Varian Building on Best Season as The Platinum Queen Joins Team

Twelve years have passed since Roger Varian became a licensed trainer as the health of his much-loved former boss and mentor, Michael Jarvis, declined. One softly-spoken but calmly assured man took over from another after Varian had served a decade as Jarvis’s assistant. By that stage he had clearly proved himself a worthy successor, and the rise of the Varian stable in the intervening years has only served to underline Jarvis’s judgement in this regard.

Last year was Varian’s best to date. There haven’t been many seasons during his term as a trainer that he hasn’t secured a top-ten finish in the championship. In 2022, he was fifth overall, his highest place yet, with a domestic prize-money haul well beyond the £3 million mark for the first time. 

A British Classic winner, Eldar Eldarov (GB), who also won the G2 Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot ahead of the St Leger, was one of the headline acts, along with the smart juvenile Sakheer (Ire) (Zoffany {Ire}), winner of the G2 Mill Reef S. and now a leading Guineas contender. Another exciting two-year-old, Charyn (Ire) (Dark Angel {Ire}), won the G2 Criterium de Maisons-Laffitte and, to cap off a great turf season, Bayside Boy (Ire) landed the G1 Queen Elizabeth S. on QIPCO British Champions Day before joining his sire New Bay (GB) at Ballylinch Stud.

Now, along with a raft of well-bred two-year-olds to have boosted the string for 2023, Varian has taken charge of the G1 Prix de l’Abbaye winner The Platinum Queen (Ire) (Cotai Glory {GB}) following her purchase at the Tattersalls December Sales by Katsumi Yoshida of Northern Farm for 1.2 million gns. The high-class sprinter has also been joined at Varian’s Carlburg Stables by last year’s G1 Preis der Diana (German Oaks) winner Toskana Belle (Fr) (Shamalgan {Fr}). Again, highlighting the value placed on European race form by Japanese breeders, Toskana Belle was bought by Katsumi’s brother Teruya Yoshida of Japan’s other major powerhouse operation, Shadai Farm.

“It’s great to have the support of both Shadai Farm and Northern Farm,” Varian acknowledges, while also crediting his Japanese wife Hanako, who is a key component in his stable’s set-up and has a good relationship with both operations from her time spent working in racing and breeding in her home country.

He is also quick to credit The Platinum Queen’s former trainer, Richard Fahey, for whom she won four of eight races, including her big strike on Arc day, and was runner-up in both the G1 Nunthorpe S. and G2 Flying Childers S.

“He was very much a gentleman, as you would expect from Richard,” says Varian. “He was very helpful with telling us all about her. She looks very well and she’s obviously a Group 1 winner, so I hope I can add to her CV, but in a way her CV is already there. The programme can be tough for the sprinting fillies at three, but hopefully she trains forward nicely. She looks a real speedball. Five [furlongs] looks her trip; maybe she’s good enough to run in a King’s Stand. She’s quite a spicy character, but she’s very talented and it’s nice to be training these good animals.”

He continues, “The programme’s quite sparse early season, so she might not run before Royal Ascot. She could run in something like a Temple Stakes, but she’s not doing anything fast yet.”

One three-year-old who does have an early season target is Sakheer, who has done little wrong in his three runs to date in the colours of KHK Racing, representing Bahrain’s Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa. Whether we see him on the racecourse before the 2,000 Guineas on May 6 remains to be seen, but the Arqana breeze-up graduate is continuing to put a smile on his trainer’s face, even after a week of bleak March weather in Newmarket.

Sakheer is very natural…he knows his job and I would have no qualms about going straight into a Guineas without a trial

“We’d be very pleased with his condition, very pleased with his action, and his attitude as well,” says Varian. “He’s always looked the part. He was an exceptional workhorse going into his two-year-old races, and sometimes the performance on a racecourse doesn’t always match their home life. Some of those really flashy workers can never quite live up to that when they run but, with him, what we saw at home was what we were seeing on the track. He looks like he’s training on nicely. He’s not a huge horse, but he’s big enough and he’s very well-made. Touch wood he’s in a good place.”

He adds, “I’m not sure if he’ll trial or not. I think our trials, the Craven and the Greenham in particular, come so close to a Guineas. This horse is very natural and he didn’t have a huge amount of racing last year, but he knows his job and I would have no qualms about going straight into a Guineas without a trial. 

