Friday, February 24, 2017

Sitting out the storm

It's been a low-key week here.  I went downstairs to start work on Sunday morning ready to ride out three horses (as is the case in most stables, most horses here aren't ridden on a Sunday: it tends just to be the ones who hold entries during the week or who, for one reason or another, would be better not missing a day's exercise) because we looked set to have three runners during the week: So Much Water, Hymn For The Dudes and Kilim.  As things turned out, by the end of the morning we were down to having only (a maximum of) one runner during the week (Kilim on Saturday) and one of the two sidelined horses didn't even get as far as being tacked up, never mind ridden out.  (Hymn For The Dudes had an elevated temperature; So Much Water did at least gallop that day, but I wasn't happy enough with her afterwards to run her three days later).

So that's it: no runners midweek, and just Kilim set to go to Wolverhampton tomorrow night.  (And that's assuming that nothing goes wrong with her in the next 22 hours, which can't be guaranteed).  (And I think, incidentally, that she'll run well - but I thought that last time, and she finished last).  But such setbacks are nothing unusual.  I know that the racing press seem stunned with surprise whenever a good horse has a setback (Thistlecrack being the latest to have caused the collective jaw to drop) but it happens all the time.  That's racing, as they say; and that really is racing, a sport in which setbacks and disappointments come along far more frequently than triumphs, irrespective of the quality of stock with which and the level at which one is operating.  If at Christmas you were to nominate 10 horses, whether high-class or ordinary, to run on a particular day in March, you would be doing very well (and be extremely lucky) if five of them were fit to run on that date.  But we haven't 'lost' the horses: they'll be right to run at some as-yet-unspecified time in the future.  God willing.

As, touch wood, will be another member of the stable, Kryptos who suffered a twisted gut three weeks ago.  We're always told that a horse can twist his gut by rolling, but I'd never known this happen, and really I thought that it was just an old wives' tale.  However, I now that it isn't, because it has happened.  Strange, but true.  Happily, the skill and dedication of Mark Hillyer and his colleagues at Newmarket Equine Hospital mean that this horse isn't dead, but should be racing in the second half of this year.  But that's what happens: horses have setbacks.  That's three horses from this stable having had setbacks this month: and that's not three out of a hundred, it's three out of 14 - and that's not 14 horses in strong work, that's 14 horses in training in total, including ones who are only walking.  But, of course, they're only ordinary horses, so as far as the wider world is concerned they don't count.  But if a good horse suffers a setback - well, the sky might as well have fallen in.

Aside from that, what's been happening?  More fake news, really.  You'd like to think that the O'Leary Grand National weights outburst was fake news because it's just too depressing if it isn't.  My enjoyment of National Hunt racing in general (and Cheltenham in particular) continues to be lessened by the way in which the Cheltenham Festival is rammed down our throats all the bloody time.  (Think the classic tweet by the seemingly-now-defunct @bettingwa**er, 'Spending more than five minutes discussing the likely outcome of any sporting event') but the other thing which turns me off about it is that, at the top level, National Hunt racing seems nowadays, with a few happy exceptions, to be a game which is played with an ever less sporting ethos.  Even by the modern standards of winning having become more important than how one plays the game, though, this outburst was a shocker - especially as the fact that Michael O'Leary owned the winner last year, so shouldn't really be able to complain that he isn't given a chance.

Less shocking but equally perplexing was the article in the Racing Post the other day in which Native River's owner bemoaned the supposed fact that people keep knocking his horse.  I know that one can become oversensitive to criticism of one's animals (and I'm as guilty as anyone in this respect) but that was just too much of a head-scratcher.  I have never heard or read a single word of criticism of Native River, a terrific horse who has been a ray of joy throughout the current season.  He'd be my Horse of the Season so far, no question about that.  In fact, if anyone underestimates Native River, I would say that it would be his connections: for me, the fact that he isn't entered in the Grand National suggests that they don't realise how good he is, because I would say that he currently is a very rare example of a horse with realistic prospects of matching Golden Miller's thus-far-unique achievement (in 1934) of winning the Gold Cup and Grand National in the same season.  Except, of course, that he isn't entered in the latter race.

