I am old enough to remember the days when every evening, accompanied by his head lad, the trainer would inspect each of the horses in his charge. The trainer would expect to see the straw bedding neatly heaped into a square in one corner of the stable, with the grooming kit arranged on a linen rubber on top the straw. This ritual, a truly fraught experience for all the staff, has now largely died out. Some may say, thank God!
Of course when this ritual was sacrosanct a lad would only be expected to ‘do’ three horses, and the further back in time you go that expectation would recede to a maximum of two horses. Unlike today when seemingly there is no maximum number. Back in the days of tugged forelocks very few trainers would have had a stable comprising more than fifty horses. I know of one well respected horseman/trainer, long since deceased, who believed no one man could train more than thirty horses with any degree of competence, though in his time all-weather gallops, horse-walkers and equine swimming pools were unheard-of and labour was cheap and plentiful.
Little changed in racing stables until comparatively recently. A high proportion of trainers used to be ex-military, many of them highly-skilled horseman, and their stables were run on tight lines, with little contribution except strict obedience expected from employees.
Life, too, was different for the horses, with young horses given longer to mature as speed was not of the essence. Indeed there was even debate as to whether the racing of two-year-olds was detrimental to the health and well-being of the individual horse and to the breed as a whole. I have read of a study conducted on the famous skeletons housed at the Natural History Museum – the skeletons in question being Eclipse, Persimmon, Ayrshire, St.Frusquin and St.Simon – with the conclusion that only Eclipse, who did not see a racecourse until he was a 4-years-old, having no indication of back problems throughout the length of the spine.
These bony adhesions are usually the result of a 2-year-old asked to bear weight before it is strong enough to do so. There is an argument that many 2-year-olds do not ‘train on’ because these adhesions cause it pain when asked to stretch and lengthen at speed. The old-time trainers would perhaps say that a horse that naps or refuses to race is telling its connections that it is suffering pain.
Once upon a time ‘stable husbandry’ was as exacting and as statutory as the Highway Code, whereas now the term is reduced to the convenience of getting the day’s work done as quickly as possible. Of course in the days when horses were as much transport as they were racers they were trained with longevity in mind. Now, sadly, the production of yearlings for precocity, and of course greater profit, is the driving force of the industry.
This era of trainers, as seemingly good at their trade as they are, do not, largely, have a background in horsemanship and learn about the training and welfare of the racehorse from ground level. The revolutionaries are those trainers, and Martin Pipe is the obvious example, who realise that learning from ground level is the acquiring only of perceived wisdom. Though trainers must be pragmatic in the administration of their business, it is those with a thirst for knowledge and the curiosity to invent and experiment who bring about change.
I have always believed that it is in the interest of both the sport and the breed if there were no 2-year-old races until August. I appreciate such an idea will cause uproar amongst breeders and trainers but such a policy would allow immature horses time to strengthen both mentally and physically. This is not as revolutionary as it might first appear. Once upon a time there were no 2-year-old races in France until June and even in this country 2-year-old races were of little importance until after the 2nd World War. The legendary trainer John Porter wrote in his autobiography ‘My experience convinces me that a vast number of horses are ruined by being unduly forced as 2-year-olds.’ And in Porter’s day yearlings were traditionally long-reined for many months to gradually build confidence and strength so that it could carry a rider without undue strain put upon its bone, cartilage, muscle and of course its mind.
It must be remembered that most 2-year-olds are barely eighteen months old when they start to be trained for the racecourse. Indeed many are not twenty-four months old when they make their racecourse debuts. This should be debated as the people who must ride and educate these young horses are becoming heavier and heavier as each generation passes.
Breeders, of course, are to blame for this state of affairs as it is the fashion to have mares give birth in January and February when commonsense suggests late March or April would be more beneficial as the spring grass would be a natural supplement for the mare and her foal.
The cart is now truly leading the way and I doubt if the well-tested opinions of those who have gone before will ever be listened to. The problem is that horse racing is unfairly tarnished in some quarters by accusations of inhumanity. Yet the most common acts of ill-treatment are not premeditated but carried out in ignorance and for the sake of fashion. A yearling backed and ridden away before it is acquired the strength to bear weight will be a horse who throughout its life will suffer back pain. Horses should not be considered as ‘disposable’, yet that is what the modern race programme reduces so many of them to be. At least in many instances. Is the modern 2-year-old so different, so much stronger, than the horse of John Porter’s era that in the Chesham Stakes at Royal Ascot the colts carried 9st 3lbs, 3lbs more Derby runners are asked to carry?
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.