“What’s key is the impression and the look he gives us over the next three or four weeks. As we sit here today in a snowstorm, I don’t think we’re committed one way or the other to a trial. He’s training nicely and is on the point of where I think he needs to be, and he still looks the part, as he did last year.”

As members of Bahrain’s royal family continue to increase their investment in British racing as well as their domestic programme, Sakheer and his fellow colour-bearer Eldar Eldarov, who, similarly, had been bought by Oliver St Lawrence at the previous year’s breeze-up in Deauville, were both significant winners for KHK Racing in 2022, and each has a good chance of enhancing their record.

“The team behind KHK have been big supporters over the last couple of years,” Varian notes. “Shaikh Khalid is relatively new to the international scene of racing, so it’s great that he had some nice horses to have enjoyed last year and hopefully to look forward to this year. [The Bahrainis] are very good sportsmen in their own right and have really got behind their own racing scene in Bahrain, but they are also spreading that interest into Europe and America, and I think that can only be good for the sport.”

Eldar Eldarov, whose dam All At Sea (GB) (Sea The Stars {Ire}) is a half-sister to Alwilda (GB) (Hernando {Fr}), dam of the celebrated Alpinista (GB) (Frankel {GB}), owns a pedigree which gives those around him every right to dream of him progressing with age and, potentially, a step up in trip. The four-year-old, who last year became Varian’s second St Leger winner after Kingston Hill (GB), is described by Varian as “a bit of a street fighter” and he is clearly a horse held in much fondness within the stable.

“He’s not a big robust horse and I think he’ll always look a bit like a long-distance runner,” the trainer says. “Last year he took an age to come to himself out of the winter. In fact, we had aspirations of Derby trials having seen him win his maiden as a two-year-old so impressively, but he just didn’t really come to hand. I’m not quite sure why, but the earliest we could have run him was when we did run him, which in the end was in a novice at Newcastle, which was probably about three weeks before Royal Ascot. He won there and suddenly started to blossom, just in time for Ascot. I don’t think that he’s ready to do anything too early this season. I don’t know if that’s just his make-up, but I wouldn’t think we’ll be racing him before May.”

 The ‘street fighter’ Eldar Eldarov

He continues, “We’d dearly love to see him back at Royal Ascot, hopefully in the Gold Cup, I would think, over the Hardwicke. Royal Ascot for us as a training establishment, and for the owners as well, is very important. If we can set up a first half of the season target at Ascot and work back from there, I think it’ll only be one run before, so it could be a Yorkshire Cup or a Sagaro.

“We’re hopeful that he’s of a calibre to establish himself as a Cup horse, though of course Kyprios looks the standout in that division at the moment. But Eldar Eldarov had to dig deep to win the Queen’s Vase. He came from a long way back that day and he’s got this lovely head carriage. He pins his ears back and he really seems to relish the fights, and I think that’s very important in all horses, but particularly in staying horses because they have to dig deep. You do need that attitude.”

Varian also highlights Charyn among the colts he is looking forward to seeing back on the track this season. Nurlan Bizakov’s homebred was third to Sakheer in the Mill Reef before claiming his own Group 2 triumph across the Channel. 

“I thought his run in the Mill Reef was good because he was still learning, and was probably on the wrong side of the track, and I actually felt he was second best to Sakheer that day,” he says. “He’s a horse with a very laidback demeanour, which I like, and he’s another one who hasn’t raced beyond six [furlongs], but looks like he’s crying out for a little bit further. He might be a horse to look at the Greenham with. He’s got a Guineas entry at Newmarket and in Ireland. He’s not flashy but he’s really a very professional horse who should improve as the year goes on.”

Sheikh Mohammed Obaid’s Resolute Man (GB) (Dubawi {Ire}), won a Yarmouth novice last October, and Dragon Icon (Ire) (Lope De Vega {Ire}), the Yoshiro Kubota-owned full-brother to Breeders’ Cup wunner Aunt Pearl (Ire) are also singled out as three-year-olds to note for the coming campaign.

“We had some nice horses win novices last year and they need testing in deeper water, but they look quite nice horses,” Varian notes.

As the trainer sits in his office still drying out from a morning of squally snow showers in subzero temperatures, it is easy to imagine that, for him, spring can’t come soon enough, but he says, “I actually love January, February and March, because you start counting back from the season. Of course we run horses all year round now, we have winter runners, but the majority of our horses are on that spring programme. You’ve got targets starting to be set and plans starting to formalise and you really see a change in the horses on a week-to-week basis at this time of year.

