Roger Varian is undeniably a growing force among the training ranks in Newmarket. The trainer of such luminaries as Nahrain, Kingston Hill, Ambivalent, Postponed, Belardo, Cursory Glance and latterly Sheikha Reika, has one of the most powerful teams in Newmarket and plenty to both look back on and forward to. Roger very kindly gave up his time to speak with Course Specialist recently, to discuss how his passion for racing has evolved and transformed into one of the most exciting global businesses in racing.
Roger was not born into a racing dynasty, rather he caught the riding bug at an early age, whilst riding ponies from the family base in Oxfordshire. Those first connections with the equine world, gave Roger career aspirations that transcended tender youth.
“I was only really ever interested in being a jump jockey. I remember being hooked on racing and watching Channel Four racing and three times a year we would go to Kingston Blount Point To Point, where I was able to get close to the horses. Growing up, one of my earliest memories was West Tip winning the 1986 Grand National, ridden by my then idol, Richard Dunwoody.”
Whilst Roger’s family knew of his dream career, he kept his goals to himself and finished school at the first opportunity.
The hugely experienced and renowned former Champion Jockey and top class trainer, Josh Gifford, initially employed the budding jump jockey. Over the next three years, Roger would ride seven winners and most of his rides were for Josh.
But two significant factors were to shape Roger’s future and set him on the path to becoming a flat trainer.
“Josh did not support summer jumps racing and whilst you would work every day during the autumn, winter and spring, we all got a nice summer holiday. So for two consecutive summers I went to work for Michael Jarvis, in Newmarket,” Roger recalls.
Explaining why he gave up riding professionally at the age of only 21, Roger says,
“I had ridden seven winners in three years. I was very ambitious but also realistic; I was conscious that I wasn’t making the progress that I would like. I finished riding with my seven pound claim still intact! I then went to work for Michael Jarvis as his assistant trainer.”
And so began a whole new chapter in Roger’s life, as he abandoned his childhood dream of being a top jump jockey, to focus on a new sport that was increasingly interesting him.
“The flat game interested me; I got more interested in pedigrees and it was the summer holidays spent at Michael’s Kremlin House Stables that fuelled my fascination. I probably didn’t realise at the time, but I was in the right place at the right time.”
Roger began his first year as Michael’s assistant trainer, with a powerful team of horses, stabled on the Fordham Road.
In 2001, Michael still had his Prix du Jockey Club winner Holding Court, while the Classic generation included 1,000 Guineas winner Ameerat and the Derby Italiano and Grosser Preis von Baden winner Morshdi, who would also finish second to Galileo, in the Irish Derby.
2001 was certainly no flash in the pan and Michael and Roger enjoyed memorable moments with the enigmatically brilliant Rakti, who won the Champion Stakes, Prince Of Wales’s Stakes, Lockinge Stakes and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, but was just as capable of throwing a race away with his pre-race antics.
“He was exceptionally talented, for sure,” Roger recalls. “He wasn’t so bad at home, but could be highly strung at the racecourse. If the preliminaries went right, he would win. He was a wonderful horse and something of a freak; he was not fashionably bred but for sure he was one of the best horses I’ve worked with.”
Another highlight was certainly Eswarah’s victory in the 2005 Oaks.
“For her to deliver the way she did, after only two runs, showcased Michael’s skills as a trainer,” Roger reflects.
Whilst the stable was enjoying tremendous success with its equine inmates, Roger was learning the ropes all of the time, at the hands of a master trainer.
“He (Michael) had high standards and expected high standards. He wasn’t a screamer or a shouter and yet he could let you know alright if he wasn’t happy. He went about his job quietly and professionally. You had to earn his respect. You couldn’t just turn up and be valued; you had to prove your worth to Michael. I was fortunate to spend over ten years with Michael and over time we forged a strong partnership which became a friendship.”
The turning point sadly came in 2010, when Michael became very ill and Roger became more and more embroiled in the daily routine of a top trainer. That year of emotional turmoil set the foundations in place for Roger to move on with his career, albeit in unfortunate circumstances.
“Taking over from Michael (in 2011) probably wasn’t as big a leap for me as it could have been because he had been quite ill the year before and therefore I was doing a lot more day to day training duties than would be usual. I was communicating a lot more with the owners and was really living and breathing the business of training horses.
