April 2019

 

 

All Aboard the All Star Express

 

 

It seems every major topic in the news at the moment polarises people and one has to be very careful about airing an opinion at dinner parties (or so I’m told: I haven’t been invited to a dinner party since 2012).  The golden rule of course is to never discuss politics or religion, but I would add the admonishment that one has to tread very carefully around the All Star Mile.

 

On the face of it, the All Star Mile was a great success.  There was huge public engagement in the voting process, some lesser known horses got a crack at massive prize-money and the eventual winner Mystic Journey and her likeable connections pulled off the incredible feat of being simultaneously a Cinderella story, a popular winner and a budding superstar of the turf.

 

So all good then, and at least some journalists were suggesting the format should not be changed – correct?

 

Well, let’s scratch (possibly the operative word) beneath the surface and reassess proceedings.  The race with its unique entry path always had a fatal flaw that the final field would be made up of a large number of horses who had no chance of winning under the race conditions, or at  least as much as I have of out-sprinting Usain Bolt.   Even moderately serious form analysts knew that the final field was made up of only a small number of chances and in fact the only way one of the lesser lights was going to beat these was if the good horses ran an absolute shocker or if there were serious traffic infringements in running.  That is to say, it was less “You gotta be in it to win it” and more a case of “ You gotta be in it and within 25 pounds of your true handicap mark to be any chance of even running a place”.

 

So the only surprise in the result on the day was that some of the lesser lights finished as close as they did, but at no stage did any of them look like altering the time-space-weightforage continuum enough to win.  And let me follow that needless Back to the Future reference with another one: imagine an alternative reality in which Mystic Journey had started to feel the rigours of recent travel and become lethargic, or even just bumped her leg on the way over, and she had to be scratched.  What result would we have had then?

 

Well, we would have had a very dubiously constructed field arrayed for the richest mile race ever run just so we could hand $2 million prize money to one of the richest owners in the world!  Now, I am not anti-Sheikh Mohammed: in fact he remains the only world leader ever to rush from a departing helicopter to run over and shake my hand (true story).  But an artificial race, dreamt up for the benefit of social media clicks, handing to Godolphin millions of dollars in prizemoney that could have been spread among all of Victorian racing’s hard working participants or used to bolster prizemoney at some of our weaker meetings?  I think a lot of the Victorian racing community would have found that hard to swallow.

 

And what about the horses who were indeed outclassed running against WFA stars at level weights?  Their connections got the $90,000 for turning up, sure, and good luck to them for that, but once the field was finalised and they realised they actually had no chance in the race I suspect the lustre of the whole occasion must have dimmed somewhat.  Strangely one of the “tweaks” that has been suggested for the race in future is for the prizemoney to only be paid to 10th place instead of 14th (and last), which would mean the bottom 6 horses not only go into the race knowing they have no chance of winning, but also knowing they are a better than even money chance of going home with nothing.

 

Of course the obvious change to make to the race conditions would be to lift the minimum rating for a horse to gain a start, which would reduce how far some horses can be “out” at the weights.  But if one of the aims of the All Star Mile ever really was to provide horses that are not WFA stars with the chance to earn big prize-money, should they instead lower the maximum rating and keep the Group 1 horses out.  Or would that mean horses were kept from Group races to keep their rating low enough to run in the All Star mile – what a crazy situation that would be.   But is it any crazier than the concept of the race itself? 

 

 

 

Dec 2016

 

Strapping a winner

It seems a geological age ago – and even more amazingly, before Facebook – that I strapped my first winner, Bets Boy.  The year was (actually a closely guarded secret as I was well underage), the track was a very heavy Kyneton and the rider was superstar apprentice Lenny Maund, who brought Bet’s Boy with a withering late run to down some well-fancied rivals.  The boss Tommy Spielvogel and his family could hardly have been happier, having bred the winner themselves and having known Lenny from when he was a little kid with the freakish balance to walk unconcernedly along the top of their sheepyards.

 

It really was a great day, and I have thought about it a lot in recent times as now Grace and also lately Darcy are old enough to strap and have come heartbreakingly close to strapping their first winner, especially with our easygoing veteran Sanctuary.  In fact on Grace’s first ever day strapping back in 2014 Sanctuary was leading a hurdle field of just 3 remaining runners when the RV vet controversially called the race off..  Our rider John Allen thought Sanctuary would have won, although the 2 riders behind, also both Irish, also thought their mounts had every chance and as a result the mounting yard post-race contained more “feck!”s than an entire series of Father Ted.  In the end it was declared a no-race but let me just state there is no truth to the rumour that the vet in question eventually returned to Hong Kong solely because Grace kept glaring at him at the races.