So that's been the week of Storm Doris from this perspective.  And this perspective, of course, must always include a weather report, especially in a week which has included plenty of weather.  Monday and Tuesday really were perfect warm spring days.  Wednesday deteriorated sharply as it was partly windy and partly wet.  And then Thursday, the day in which Storm Doris battered Britain, really was grim.  Relatively speaking it wasn't too bad here, but it was bad enough.  At least the worst of the winds were in the afternoon, after we had finished riding out.  Today is grand because the wind has dropped, but it's colder again now than it was.  So spring isn't here yet.  Nor should it be, because it is still only February.

If Storm Doris made life miserable here, it looked worse at Chelmsford.  I was glad that I wasn't there as getting the races run looked to be a grim task for all involved.  Few could have had a more galling day, though, than Chris Dwyer.  He took two horses there.  One ran (unplaced) in the race which was declared void.  (And fair play to Fred Done, incidentally, for paying the prize money to those who would have earned it in that race).  And the second didn't run: Saved My Bacon is a nervous mare who is bad in the starting stalls, so he and her owner decided that it would be reckless to run her in such freakishly high winds when the conditions would have made the likelihood of her getting dangerously worked up in the wind-buffetted stalls too high.

They took this decision reluctantly, having already brought her to the racecourse to run her, but common sense prevailed because one shouldn't be too cavalier with the safety of horse and rider.  It prevailed for Chris, anyway, even if not for the stewards, who fined him £140 for not running her.  (And I believe that Michael Appleby is in the same boat).  Chris is contemplating appealing - but, really, should he have to do so?  Should this fine have been issued in the first place?  I thought that it was usual for a non-runner's fine to be waived if the horse had been brought to the track but then connections subsequently concluded that conditions were not safe for the horse to race.
Saturday, February 18, 2017

Keeping the past alive in this ever-shrinking world

Hard to believe that this week began with snow.  It's been up around 10 degrees or more most days since last weekend, with no sign of frost at nights.  Very balmy.  And quite a bit of sun on some days too.  None today, but; but still very mild on a day which began with one of those 'speak-of-the-devil' moments.  There was only one Australian race which I was very keen to watch, the VRC Lightning Stakes, and that wasn't until 5.45 GMT, so I didn't set the timer to record ATR: I'd be up before then whatever happened, so I'd just turn the television on at whatever time I got up.  Anyway, when I did happen to turn the television on, the horses were walking around the barriers before a 1600m open handicap at Eagle Farm in Brisbane.  Why was this remarkable?

Four days ago, Liam Casey (pictured in the first paragraph, back in the autumn) and I were talking about horses who might be running this season, and Liam threw up the name of last year's Wood Ditton winner Sky Kingdom, who had finished second to subsequent Eclipse winner Hawkbill at Newmarket second up in the spring before running disappointingly infrequently after that.  I ventured the opinion that he wouldn't be a factor this summer because, so I believed, Paul Makin had sent him down to Australia, and that Starcraft's trainer Gary Newham had come out of retirement to train him; but that I hadn't noticed him running there yet.  Anyway, blow me - the horse whom Bernadette Cooper was talking about as I turned on the TV was none other than Sky Kingdom, tackling this race second up (after an unplaced run in a Group race over 1200m) and set to go off the $9 fourth favourite (and whom she was tipping).  Unbelievable!  I could have turned on the TV any time, but that was the exact moment when I did.

Anyway, it was a total non-event: Sky Kingdom was perfectly placed in the run and travelled easily into the straight, but then knocked up badly and finished a distant last, eased down.  It did make one think, though: what a small world it is nowadays.  It was only recently that one couldn't watch a race unless one was on the course, even if it was only over the Rowley Mile, just a couple of miles away.  (And even on the course one couldn't actually see much if it without a pair of binoculars).  In the betting shops, just the Extel commentary (if it was in Britain); no pictures.  At home?  Forget it, unless it was on terrestrial TV.  Fast-forward a few years: Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Goulburn (which we had this morning), Happy Valley, Sha Tin, Meydan, Gulfstream Park, Aqueduct - no problems, watch it live in the armchair in your front room.  Small world indeed.

