A slight woman with a gentle demeanor, Gillian Duffield could pass as a professor or a real estate agent, but one would have to look hard to see the grit that has made her one of the most successful Arabian race horse trainers over the years, 25 of them spent training for Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai.
In Houston to attend the 25th Anniversary of the Darley Awards, Duffield was an honoree at the event.
“I was very privileged and honored to receive the very first award of HH Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak for Best Woman Trainer of 2011,” she said.
The trainer remembers her first trip to the US. “I have been to the Darley Awards once before in Delaware. That was when I had the privilege of seeing Victoria’s Secret and Unchained Melody run at the race meeting. I think it was 1992.”
Duffield started as a rider and naturally eased into training horses along the way.
“I started riding racehorses in Arundel Sussex for Gordon Smyth (a noted Derby winning trainer), who trained for the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk. None of my family were into racing but my great-grandfather was in the Horse Guards at Buckingham Palace.”
“On leaving school I worked at a riding school and took my BHSAI exams for teaching. I rode show jumping, hunting and cross-country. In racing I schooled over hurdles. I started training point to pointers (jumpers) and then after five years trained Arabian horses.”
Duffield sees some challenges with training Arabians. “The difference between training TB’s and Arabians is to try and keep Arabians interested in their work. You must keep their minds right as they are extremely intelligent horses. But the basics apply. Get them fit and keep them happy.”
After she began training horses in the UK for HH Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum in 1987, it was five years later, in 1992 that she brought nine of his horses to the Emirates for the season. “It was a brilliant first season. We won two legs of the Triple Crown and the UAE Arabian Derby with Eau Royal, the President Cup with Monsieur Al Maury (Gr 1), and the Emirates Championship with Juyish (Gr1).”
She remembers some special horses that were part of her journey. Bengali D’Albret, with 24 starts, 16 wins and 7 places Duffield describes as “a real character”. Among his wins was the first Coupe D’Europe du Cheval Arabe at Evry. Duffield shared her joy in 2003 when Monsieur Al Maury won the President Cup race, the first time for a Dubai trained horse to win that Abu Dhabi competition. Then, there was Kaolino, her first win in the Kahayla Classic (2004), but that was only the first. The next three years, Madjani kept her in the limelight with his back to back Kahayala Classic wins (2005, 2006, 2007). Her entry for Shadwell, No Risk Al Maury, was the first horse to win at the newly built Meydan Race Course in the 2010 Maktoum Challenge Round 1. In 2011 her trip to Istanbul gave No Risk Al Maury and Periander both Group 1 And Group 2 wins. Just recently, AF Alghabra, a UAE bred mare, beat the boys when she won the Mazarat Gr. 2 at Meydan.
Now she has added some individual owners to her roster, and in doing so, she has expanded her social circle. “I am delighted to say that they are all my very good friends.”
When the season ends in the UAE, Duffield travels back to Newmarket where she trains Arabians from the yard of Derby rider and legend, Lester Piggott. “It is quite unique to see a string of Arabian horses on Newmarket heath amongst some of the very top trainers and horses,” she comments.
While in Texas, Duffield took the day to fly up to Aubry with Denise Gault and Michelle Morgan to see some old friends at Morgan’s Mandolyn Hill Farm.
“It was very emotional to see Kaolino and Chndaka after at least five years. Michelle has given them both such a lovely home and they look fantastic and so happy.”
Denise said, “She cried when she saw him and then went back to say goodbye before we left and she cried again. It was very emotional for us both.”
What does Duffield see regarding the status of Arabian racing worldwide?
“Financially it is very difficult at present for many individuals to keep training. HH Sheikh Mansour is giving an enormous boost by providing the Arabian Racing Festival series to encourage breeders and owners back into Arabian racing. I feel at present it is better to nurture what we have and keep the standard of racing at a good level. Eventually when the economy recovers more people may be enticed back in again.”