loving neighbors in the southern English county of Hampshire – is the mastermind behind the stud since its inception in 1992, then Gosden is the former “wayward son” who has rediscovered his true path in life.
“I met them some years ago training close to where they live,” he says. “Obviously for Andrew the horses wouldn’t be his primary focus but he and his wife are great horse people.”
The son of a famous trainer – John “Towser” Gosden, who won the 1966 Epsom Derby a year before he died – he initially veered away from following in his footsteps.
He studied economics at Cambridge University where he met his lawyer wife Rachel Hood – now chairwoman of the UK’s Racehorse Owners’ Association – and excelled in the discus and javelin rather than pursuing any equine sporting feats.
“I tried to forge my own path away from racing, which was why I went into land management initially,” Gosden recalls.
“At the time, we were in a massive recession and it was (UK Prime Minister) Edward Heath’s three-day week (to conserve the nation’s energy supplies), so going abroad made sense.”
He went as far as South America, but never lost his passion for horse racing.
“I think it was just instilled in me,” Gosden says. “When working in Venezuela I’d still be up at 4:30 in the morning with the horses there before going to work in an architect’s office.”
Returning to racing as an assistant trainer, he moved to California in the 1970s before attaining an American licence at the end of the decade.
His big break came in 1983 with Bates Motel, a horse named after the celebrated establishment in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 movie Psycho, when it won the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap – California’s richest race for older horses.
“It was an apt name,” recalls Gosden. “He was quite a character and he had a vicious side to him. But that’s not how he got his name – I believe the owners, the Getty Family, were simply big fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.
“For me in America, that was my first big win but it was easier to get started out there than back in the UK. It was a golden era of racing there. Everyone needs a break in life and that was mine.”
In 1989 he returned to the UK where he has been based ever since at a series of different stables, with more than 2,000 race wins including the Epsom Derby, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the 1,000 Guineas, the St. Leger twice and the Dubai Sheema Classic, and being crowned British flat racing champion trainer in 2012.
More recently, many of those successes have come with Buick on board. Many eyebrows were raised when Gosden hired the then 21-year-old novice to become his stable jockey in 2010. Much of the horse-racing fraternity said he was mad, but the results have proved otherwise.
Buick’s passage into racing is not the most oft taken. Born in Norway – not renowned for being a breeding ground for top jockeys – he had some pedigree; his Scottish father Walter was an eight-time Scandinavian champion jockey while his Danish mother Maria was a dressage rider and showjumper.
“We have a very close relationship as a family and I was always surrounded by horses,” he recalls.
“Dad was a very successful jockey while my Mum had a lot of wins as an amateur jockey too while being an equestrian rider.”
With limited opportunities in Norway, Buick decided to move to the UK when he was 16 to start an apprenticeship.
“Thankfully, I never really looked back as I got good breaks in life,” he says.
“You have to have ability but you need those breaks too. I got those – a good bit of luck really.”
The biggest break of all was the tie-up with Gosden, who he admits “took a punt on me.”
That almost immediately paid off at the same Meydan Racecourse where he hopes to shine on Saturday, with victory on Dar Re Mi in the 2010 Sheema Classic – a similar caliber Group One race to the Dubai Duty Free Stakes.
“This race is not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination,” Buick says.
“She’s a classy filly and has proved she can take on the best in the world. I’m not going to say she’ll win, as so many things can happen, but she’s got a great chance.”
All eyes will be on the race at Meydan – the day before Gosden turns 63. The veteran trainer will be hoping The Fugue makes it a birthday to remember.