On the subject of the racing world, I'll just run through a little 'the story behind ...', prompted by an enquiry by Tuppy Dougherty on Twitter.  Nick Alexander had put up a link to his blog, running through his runners, and the picture was of one of the horses wearing what we would call an 'Australian noseband'.  Tuppy asked what this does.  I'll answer that question, and then run through a little story just for the sake of posterity.  It's a story which probably very few people nowadays know, and of the few who do I'd probably be the youngest; and I'm 50.  So it could get lost in the mists of time, which would be a shame as anecdotal history is something which deserves to be kept alive.

Basically this strip of rubber runs down the front of the nose before dividing and branching out so that there is a rubber circle inside each ring of the bit.  Think Richard Hannon's runners.  (Richard Hannon snr used to run all his horses in one; and I'm ashamed to say that, off the top of my head, I don't know if his son now does the same).  For most horses it does no good but no harm, aside from adding an ounce to the weight carried.  But for some horses it is very important: assuming that it's tight-fitting enough, it holds the bit up the mouth, reducing the chance of the horse getting his/her tongue over the bit, something which can interfere with his breathing and/or make him harder to control.  And it also means that, if a horse is hanging and the jockey has to put more pressure on one rein than the other, the bit can't slip through the horse's mouth.  And it also puts a tiny bit of gentle pressure on the front of the nose, as a net muzzle does, which can have a calming and controlling effect.  So that's Tuppy's question asked and answered.  (And I don't use them, by the way, preferring a tongue-tie for horses who put their tongue over the bit; and preferring a ring-bit for horses who hang; and preferring a net muzzle for horses who might benefit from one of those).

But the name, the 'Australian noseband'?  Few Australians would recognise this tag.  They would know it as 'cheekers'.  (And nowadays it would probably be seen less frequently in Australia than in the UK).  So the name?  Well, the late, great George Moore, regarded by many as Australia's greatest jockey, spent one season riding in Britain, 1967, retained by Noel Murless. (He spent most of the time which he spent in Europe in France, riding for Alec Head, winning many big races including the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe - and the family connection endured as his son Gary rode an Arc winner and a 1,000 Guineas winner for Alec Head's daughter Criquette).  George Moore, apparently, didn't complete the season here, but that's another story.  But in the only season which he did spend in England, he rode the Derby winner (Royal Palace).  A great, great jockey.

Anyway, aside from Royal Palace, one of the best horses in Warren Place during the summer of 1967 was St Chad, a three-year-old chestnut colt by St Paddy from Caerphilly, by Abernant.  He had won the Ladykirk Stakes over five furlongs easily at Ayr as a two-year-old "despite hanging badly throughout", as Timeform put it.  At three he finished second in the Free Handicap and then won Brightelmstone Handicap over seven furlongs at Brighton (which obviously nowadays either does not exist or does still exist but in a much lesser way), the Jersey Stakes over seven furlongs at Ascot, the Hungerford Stakes over seven furlongs at Newbury, and the Wills Mile (now Celebration Mile) at Goodwood ("splendidly ridden by Moore", according to Timeform, and in an all-Australian finish as Scobie Breasley was on the runner-up Reform).  He also finished fourth to Reform in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood and a well-beaten third to the same horse in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot.  At four, after George Moore had gone, he only ran twice: fourth to Petingo in the Sussex Stakes and last in the Wills Mile.  He then retired to stud in Ireland, where he enjoyed modest success.

So what is the story?  Well, for this I am indebted to John Williams, who was apprenticed to Noel Murless at the time.  More people know him as 'Welshie' than as John Williams (and he isn't the former National Hunt and subsequently Flat jockey John Williams) and many will remember him for working for many years for Neville Callaghan before finishing his working life in Jeremy Noseda's stable.  Anyway, St Chad, apparently, was very headstrong and hard to steer, and was looking like ruining his own career because of the waywardness which he had shown at Ayr.  George Moore, so I'm told, told Noel Murless that there was a bit of tack at home which would help to cure the horse of the things which he was doing wrong, and that he would get one sent over from Australia to use on the horse.  Hence St Chad getting his act together, and hence people here (initially just in Noel Murless' stable, subsequently throughout British racing) describing this previously-unseen device as an 'Australian noseband'.

