William Haggas is now firmly established in the upper echelons of the Newmarket training ranks – but when he saddled Shaamit in the 1996 Derby that was far from the case.
At that time Haggas was relatively new on the scene and trained around 40 horses, so the notion of winning the Derby had never really crossed his mind, apart from perhaps in the small hours when allowing himself to dream of it.
Having married Lester Piggott’s daughter, Maureen, though, there was a good chance some pearls of wisdom would find their way to the trainer.
A late two-year-old, Shaamit did not break his maiden until his second outing at Doncaster in November – strangely for that time of year on good ground – and it was hard to imagine the next time he would be seen he would etch his name into Derby folklore.
In modern times only one other horse had won the Classic first time out at three, and that was 12 months earlier when Lammtarra, who would end his career unbeaten, managed it.
“It was a great time then because we had so few horses,” said Haggas, who is set to be represented this year by the strongly-fancied Mohaafeth.
“The Derby means exactly the same now as it did 25 years ago. It is the ultimate race for an English trainer to try to win.
“We’ve had a few darts at it unsuccessfully, but if we’d known how difficult it was to find a runner, never mind win it all those years ago, we’d have enjoyed Shaamit even more.
“What he did was pretty phenomenal because in the history of the race only two horses have won it on their first start at three.
“He must have been a fantastically good horse on that day. We only had 40 horses then, chugging along fairly ordinarily.”
A son of the great Mtoto, Shaamit beat the Dante one-two of Glory Of Dancer and Dushyantor, who finished fourth and second at Epsom – with subsequent St Leger winner Shantou, ridden by a young Frankie Dettori, in third.
On the day Shaamit and Michael Hills were ready winners, with a performance which promised so much more.
“Horses like him don’t come along very often. He had all the ability, he had the balance, the ability to stay and the ability to quicken. It’s a long time ago and then Galileo came along and he’s dominated the race ever since, I think it’s fair to say,” said Haggas.
“When Galileo is no longer with us or not producing horses, then it might open it up a bit more.”
Shaamit’s career never reached the heights that Epsom suggested it would. He was a respectable third to Pentire in the King George, fourth in the Irish Champion Stakes and seventh in the Arc.
Unfortunately his stud career did not last long as he died as an eight-year-old – but in that short spell he produced a Classic scorer in St Leger winner Bollin Eric.
Reflecting further, Haggas explained that in the weeks before the Derby, Shaamit galloped with horses from other yards, a rare thing these days.
“I hardly speak to my wife now in the evenings, but in those days we still used to and she asked me the night before how I thought he’d run,” he said.
“We’d been just as involved as each other in his journey, but I did say to her I think he could win because he’d galloped with other Newmarket horses. He’d gone with the Dante winner, Glory Of Dancer, trained by Paul Kelleway, on the July Course after the Dante and Shaamit went better than him.
“Then we had a gallop with Henry Cecil and went with Dushyantor, who was second in the Dante, and Clever Cliche, who was a nice horse, and a nice older horse led them and Shaamit went better than them as well.
“So I knew going there on home form he was better than the Newmarket runners and they were the favourites. We had the usual thing – that it was the worst Derby people had ever seen at Epsom – but it didn’t matter because we won it and I’d be delighted for the same to happen if the headlines are ‘Mohaafeth wins worst Derby on record’.
“We don’t work with other yards now as we have enough horses to do it ourselves. I’m sure if someone asked you’d get a hand, but it’s not satisfactory having a mixed gallop and most trainers and jockeys have a different agenda to yours.
“The Cecil gallop was fantastic as he used to have lots watching. He had a majestic grey pony and in those days I used to ride out. I cantered off after the work and Ray McGinn, a former jockey, rode Shaamit every day, I asked him if it was all OK, knowing it was.
“But he said ‘no, he’s not fit guv’nor’. Those were great days. It was fun, but it’s a long time ago. We used to take the mick out of Alec Stewart for talking about Mtoto every day and I don’t want to be in the same boat with Shaamit.”