Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Better to be safe than sorry

Disappointing night last night.  I didn't really expect Delatite to win his race yesterday, as my feeling was that the most likely outcome was that he would finish one place behind the Gary Moore-trained odds-on favourite Kaveman, a lovely-looking horse who (like Delatite) had improved for his debut to be placed next time out, and who (unlike Delatite - although Del is by a most promising young National Hunt stallion, Schiaparelli) is as well-bred for bumpers as one could get (being closely related to numerous bumper winners, including being a full-brother to a Cheltenham Championship Bumper winner).  That, admittedly, did happen, although in a six-runner race I had not expected it to turn out that neither of us would finish in the first two.  Ah well.  Disappointing, but not the end of the world.  I feel in retrospect that I sent Del to the races too fresh and that he performed accordingly (ie passing the post exuberantly in first place, as one can see in the second photograph, on the first rather than the second time) which self-criticism has left me uncomfortable but wiser.

Aside from that, though, it was an enjoyable evening.  Over and above all the many interesting parts of the evening at Towcester, I caught a couple of races from Windsor on ATR, including seeing a twice-raced two-year-old dislodging John Egan when doing a rodeo performance shortly after leaving the stalls.  Like Thunder Snow in the Kentucky Derby, but more so.  Which brings us on to that supposed mystery.  (You will note the fact that John's two-year-old yesterday had cantered to post beforehand, which actually flies in the face of what I'm about to say, but not to worry).

It has long baffled me that horses in America seem not to canter to post.  This practice presumably seems normal to our transatlantic cousins, but to me it's madness.  The canter to post serves three purposes: to loosen the horse up, to allow the jockey to check that he is happy with the horse's action (which merely walking or jig-jogging to post does not do), and to allow the horse to get any jumping around out of his system if he is uncomfortable for any reason, or just over-fresh.  The warming-up is self-explanatory and obvious.  The jockey assessment is so important.  It's the jockey's life on the line as well as the horse's if the horse is going to break down, and it is fair on neither horse nor jockey not to give the jockey a chance to assess the horse's action for signs of soreness.  (And the fact that the horse might not have been sore when he did final work before the race is not really relevant, as that work could have been the straw which prepared the camel's back for breaking).

As for the final point, Thunder Snow is the perfect illustration.  For many people it is the done thing at the races to put the saddle on uncomfortably forward and/or to do the girth up uncomfortably tight.  (And if one merely does the girth up tight enough, rather than as tight as it will go, the jockey generally tightens it anyway once he/she is aboard).  And this is with a saddle which is often uncomfortably small and/or with an uncomfortably small amount of padding underneath.  I saw a perfect illustration a couple of years ago.  I was at Catterick and a successful trainer (who was not present) had a runner in our race.  The saddle had been put on ludicrously far forward.  I pointed the horse out to our horse's connections, and observed that if I were a jockey and walked into the parade ring and saw that my mount had been saddled so badly, I would refuse to get on the horse but would instead ask the lad to take the horse back to the saddling boxes, where I would resaddle the horse myself.

Anyway, I thought no more about it for the next couple of minutes - until we took our horse out onto the track, and saw that the horse which I had been talking about was already out there, running around loose while the jockey stood on the ground bemusedly watching him, sporting that pained grimace which finds its way onto one's face when one has just been 'buried'.  But of course that didn't matter because the horse got his bucking out of his system, the saddle probably moved back to where it was more comfortable, and by the time that the race was off all was sweet.  But if the horse had merely been walked to post, the bucking performance would probably have happened a few seconds after the stalls had opened.

This is, of course, by the by because it doesn't happen very often.  But it is another reason to scratch one's head in bemusement that the horses don't canter to post in the USA, over and above the main one that the fact of not doing so almost inevitably increases the fatality rate (principally of horses, but of jockeys too) by taking away the jockey's opportunity to make an informed judgement of whether there is a significant risk about whether the horse he/she is about to ride might break down in the race.  (Racing horses on painkillers, of course, also largely takes away that opportunity from the jockeys, so even if they were to canter them to post, the jockeys still wouldn't be in a position to give a meaningful verdict on any horses racing on Bute).  We've all had the odd horse scratched at the barrier after the jockey has told the vet down there that his/her mount felt sore cantering to post.  Watch enough races and you'll see the occasional horse withdrawn at the start on veterinary advice.  And the jockey is perfectly correct to raise such concern if that is what he/she feels, and the vet is perfectly correct to act on the advice by scratching the horse if he/she feels that the concerns raised are valid (which there is a strong chance that they might be).

Of course, with a horse scratched at the start, one never knows what would have happened had he raced: whether he would have run safely or well, or both, or neither.  But it's always better to be safe than sorry, and generally better to err on the side of caution.  A saying I often quote is that it's always better not to race and wish one had, than to race and wish one hadn't.  With the former there is usually another day; with the latter there usually isn't.  I'm always slightly irritated when I hear pundits pontificating about the safety or otherwise of dirt versus synthetics versus turf in American racing.  Such pontification is just an over-elaborate analysis of where best to place the deck-chairs on the Titanic.  Instead, ensure that no horse races on pain-killers, and canter the horses to post (and reassure the jockeys that they won't be sacked if they voice any misgivings which they might have - that's important, too) and, hey presto, the fatality rate would be reduced much more markedly than by any tinkering with the choice of surface.  Here endeth the lesson.

1 comment:

neil kearns said...

Reverend Berry having read your lesson with great interest you raise a very very important point but I believe it raises another question which is to do with the start - I am going to have to generalise but US racing seems to have horses which have far more "discipline" at the gates . I have noticed that they even time the "load" and seem to be aiming to achieve around about the minute mark and seem to manage this more often than not .

Now my points are firstly from a competition point of view - the quick load is fairer to all the competitors - some of the four and five minute loads over here are blatantly unfair to those who are well behaved

secondly and MOST importantly by shortening the load you reduce the danger of injury in the gate

thirdly you make the race fairer as the connections have no influence in the loading procedure in the US one is in first with six two and seven etc etc and seemingly no "free passes"for those who have issues - this performance where X loads late because he has issues seems to benefit the miscreant over those who go about their business "normally" and is abused by many influential connections - note how often the favourite loads last for seemingly no other reason than they are favourite

Back to the article I am wondering IF the reason for the improved stalls behaviour may be due to the lead down to the side - rather than my preconceived idea that more practice is put in to the stalls procedure in the US than in the UK - and whilst I think you make a VERY important point over the role of the jockey in terms of horse welfare on the way down (one which is generally ignored) there also has to be a consideration of the number of horses injured at the stalls who also lose their lives or are so badly injured they cannot race on

In another racing pasture - Ireland - and again one can only generalise on what one sees the standard of gate behaviour seems better than the UK and they don't have the elongated load times again my opinion was always that the gate structure looks more open than in the UK thereby in some way being a calmer experience for the fractious . I don't know if they have regimented loading a la US but it all seems smoother

Having lost a horse in which I was involved because of a gate injury it is something that really bothers me and I feel the seeming desire in the UK to get all in is detrimental to the remainder of the field

All of the above said I feel the practice of racing under the influence of drugs is by a mile the most detrimental influence to horse welfare in the US and for me any European horse who goes there to race and uses the medication should have a two year ban from racing in this jurisdiction - regardless of how big their connections are