“I don’t remember too much pressure. Taking over a large string of horses and having a man of Michael’s experience behind me – and being able to call on his advice, was a huge help. I was very fortunate really.”
Roger’s first major breakthrough came in the Autumn of his first season training. His maiden Group One victory proved an emotional moment, as Nahrain landed the Prix de l’Opera, at Longchamp.
“To bag a Group One in our first season, on Arc Day, was massive really. And Frankie was brilliant on her that day.”
When Roger took over from Michael, he had around 120 horses in his care. That has expanded to 180 horses now, with careful management of staff to make sure operations run smoothly.
“I am very comfortable with the number of horses now; we have grown the team to handle that volume and we do that very well.
“The key is putting management and staffing structures in place to train effectively, but this doesn’t happen overnight. Training will never be a one-man game.”
Roger has a wide range of clientele on his books and is always keen to thank them for his success,
“I want to pay thanks to all of our clients. Without being sent such nice horses to train over the last few years I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now. We train for some wonderful people.”
Evidence of Roger’s ambition was there for all to see, when he took the huge step of purchasing Carlburg Stables on Bury Road, from the legendary Clive Brittain.
In 2013, Clive was kind enough to speak with Course Specialist about his brilliant filly Pebbles, whom he had trained predominately in the swimming pool at Carlburg.
“Carlburg Stables boasts some great facilities and is a fabulous place to train from,” Roger states. “We have done a little bit of work over the last couple of years and the yard is looking great. We are very happy to be here.”
Roger’s first Group One success came in France and campaigning horses successfully overseas, has very much become a part of his training profile.
“There are some mighty big prizes abroad and with some of the better horses, we make an effort to be switched on to the big overseas races.”
2019 has seen Varian Stable launch an exciting new venture as it enters into the world of syndication through Varian Racing.
“We’ve wanted to put together a professional syndicate for a few years and I think it is a good way to get more people involved at an affordable price,” Roger says.
“It can also be a way of discovering new owners,” he adds.
Varian Racing will be represented in 2019 by a pair of two year-old colts from exciting young sires Ivawood and Free Eagle.
“There are 20 shares available in both horses and only a handful remain. The Ivawood colt, Almendro, is the more precocious of the two and I hope that he might be ready to race in May and hopefully could be good enough to go to Royal Ascot. The Free Eagle colt, Swooping Eagle, will take more time and could be seen out in July or August,” Roger states.
The Varian Racing colts form part of a nice crop of juveniles that excite Roger, heading into 2019, along with some genuine Classic prospects among his three year olds and a strong team of older horses.
“I think we do have Classic hopes and a nice bunch of fillies. Qabala is full of potential, while Mot Juste has already won a Group Three and could run in a Classic trial. Khuzaam is a very exciting colt and Turjomaan is unbeaten and full of potential,” he says.
Other horses Roger is looking forward to among the three year olds include Tauteke, who ran with promise on debut, before landing a Chelmsford maiden. Nausha, a daughter of Kingman, made a very pleasing winning debut in one of those good Newbury autumn maidens, looking very smart. Similarly, Lastochka, racing in the same silks of Nurlan Bizakov, won her only race, showing plenty of gears at Kempton Park. San Donato is perhaps a more familiar name and did nothing but improve as 2018 progressed.
“I also like the look of the two year-olds at this early stage, while we have plenty of good older horses to look forward to.
“Sharja Bridge (winner of the Balmoral Handicap) will go forward and Qazyna was a listed winner on her last start of 2018.”
Zabeel Prince is another horse that Roger is excited by. He showed himself to be most progressive in 2017 and landed the Doncaster Mile on his return in March 2018. After a lengthy break, he ran a superb race to finish second to Mustashry in the Group Two Joel Stakes at Newmarket, last autumn.
Then there is Defoe, perhaps becoming the stable’s talisman at the age of five.
Owned by Sheikh Mohammed Obaid Al Maktoum, the distinctive grey has shown a real liking for Newbury, with Group Three victories in the Geoffrey Freer Stakes and the John Porter Stakes, before landing last year’s Group Two Jockey Club Stakes at Newmarket. Defoe ended up running in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe last year and whilst he fell just short of Group One success, Roger is hopeful there is more to come.
Much the same could be said of Roger’s training career and he is hopeful he will be training in 20 years from now, still learning new things and delivering big race winners from around the globe.
For more information on Varian Racing and Roger’s career, please visit: www.varianstable.com.