MUIR DREAMING OF EMULATING AN OLD MENTOR WITH LEGER SUCCESS
By Simon Mapletoft
Lambourn trainer WILLIAM MUIR is dreaming of emulating his first boss Fulke Johnson Houghton when he saddles market leader PYLEDRIVER in the Pertemps St Leger at Doncaster.
His mentor won the world’s oldest Classic two years running in the late Sixties with Ribocco and Ribero and, over half a century later, Muir has a first ever Group 1 success in his sights on the same Town Moor turf.
Operating from his long-standing base at Linkslade Stables, the 62-year-old was only a teenager when he began riding out for Johnson Houghton in the Seventies but was inspired by the legendary trainer’s Classic record.
Watch every race of the Pertemps St Leger Festival 2020 live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) from Wednesday 9th to Saturday 12th September.
“Fulke was revered as one of the best trainers in England back then so riding out for him at such a young age definitely inspired me to become a trainer one day,” he recalls. “He had Hot Grove who went on to be second to The Minstrel in the Derby in 1977 and had already won the Leger a couple of times.
“I could only dream about winning a Classic back then but it’s marvellous for everyone involved with the yard and the horse to be going to Doncaster with such a big chance all these years later,” adds Muir, who began training over three decades ago with just 14 horses.
Muir, who also worked for Pat Taylor, Nick Vigors and Kim Brassey in Lambourn before taking out a licence, was destined to work with horses from a young age. His father, a farmer in the Valley, bred Cheltenham Gold Cup winner What A Myth and owned Ascot Gold Cup third Destroyer. In fact, Muir – a successful amateur jockey - was assistant to Brassey when his Destroyer chased home the Barry Hills-trained Gildoran at the Royal Meeting in 1985.
“I always had confidence in myself – I was young and enthusiastic and thought I could fly to the moon back then,” he remembers. “I soon outgrew my first yard in Lambourn so bought Linkslade in 1993 in the teeth of a recession and my wife Janet and I have spent fortunes on it over the years to make it what it is today.”
Group-class speedballs Averti and Stepper Point and John Porter winner Enroller are among the previous stable stars who proved that Muir has always been capable of mixing it with the big guns, but Classic glory would elevate him to a whole new level.
“No one, including me, though we’d have one of the Leger favourites in the yard when racing resumed a few months ago. Before the Covid pandemic kicked in, I was planning to start off in the Craven and then go to the Irish Guineas and the French Derby, but luckily as it turned out, that plan went out of the window.”
Instead, a twist of fate led Muir and his flashy bay colt to victory in the Group 3 Classic Trial on the All-Weather at Kempton Park before clinching high profile success in the Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot and bouncing back from a luckless run in the Derby by dominating the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York.
“The Voltigeur has always been a good trial for the Leger and my horse couldn’t have been more impressive,” he reflects. “He’s got to prove he stays further in the Leger but he wasn’t stopping at York was he?
“He’s a very uncomplicated, relaxed horse who switches off in his races and has proven he’s effective on all sorts of ground. I could have sleepless nights about a few things but the going at Doncaster won’t be one of them.”
Home-bred Pyledriver is an unlikely hero, being the first foal of a modest mare by the unfashionable sire Harbour Watch. He was overlooked by every trained eye in the business when led out of the sales ring unsold as a yearling but two years later has established himself as one of the best colts of his generation.
“He came to me and I got him ready to run as a two-year-old,” he recalls. “We took him to Salisbury and he was such a big price that I persuaded his owners to have a little bit on him each-way. I’m not a betting man but 50-1 was an insult as he’d been working nicely. We had £100 on between us and he won what turned out to be a hot little race.”
A Listed success followed at Haydock Park last year before his exploits in June convinced Muir and his owners to run him in the greatest race of them all, the Epsom Derby.
“Sadly my owners couldn’t enjoy the experience because of the Covid restrictions but everything went wrong anyway. He got badly hampered and could have ended up on the floor but I saw something that afternoon that reminded me what a serious horse he was.
“On the face of it you might think he ran badly, but when I had chance to reflect on that race, the way he came home in that final furlong eased the disappointment. He was passing horses for fun and I’m convinced he’d have beaten Aidan O’Brien’s Mogul with a clear run. He proved me right when he finished about four lengths in front of that colt at York.”
That race, the Great Voltigeur, was won last year by John Gosden’s Logician, who went on to claim Leger glory the following month, and Muir is hoping Pyledriver can follow suit.
“I’ve had some nice horses over the years and have won several Group races but this colt could be the best I’ve ever had,” he says. “He’s still 1lb behind Enroller on official ratings. He won a Group 3 for me and reached 120 at his best, but there’s much more to come from this fellow.
“I wouldn’t swap my horse for anyone’s in the Leger. His form is there for all to see and if he does stay a mile and three-quarters it will open up some serious options for next year when I know he will be bigger and stronger.
“He has the gears to win over a mile and a quarter and for that reason I’ve put him in the Champion Stakes at Ascot next month. He’s in the Arc, too, but we’ll just wait and see what happens in the Leger before we make any plans.”
Pyledriver, owned in partnership by former university pals Roger Devlin and Hugh and Guy Leach, will be ridden by Muir’s son-in-law Martin Dwyer, already a Classic-winning jockey who enjoyed his finest moment on Sir Percy in the 2006 Derby.
“Martin’s been my stable jockey for many years and not just because he’s family – he’s a very good jockey and we’ve had a lot of success together. I warned my daughter Claire when she was young not to get involved with a jockey but she ignored my advice,” he joked. “Since then they’ve made me a granddad twice and I’m very proud of them both.
“Martin has always had as much faith in Pyledriver as I have and was delighted with him when he hopped on him last week but we won’t be changing our routine. One of my lads Jeta Ram rides him out every day so it’s just a case of keeping him ticking over. He’ll twitch his nose at me when I walk past his box in a morning to let me know he’s alright.”
The opposition had better watch out if the colt flashes Muir a similar glance in the saddling box at Doncaster come Leger afternoon …