(Funnily enough, as far as I can discern having just now inspected three photographs of St Chad racing, he appears not  to have worn it during his races.  Maybe it had done its job by that time, or maybe George Moore was so skilled (which he was) that the horse needed either Moore or the noseband, but not necessarily both; or maybe his trainer didn't want his days at the races to be spoiled by his being pestered by the world and his wife for an explanation of what this strange device was which the horse was wearing).
Sunday, February 12, 2017

It always happens to all the ones

It's been a grim few days culminating in a snowfall last night on a miserably cold and damp weekend, but the forecast suggests that things are going to pick up from tomorrow onwards.  Which is very good news.  We could do with a boost, and we certainly didn't get one at Lingfield on Thursday when Kilim was trapped out wide from her wide draw and duly did what one would expect a keen horse to do when unable to be covered up behind another horse: she pulled far too hard and consequently weakened badly at the end of the race, finishing tailed off.  Nobody's fault (bar mine) and far from the end of the world - but at the same time not a recipe for a happy day.  At least we had a good journey in each direction, which is always a bonus.

Today's trip was more enjoyable as I had my first Sunday Forum booking of the year, being on a Matt Chapman-chaired panel along with Alastair Down and Simon Holt.  I only hope that it was as enjoyable for the audience (or nearly as enjoyable for the audience, which might be a more realistic target) as for the panel.  I was relieved that we didn't have time to wring our hands over Rich Ricci's woes in being misfortunate (I do know that that is not a word, by the way) enough to "lose" four of his many very good horses, ie Vautour, Annie Power, Faugheen and Min.  That, of course, is nonsense: he has only lost one of them (Vautour) while the other three have merely sustained season-ending, rather than career-ending, injuries.  (Although, of course, it is possible that Annie Power might be retired to stud, which would be understandable; and conceivable that Faugheen might end up not racing again).

But, really, it would be an over-reaction to do anything other than note that one very good horse was killed as a result of a freak accident a few months ago and that three horses (two of whom were likely not to run this season anyway, having started the season on the sidelines) are on the sidelines.  Basically, one would only be stunned by the news if one didn't appreciate how very fragile racehorses are.  It is a fact of racing life that disappointments are always going massively to outnumber the pieces of good news, irrespective of the level of the game at which one is playing.  When you are racing as many horses as Rich Ricci owns, or as many as Willie Mullins trains, you are going to have setbacks seemingly all the time.  And when you have as many good horses as they have, you are inevitably going to find that quite a few good horses sustain injuries.

One of racing's myths is that 'it always happens to the good ones'.  Well, it does usually happen to the good ones, but that is only a misleading part of the truth.  With humans, professional athletes who go through their career without injury are few and far between.  With horses, they are even fewer.  A horse weighs maybe eight times more than a human and runs maybe twice as fast, so the force (mass times velocity) on his legs is 16 times as much - and those legs are only the same diameter as a human's legs.   The pressure on his system is far greater than that put on a human's system: his pulse-rate can be in the 30s at rest, and over 250 when he's under maximum pressure.

How few professional soccer players go through the season without spending part of it on the injured list?  Not very many.  How many racehorses do?  Even fewer.  'It', ie injury, pretty much does always happen to the good ones.  But it also pretty much always happens to the indifferent ones too.  Only nobody hears about them.  A vet put it very well to me.  The thoroughbred is the Formula One car of the horse world.  The Formula One car is perfectly made for getting round the track as fast as any car possibly can go - but set off to drive it from Land's End to John O'Groats, and you'll be pulled over on the side of the road, calling the AA, by the time that you get to Torquay.  So I was glad that we didn't have time to bemoan his supposed misfortune.  (Although were the mighty Douvan, who seems to be a remarkably sound horse, to be sidelined, that might be a different matter!).

