Sunday, May 08, 2016

Brave, silly and worrying (and pleasantly sunny) new world

This is truly glorious.  We've gone seemingly from winter to the height of summer in not much more than a week.  The weather was truly miserable in the days leading up to the Guineas weekend, with many parts of England, not to mention Scotland, enduring snow.  However, the weather started to come good just in time for the QIPCO Guineas Festival - and now, merely one week on, it's glorious.  We're coming to the end of perfect sunny summer weekend, with daytime maximum temperatures in the mid 20s and night-time minimum temperatures around 12 degrees.  Bliss!

The weather has clearly been one notable feature of the last few days.  For us, the rich vein of form of Indira (whose ears are visible this glorious morning in the eighth and ninth photographs) has been another.  And for the wider racing world a feature has been the genetic test which has prompted the decision not to run Galileo Gold in the Derby.  This is very odd.  What isn't odd is the fact that Galileo Gold (seen on 2,000 Guineas Day in the first two paragraphs) is not running in the Derby: he is by a sprinter/miler, from a half-sister to a King' Stand Stakes winner, and he raced so fiercely in the 2,000 Guineas that the thought was prompted that, notwithstanding that he hit the line strongly, if one were to change the distance of his races, one would be as well shortening it as lengthening it.

To my eyes, Frankel (who was so far in front of his peers that - ridden sensibly, which didn't always happen - you fancy he would have beaten them at any distance from five furlongs to two miles) was a more obvious likely Derby winner after his 2,000 Guineas victory than Galileo Gold was after his - yet nobody thought it the least bit odd that the targets chosen for Frankel for the rest of his three-year-old season were all over a mile.  Nobody would have thought it the least bit odd if the post-race announcement on Galileo Gold's behalf had been that he would be kept to a mile for the remainder of the season, aside from a possible step up to 10 furlongs in the autumn if that was looking sensible when the time came.

However, it seemed as if the Derby was being seriously considered, which is fair enough because (like the Irish 2,000 Guineas and St James's Palace Stakes) it is a potential target for every 2,000 Guineas winner.  It has now been ruled out, and I only hope that the genetic test has not been the deciding factor, as that would have been crazy.  I would like to think that the situation was that Galileo Gold's connections bore in mind his style of racing, his sire and his immediate family, and decided to keep him at a mile - but were so respectful of the Derby's status that they felt that they would be open to persuasion were to the genetic test to encourage them to try 12 furlongs.

That would have made perfect sense, and it would then have made sense to stick to the original plan once it came clear that the genetic test was not providing a strong prompt towards middle distances.  However, if it were the case that they were set to try him in the Derby but the test made them change their minds, then that would be both silly and sad.  As anyone who has any experience of training horses will tell you, a horse's theoretical genetic clues are only a small part of the battle about getting him to stay.  As T J Smith, father of Hugo's mentor Gai Waterhouse used to say, the key to winning staying races was finding a fast horse and then training him to stay.

There is no mile-gene, seven-furlong gene, 10-furlong gene etc.  In essence, all thoroughbreds are sprinters.  With humans, the shortest race is 100m and the longest is 26+ miles, ie many hundreds of times farther.  With horses, the shortest race is five furlongs, and a race three times that length is a long-distance race.  A race four times that length is racing's equivalent of the marathon.  In essence, we are talking about all the races being (in human terms) between 100m and 400m, and agonising about whether to run him over eight, 10 or 12 furlong is agonising about whether on Sports Day to contest the 160m, the 200m or the 240m.

At any given time, a horse's ideal distance is (if you've done your job right) the one for which you have trained him at that particular time.  That could be six furlongs, or it could be twelve.  A horse could win over six furlongs when he's been trained for that, but when he's ready for a mile and a half, he's ready for a mile and half, and probably wouldn't be able to keep up over six.  I've never trained a horse who was effective at only one distance.  Ethics Girl won over a mile and over two miles; Largesse won over five furlongs and was beaten a neck in a Yorkshire Cup; Kadouchski ran several good races over a mile but did all his winning between two  miles and three-and-three-quarter miles.  Statistician did most of his winning at five and six furlongs, but his most impressive victory came at a mile and a quarter, dot, dot, dot ...

A genetics test is interesting and informative, in the same way that a pedigree is interesting and informative, and a horse's conformation is interesting and informative.  But all three take a back seat once one has started to train, and particularly to race, the horse.  It's like when one goes to the Horses-In-Training Sale: far and away the most important factors in taking the decisions are his form and his soundness.  When selecting a tried horse at the sale, or picking the race for a horse whom you train, it's the same thing: you will take his genetic background as encouragement to make experiments which you are itching to make (for instance, you might be looking for encouragement that the horse might improve with time or distance) but it's solely in a postive sense: you'd take the encouragement to back up your keenness to do something.  What you wouldn't do is to use it as an excuse not to do something which you otherwise wanted to do.  If the horse was giving the signs to encourage you to do it, you'd just do it.

What we should be doing is perhaps to dig up the corpse of Forego, who in 1975 won what was then (in the pre-Breeders' Cup days) America's principal weight-for-age race (the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then still run over two miles) and also won the Eclipse Award for Champion Sprinter.  It would be interesting to see what genetic box he should have been put in, so that we would know whether to strip him posthumously of his Eclipse Award or disqualify him posthumously from his Jockey Club Gold Cup victory.  Similarly, I don't know if Mahgony is still alive, but if he is we should take a test from him, to find out whether it was impossible for him to have won two Lightning Stakes (aged five and seven) or impossible for him to have won both the VRC Derby and the AJC Derby as a three-year-old.

This is all just a bit of harmless fun, of course; and if Galileo Gold's connections want to run in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and the St James's Palace Stakes and not run in the Derby, then that's fine.  It's their business, and it's a sensible decision.  However, I do fear that we might be starting to head down a dangerous road if we start to put too much faith in these tests, and allow them to dictate too much of what a horse's future should hold.  In particular, I believe that these tests can not only tell us what distance a horse (in theory, if not in practice) supposedly ought to be running over, but can also tell us whether or not he is likely to be a good racehorse.

Around the world, there are several large-scale breeding operations producing huge numbers of foals each year in the hope of finding a handful of top-liners.  If these tests were to become the great gods that the past week has suggested, I would start to feel slightly uneasy about the possibility of all the foals being tested to find out which were supposedly going to be the good racehorses.  The ones thus weighed in the balance and deemed supposedly not be wanting would, of course, go into training.  But the others, particularly the colts?  This Galileo Gold thing might just be a bit of harmless fun at present, but the potential Brave New World spectre at which it hints is no laughing matter.

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