 

Sanctuary has of course had a recent and unexpected reincantation to his career, returning from a year off with injury to become our very valuable stable pony who throws in the odd race at the picnics where Grace and Darcy have both strapped him in races when he has looked the winner at the hundred yards to go only to be worried out of winning near home.

 

Pleasingly Sanctuary’s placed efforts have come amongst a run of 9 straight placings in November, which is a terrific run of form in anyone’s language.  Flying mare Arachne, still running out of her skin despite having been in work since February followed up a super 2nd in good company at Bendigo with a magnificent win at Wodonga.  But also exciting was the terrific form of Babbage, running close and consecutive placings when stepped out to ten furlongs and onto wet ground.  Babbage is learning all the time and should get a lot further yet, but with wet ground likely to be scarce in the next few months we have popped out onto some green grass for a break.

 

 

In the meantime, congratulations to our Grace on strapping her first winner  when tough-nut Know This fought on tenaciously from the front last Saturday under a bold Max Keenan ride to steal the prize in a full field at Yea. Of course, it would be ideal if the win came at Flemington instead of at the picnics but then again Know This has given his connections an awful lot of fun and has now earnt 8 times his purchase price from his six wins.

 

And you know, it seems like just yesterday that eyebrows were raised when I wore a Phantom Tie in the parade ring at York: a sartorial faux pas which would have seemed pretty tame next to the yellow Vikings in the crowd at Yea!

 

 

 

 

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“No racehorse trainer” so the old adage goes, “has ever committed suicide while they had an untried youngster in the stable.”  Unfortunately this is, like most old adages, almost certainly not correct but it does highlight the truism that genuinely untried youngsters are the real hope of all racing stables - any one of them could be the superstar that changes everything.

 

This is uppermost in our minds at the moment as our stable has changed a lot over the last 24 months from being made up almost entirely of tried horses and rejects to most of our charges now untried youngsters.  This was not an entirely voluntary move and in fact partly came about due to the tried horse market becoming very tough going (unless one is happy to buy horses with built-in career-curtailing injuries, in which case take your pick!)  We also had the recent disappointment of our chaser Traded, whose form last year was so promising, succumbing to age and failing to run up to anywhere near his best form this year.  Traded has now gone off to a new home as a much loved pleasure horse cum eventer and even the photos we were recently sent of him climbing a novelty obstacle in a fluffy pink bridle does not quite assuage the annoyance of seeing horses he ran close last year picking up prizes in some of the country’s top jumps races.  In his absence our very tough Hard Spun mare Arachne has played pretty much a lone hand for us on race-day and she has done a great job, frustratingly running 3 consecutive 2nd placings in some pretty hot company.

But Arachne aside, we have been forced to largely shut ourselves away from the races as we focus on patiently bringing the young horses along, somewhat like Willy Wonka barring the front gates to completely revamp the workings of the chocolate factory.  Willy Wonka of course would have really been onto something as a racehorse trainer, spoilt for choice of 2yo riders with all those oompa-loompas.

 

But I digress.  The important thing is we are delighted with the horses we picked up at recent years’ sales, as we have been able to source, for a fraction of their sales averages, progeny of Reward for Effort, Rothesay and Lope de Vega, respectively 4th, 5th and 6th on the 2014/15 second season sires table.  

 

But of course we also have to keep our optimism in check, as there is another old saying which definitely is true:

“Once those gates fly open on raceday, their Mum and Day can’t help them!”

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KING RICHARD AT LAST

 

I hate to be Captain Obvious, but recent events leave no other option than to join the rest of the jumps racing world in offering enthusiastic congratulations to Richard Johnson on finally being crowned UK champion jumps jockey.  Richard’s rise to the elite ranks of England’s jumps jockeys roughly coincided with our own first sojourn to the UK and we had the privilege of seeing much of his incredible rise to the top from close quarters.

 

Now after riding some 3,000 winners (only the second jumps jockey in history to achieve this total) and 16 times runner-up in the jockey’s championship, Richard has of course amassed an ultra-impressive collection of big race winners including ALL FOUR Cheltenham blue ribands en route to his first title.