On another matter, thank you again for the feedback, Neil.  Yes, you pay the entry fee for entering the horse, whether or not you end up running.  It's not a running fee: it's an entry fee.  The only exception is that the entry fee is not charged if the horse is eliminated, which is fair enough: if you enter a horse and then are told that you aren't allowed to run him in the race (other than if you have entered a horse who isn't qualified or eligible for the race, of course) it would be totally wrong still to be charged the entry fee.  In some early-closing races which have several forfeit stages, only the later fees are refunded if one's horse is eliminated, but that's another matter.

But, by and large, yes: for normal races, you pay the entry fee whether or not you run, unless you are eliminated (which can only happen if you have declared).  (Which is why, if one has entered and then decided not to run, it's always worth keeping an eye on whether you would actually get in the race, because it's then worthwhile to declare if you're going to be eliminated, so that you aren't charged the entry fee - although, of course, you don't want to be caught out by declaring a horse whom you don't want to run on the assumption that he's going to be eliminated, and then find that he gets in after all.)
Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Feedback

Just a quick chapter on a winter's night.  Hymn For The Dudes - perfectly ridden by Adam Kirby (and pictured here) - did indeed improve for his resumption, finishing third on Monday night.  That was a lovely day here in the morning - cold with fog at the outset, but wonderful once the sun broke through - but a cold and wet afternoon and evening at Wolverhampton; and the cold, wet weather had moved over here by the time that we got home, and has been hanging around for the subsequent two days.  It hasn't been pleasant, but I think that if we can grin and bear it through this week, we'll find more temperate conditions thereafter and spring might not be too far off the horizon.

So that was our first place-getter of the year, at the fifth attempt.  We'll have the sixth attempt tomorrow (Kilim at Lingfield) and I hope that she'll run well (obviously - there would be something wrong if we had a runner and I wasn't hoping that he/she would run well).  After the Monday evening photograph in the first paragraph, we have four Monday morning photographs in the subsequent paragraphs, posted chronologically as the sun broke through the fog.  We can see tomorrow's runner Kilim in the second of these four (with So Much Water's ears in the first of them, and Roy's ears in the last of them).

Good feedback again after the last chapter, thank you.  Yes, Neil, you're not the first person to tell me that I've been too harsh on French jockeys.  I probably have been.  I suppose I'm just extrapolating a few snapshot observations over the whole scene.  And certainly there are some French jockeys who are truly world-class: Soumillon (who isn't French), Peslier, Mosse, Lemaire, Doleuze, to name but five.  The only problem is that we've seen too many instances of French or French-based jockeys getting lost at Epsom, which even caught Soumillon out two or three years ago on an Aga Khan-owned hot favourite in that Group Three mares' race at the Derby meeting.  But then again one might say that it's not the French jockeys getting caught out, but that the French horses, unaccustomed to galloping on undulating terrain, didn't handle the track.

The other two things to stick in my mind were that supposedly the best young jockey in France came over here a few years ago and clearly wasn't, to my eyes anyway, good enough; and the fact that James Reveley, whom I hugely admire and who is a genuinely top-class jockey, is merely one of many superb jumps jockeys in the British Isles, but seems to stand out in France.  And when I watch racing at Auteuil, I am always struck by how many jockeys fall off.  But then again it might be that the fences at Auteuil are much stiffer than the ones over here, so there are more horses making juddering errors there than here.  Anyway, overall I probably have been too harsh on them, for which I apologise.

And, yes, Neil, as Glenn has correctly pointed out, the previous very good female jockey was Lisa Jones, who rode quite a few winners for us when she was apprenticed to my neighbour Willie Musson.  Critical Stage, Brief Goodbye, Henesey's Leg and Sangita spring immediately to mind.  She's now Mrs Wayne Smith.  I think that she was something like the third female apprentice to ride out her claim in Britain, which she did one year by riding a double on the last day of Glorious Goodwood.  She finished third in the apprentices' title that year.  She found it much tougher going when she lost her claim, and went to Macau, where she became one of only a handful of female jockeys to ride a Derby winner somewhere in the world.  She is now a mother and no longer rides; and I would guess that she is as good a mother as she was a rider.  Which really is saying something.
Sunday, February 05, 2017