“As the better weather starts to come, you can really see them change and develop in a positive way in front of your eyes, and spot the ones that are really starting to shine through early and the ones which have not come to themselves. It’s an enjoyable time to be able to start recognising the difference without all the helter-skelter of the season being upon you. I think it’s a lovely time of year to be a racehorse trainer because you really can be with the horses every day and see them develop from their winter programme into where they need to be for the start of the season.”

There have been plenty of changes in the 12 years since Varian joined the training ranks. In 2017, he migrated from the Jarvis family’s Kremlin House Stables to purchase Carlburg Stables from Clive Brittain, who still lives alongside the yard. Sir Michael Stoute is his next-door neighbour in Freemason Lodge, and from last year the Varian string started occupying Beech Hurst just across the Bury Road, which had been Stoute’s original base and had for many years acted as his second yard. The additions of senior staff such as Kate Grimwade as general manager overseeing all aspects of the business speaks to the demands of running a modern-day international racing stable, backed up by the appointments of form expert David Baxter as racing manager and Eleanor Rance as communications manager. 

There are, however, some familiar faces from the days of Michael Jarvis, notably long-term racing secretary Jim Hiner and Jo Fowles, the accomplished horsewoman who oversees Beech Hurst and is one of three assistant trainers, along with Oliver Rix and George Hill.

“It’s a really good team, and the results of last season show that everyone’s pulling in the same direction,” says Varian. 

“And we’ve got a good team of jockeys, headed by David Egan. There’s no official order of hierarchy amongst the jockeys, but David’s at a point of his career where he’s been progressive. He’s still a young man and he’s ready to build on what he achieved last year. Jack Mitchell is a brilliant team player, of course, and Ray Dawson’s been in Dubai but will be coming back. Although Andrea [Atzeni] is not employed by Sheikh Mohammed Obaid any more, he will no doubt still ride at times for us. We also train for owners who have their own jockeys.”

Egan, who set another benchmark with his first British Classic victory last year on Eldar Eldarov, has recently enjoyed a fruitful first spell riding in Japan over the winter. A stint perhaps inspirited by his unofficial guv’nor’s close ties to the country, it has done his international profile no harm, especially when considering the high-class horses with Japanese links in Varian’s stable. Mind you, there is also now no shortage of horses from that country competing at the major meetings around the world.

[The Japanese] don’t really set their sights on just doing something, they set their sights on mastering something

“I don’t think they’re about to slow down,” says Varian of the competition from Japanese trainers. “I think they’ve got 25 horses in Dubai for World Cup night. They had 14 or 15 in Saudi. They’re all invited, so they’re all good enough to be invited. I think they are really becoming a superpower. They haven’t quite had the consistency of winners in Europe like they have done in Dubai, America and Australia, and Europe is probably another challenge for them. We actually hosted some of their horses for Royal Ascot here, and of course the holy grail for them is the Arc, isn’t it? It’s probably only a matter of time before they win it.”

He adds, “I feel a little bit close to them through Hanako and I think once you delve into Japanese culture you understand why they do very well in racing. They don’t really set their sights on just doing something, they set their sights on mastering something, and I think that’s very much embedded in the culture of Japan in any form of industry. 

“Obviously they’ve got quite a lengthy history of racing, but it’s nowhere near what we can delve into. But they’ve been buying some amazing bloodlines over the last 20, 25 years, and they’ve also created their own. They are no doubt breeding exceptionally talented horses, as they are proving on the international stage.”

Varian, whose brother-in-law is the Japanese champion trainer Mitsu Nakauchida, admits to being able to “fool my way through a few pleasantries” when it comes to speaking the language. He adds, “If someone thought, ‘Oh he speaks Japanese, we’ll carry on and have a conversation’, I’d get found out very quickly. But they’re great people, it’s a lovely culture, and it’s nice to be connected to that side of the world.

“I think what’s very nice about the racing industry is that it’s quite a niche industry, but it is a global industry, and I love it. We live and train horses in Newmarket, but that opens up a world in itself.”

There has perhaps been no more better time in racing’s history to grasp the global opportunities available and, with a client base incorporating owners from a diverse group of nations, it would seem that the Varian stable is already a frontrunner in this regard.

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