 

Yeah, yeah great, but it would be a bit too obvious as to rave on about all those races.  Instead I’d like to highlight the following starring efforts:

 

Twas the year 2000 – remember when that seemed so important?-  and my memory of this may be a little hazy because I was in an extremely smokey betting shop watching a six runner steeplechase where Richard was riding the despised outsider, an ancient gelding who had been pulled up its previous three starts.  Amazingly, he was conjuring a terrific tune from his grudging partner and approaching the 3rd last they were in a share of the lead and surely a huge chance of running a place.  Suddenly all was not well and the partnership faltered for a few strides, then Richard reached down and whipped out the lead bag which had come loose from under the saddle and was about to fall away, which would have left his mount certain of disqualification.  He then proceeded to ride the last 3 flights with the lead bag over his left forearm while still pushing the horse out strongly enough to come 3rd. Naturally this meant no cigar for punters in a six horse field, and as a result no-one else in the betting shop gave a brass razoo about such a feat of horsemanship, but I was well impressed and I’m certain the horse’s connections would have been pretty darn grateful too.

 

A few years later when I was resident vet and assistant trainer at Mark Johnston Racing I could, if I really rushed, make it from Middleham to jumps meetings at Sedgefield in the gap between morning and evening stables for two or, if the timing were perfect, three races (jumps tragic? Who, me?).  On one of these sojourns in the mid-naughties I took our 4 year old daughter Grace along as punting partner on a day when, somewhat unusually, Richard Johnson had made the trek north to ride at Sedgefield.  With no time for in-depth study of the form Grace and I decided this alone was enough guidance and determined to simply follow Richard with our money.  In the race run just after we arrived we made a good start and a tidy profit as his mount ran 3rd at any old price. In each of the next two races Richard rode horses with dubious form credentials at close to double each-way odds, settled them in a perfect spot, enticed them to jump to a level scarily close to perfection and just got them to win.

 

For Grace and me it was that rarest of things: a day at the races when making money seemed easy.  In fact so cashed up were we that we even spent some of the winnings making ourselves sick on one of those spinny-spinny tea cup rides in the infield funfair and, after a stern request, I also bought her the world’s most expensive balloon to take home.  As we walked to the carpark I reflected that this was close to a perfect, even if shortened, day at the races.   

 

Just before we reached the car Grace’s balloon drifted on its string too near the path-side hedge and popped loudly.  As she burst into heart-rending shrieks I also realised in sudden panic that I was running late for evening stables. The 45 minute drive back to Middleham featured a barrage of constant wailing from the back seat punctuated only by the phone ringing every 5 minutes as head lads demanded I get my arse back there ASAP to give opinion on several ailing horses.  In fact just thinking about it is giving me a major migraine, so I am off for a Panadol and a lie down in the dark. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE BATTLE FOR HEARTS AND MINDS – SHOULDN’T WE AT LEAST SHOW UP?

I was pleased last week when one of our owners rang to tell me the Labor Racing Minister had just confirmed on the radio that Labor would not attempt to ban jumps racing but rather leave the matter to Racing Victoria.  While this was not a change on the party’s official stance, it was a relief nonetheless given that Daniel Andrews cosyed up to the anti racing coalition’s spokesman when taking callers on radio 774, and indicated that he would make a big announcement on jumps racing before the election.

 

But is it really cause to be celebrating while a majority of the general public, according to the ABC’s compass poll, would favour a ban on jumps racing, or while the Greens party, referring directly to misleading statements repeated endlessly by the anti’s, makes ending jumps racing a part of their policy?  Perhaps most disturbingly even some flat racing fans can be heard expressing their distaste for the jumps.

 

The sad fact is that the anti’s message on jumps racing, complete with its massive inaccuracies, has been delivered to the people of Victoria very effectively (including with the help of our taxes when the anti-view is presented completely unchallenged on the ABC news). 

What will it take for Racing Victoria to defend jumps racing?

I live in hope that a non-racing journalist will decide to do a story asking why exactly the inaccurate views of a single interest pressure group can be catapulted above the world’s many problems to be presented as actual news, but in the meantime, in the fervent wish that I am actually preaching to the converted, I wanted to mention some really basic jumps racing facts.

 

 

Since the last death of a jumps racing horse in this country, Australia has slaughtered approximately 2.5 million calves and cattle, over 8 million sheep and lambs, 1.2 million pigs and a staggering 150 million chickens (source Aust Bureau of Statistics).

