Specialisation and Adaptability in Racing

It is mid-August. The Ebor meeting is nearing its conclusion, and I can practically hear the groans from the racing public as I type that it is Willie Mullins who has forced me out of my post results day rut. Mondialiste stole the show at Arlington last Saturday, but it is the aptly-named Clondaw Warrior who has sparked my revival into the journalistic world.

I’m no equine specialist. I don’t know whether or not horses can suffer from culture shock. Alas, it was no bother for Clondaw Warrior, who took us from glory in Galway to admiration at Arlington within a fortnight, as he managed a creditable second in the $400,000 American St Leger.

 

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Clondaw Warrior (silver) winning the Galway Hurdle

It certainly takes a special horse to win a 2 mile Grade A Galway Hurdle and finish a strong second in a 1m5 ½ furlong Grade 3 in Illinois within such a short timeframe. Throw in a Cheltenham bumper, a Royal Ascot win and a whole host of other valuable performances and you’ve got Clondaw Warrior. This begs the question, are horses more adaptable and versatile than we give them credit for?

Take the New Zealand bred, Australian based, global champion So You Think. In August 2010 he won the Group 2 Memsie over 7 furlongs. Fast-forward to November and he was only beaten three lengths over 2 miles in the Melbourne Cup. Running horses over a variety of trips at the top level is often commonplace in Australian racing, so why are horses pigeon-holed so strictly in the UK, often before they even hit the track? It can take trainers years to discover what they believe to be a horse’s optimum track, trip and ground conditions, and incessant specialisation could be as damaging as it is informative.

 

When analysing the ability of any horse, the first port of call is often the breeding. In the UK we have access to some of the most celebrated dual-purpose stallions. The likes of Authorized, Dylan Thomas, Shirocco and King’s Best have brought us champions of both codes, and are capable of producing multi-talented types, so why aren’t more career options being fully exploited for their offspring?

In recent years, the number of jumps horses reverting back to the flat appears to be increasing, including at the highest level. Perhaps this is due to the larger pool of prize money in flat racing, which is becoming more of an incentive to jumps owners. Yet equally John Ferguson’s Bloomfields operation also proved that Godolphin’s flashy flat types could indeed adapt to life over the sticks, and I’m not sure monetary gain was the propelling force behind that particular set up. Sir Michael Stoute is synonymous for succeeding with ‘slow burning’ types, whereas Robert Cowell is widely regarded as our ‘Sprint King’. Of course all horses are different and should be treated individually, but some trainers are stereotyped at training certain types of horses, this may be because their training methods are suited towards a particular type of horse. If Sir Michael’s horses were trained to be more precocious, could they be? If Robert Cowell can seemingly make horses faster, could someone else make them stay further?

 

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Outback Traveller (pink) wins the Wokingham Stakes

 

The way in which horses are trained could explain why they are less likely to succeed both over the jumps and the flat. Often jumps horses are regarded as leaner types, who carry less condition. The type and amount of work trained into a horse could influence which distances the horse can be successful over, and thus, jumpers can adapt to the flat. It is also key to note that jumps horses are often considered well handicapped when back over the flat, as Oliver Sherwood’s marvellous campaigner Rayvin Black has proved when mastering both codes. But again we turn to Mullins for the epitome – look no further than Simenon. A spring chicken he is not, but having been in training for 8 years, he is a 7 furlong winner, a dual-Royal Ascot winner (in one meeting!), a five time hurdle winner and he is now due to tackle fences. You’d be a fool to call Mullins a clown, but he juggles his horses around with a mastery unlike any other. Lets not forget he has trained former smart flat performer Nichols Canyon to beat the best two mile hurdler around in Faugheen, and has recently managed to get two hurdle wins out of the quirky flat customer Penhill.

The debate over sectional timing in the UK is one for another day, but it is no secret that traditionally other racing jurisdictions are more orientated towards speed and stopwatch. Australia’s sprinters are renowned as some of the best in the world, and the tight-turning tracks in the US record some of the fastest fractions. Just this summer we saw James McDonald ride many of our natives to sleep at some of the big summer festivals, highlighting the importance of speed awareness in tactics. The British sprinting division this year is the strongest it has been for an awfully long time, but oveall it could be argued our bloodstock industry is geared towards stallions who produce classic winning stock. Postponed proved this week how stud value can be increased when horses win at a variety of distances, so in a way the bloodstock industry values variety, but perhaps not on such a dramatic scale. Overall though, horses like Caspian Prince and Un De Sceaux betray their pedigrees to an almighty degree, and I feel we often rely on their guidance too much.

As I mentioned previously, I’m no equine specialist. Equine specialists may say a horse’s optimum conditions may be down to biology, the conformation of a horse, the size of their organs, and overall genetic makeup. Attraction wasn’t an attractive filly, but she chiselled her way into the public’s affections with her iron will and ugly duckling gait. Many racing professionals would argue an extenuated or high knee action indicates a preference for soft ground, as the impact on the horse’s joints is cushioned by the give underfoot. But Attraction was the first filly to complete the esteemed English and Irish 1000 Guineas double, with the ground descriptions reading good and good to firm. This is just one example of how perceptions of ideals can be incorrect. We turn our heads to the infamous case of Gleneagles. For what it’s worth, he wouldn’t have been a fan of his namesake, as I discovered when I visited at Christmas, as the ground description read “quagmire, flood in places”. Many regarded his placing as farcical, as connections cited his ‘daisy cutting’ action as their reasoning for dodging genuine good ground, even though he’d won a classic on good to yielding.

 

Unique filly Attraction is just one example of how horses can veto our informed impressions

 

The volatile nature of our sport finds us clutching at straws to predict the unpredictable, it is, ironically,  to be expected. As a follower of racing, I enjoy getting my teeth into whatever information I am provided with. Science, breeding, and training all help us to make guided decisions, but sometimes I think it would be better for racing if trainers and owners were more adventurous with their campaigning. More imaginative targets for horses can yield more money and take connections to new places. I think connections sometimes can fabricate barriers and excuses out of their imagination, and not out of hard, cold facts. In a way, this blog is a tribute to any people in racing who can afford to take a risk with their horses, and provide us with deeper, more exciting sport.

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