Another bad idea

I suppose that we ought to touch upon the French plan to give female jockeys a 2kg allowance for being a member of the inferior sex.  (This will be in addition to any allowances claimed for inexperience, up to a maximum claim of 4.5kg).  This really is too silly for words, but we might just run through it, lest there be any misunderstanding.  And misunderstanding there seems to have been, as we know because we keep seeing people say things along the lines of, "A bonus 2kg claim - what's not to like?" or words to that effect.  Well, there's plenty not to like.  (And I should add that I will be talking about Britain; and I do acknowledge that the situation is different in France as female jockeys have made very few inroads there, which is strange as, when one watches French racing, it is easy to conclude that one doesn't have to be very good at either riding or race-riding to be successful there).

Basically, females have been facing a battle against chauvinist prejudice throughout history.  All societies and all religions have been based to a greater or lesser extent on sexual discrimination.  Happily, it is a battle which, in Britain anyway, the fairer sex, as one might say, has been winning.  Just in my lifetime society has changed so much in this respect.  When I was born there were no female vicars, no female bishops, no female trainers, no female jockeys, no female fighting troops ...  All that has changed.  Just within our own little racing world, we're within sight of female trainers and female jockeys being on an even footing with their male counterparts.  In fact, I think that female trainers are already there.

If the BHA introduced a similar allowance, all this progress towards equality, certainly as regards female jockeys and apprentices are concerned, would be blown out of the water.  There would be official validation of the (mistaken) prejudice that female riders aren't as good.  (And if you are still one of the benighted minority/majority - delete as applicable - who believe that they aren't as good, then watch Josephine Gordon riding on the Flat or Lucy Alexander riding over jumps; go to any three-day event; go to New Zealand; or just log on to Youtube and watch Prince of Penzance's Melbourne Cup, or go to the ATR website and watch the replay of this afternoon's Grand National Trial at Punchestown.)  Of course the female riders would not refuse to claim the allowance, but they would do so knowing that their cause was being hugely set back, and arguably forever; that the battle to prove that they are as good as males, which was within sight of being won, had been lost.

If the allowance were brought in and then repealed, it would be worse than if it had never been brought in, because all that would have happened would have been that we had ended up where we had begun, but with the exception that we'd all have had it drummed into us that female riders aren't as good.  And what this allowance would mean (and will mean in France) is that it virtually guarantees that the one breakthrough which really still needs to be made (ie female jockeys picking up rides in Group or Listed races) will never happen, as the allowance would/will not be claimable in such races, so the female jockeys would be in the same boat as claiming apprentices as regards races in which allowances cannot be claimed, ie people would view it as the horse putting up overweight if they were booked for the ride.

Anyway, enough of that.  We'll be going to Wolverhampton tomorrow with Hymn For The Dudes (whose rear end can be seen in this paragraph, yesterday, through So Much Water's ears).  I'd like to think that he might prove to have come on a bit for his resumption there 14 days previously; if so, he ought to run well.  He won't have a female rider on board (Adam Kirby will ride) but I hope that we'll be using one later in the week.  Kilim is entered at Lingfield on Thursday in a race slightly longer than the one which she contested eight days ago.  If she gets into the race (which isn't certain) and if Josephine is available (which isn't certain) then she'll ride her.  I hope that she does - in fact, I'd almost say that I'd want her on board even if she came with a 2kg penalty, rather than this hopefully-never-happening 2kg allowance.

Oh yes, going back to the gender-based riding allowance, is it legal?  It's hard to see that it is.  Bringing in a rule which means that male jockeys are disadvantaged, as far as getting rides goes, against their female counterparts simply on account of their gender is surely sexual discrimination, and I would imagine that there has to be a law which prevents that.  Even if it doesn't break any British laws, it surely breaks an EC sexual equality law; and we (unlike the French) tend to obey those.  For now anyway, but obviously that's going to change at some point in the future if the current Brexit impasse is ever resolved.