The very best cared for of these animals could only dream of having the quality of life all jumping horses enjoy as a matter of course.

 

 

 

 

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Cup of hysteria runneth over

 

The Melbourne Cup was certainly great theatre with a superb finishing burst from the winner, German-trained Protectionist, under an absolutely flawless ride from Ryan Moore.  Red Cadeaux meanwhile raced into Melbourne Cup immortality with his third 2nd placing in the race, courageously running away from all but the winner in the final furlong after a tough passage.

Ryan Moore’s Cup ride, after his very different but equally successful ride on Adelaide in the Cox Plate, again sparked debate about whether he is the world’s best jockey.  Obviously the answer is no:  Ryan’s brother Jamie rides over jumps in the UK, therefore Jamie is better before we even discuss anyone outside the family.

Very sadly though, there was a sting in the tail with the news that two horses had died after the Cup, Admire Rakti collapsing back in the raceday stalls after dropping out of the race very early, while Araldo was injured in a freak accident after kicking the fence.  Modern society being what it is, Admire Rakti’s demise received more coverage than the Cup winner, and the ever vociferous Coalition to damage racing immediately called for a ban on whips, “just like they have in Norway”.

Now novel as it is to consider taking our animal handling cue from a pro-whaling country, it is worth remembering that Norway is to world racing what Minyip Rovers are to world soccer.  Besides which, anyone who even cursorily watched Admire Rakti in the run could see that he was out of contention very early and eased down – he was barely touched with the whip at all!

The “anti’s” also used their unexpected opportunity in the spotlight to call for an end to 2yo racing, which is also bizarre when Admire Rakti was a six year old.

Somehow, despite the fact that there has not been a jumping fatality for nearly 6 months, jumps racing was dragged into the fray, as the ABC, using tax-payers dollars to damage Victorian livelihoods, declared that their “Vote Compass” poll showed a majority of the electorate favoured a ban on jumps racing. 

Leaving aside whether the poll is remotely trustworthy, is it really relevant if people with no interest in or knowledge of jumps racing - apart from the solely negative and hysterical coverage it receives in the mainstream media - are against it?

A far more interesting question would be how jumps racing came to be on such a poll at all, given that it directly affects only a small proportion of the poll participants, in contrast to the other questions regarding taxation, healthcare and transport.  It would also be interesting to know what the response would have been to other questions they could have asked such as “should duck hunting be banned”, ”should your neighbour be able to breed rottweillers” or maybe even “polo and polocrosse killed many more horses than jumps racing last year - should these be banned?”

 

It is also entirely possible that a poll taken amidst the media hysteria of Tuesday evening would have found a majority of Victorians against horse racing on the flat!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Spring Conundrum

 

“Aha” said an acquaintance on running into me the other day “This is the time of year you get very excited!”

 

Certainly no true racing fan could fail to enjoy the generous coverage racing receives in Victoria each year from the period after Hawthorn wins the Grand Final to the end of the spring carnival, that time when even the mainstream media hop onto the band-wagon and treat horse racing as the matter of earth-shattering importance we know it to be.  The UK Racing Post’s Tom Kerr has certainly been blown away by this on his recent down-under travels, and in his entertaining blog even included a vine showing the racing stories in the Herald Sun from just one day, reflecting on the fact that racing can never receive such coverage back in Britain.

 

For our stable though the heart of racing obviously beats through our own horses and frustratingly we still seem a long way from the calibre of horse we would want to be representing us on the biggest stage.  In fact since Sanctuary went out for a well-deserved break (and my word, has he made some metric tonnage of spring grass disappear in just a few weeks) our only runner has been Roguish Lady, and a measure of the frustrations of campaigning her can be gleaned from her stable nick-name “The Galloping Pharmacy”.  We have a few horses coming through that are certainly raising our hopes, but on race trips over the past month we have had to rely for smiles on the ipod and “The Now Shoooow”.

 

Watching the big spring races is always fascinating though, and after the Caulfield Cup I couldn’t help reflecting back to 2010 when our industry introduced restrictions on whip use.

When this occurred (which oddly enough, both for us and the UK, was at the same time as ultra-soft padded whips were made compulsory), critics of the rules immediately seized upon the fact that while jockeys could be fined, race results were not going to be changed due to whip overuse.   Which immediately begged the question “What will we say when the result of our very biggest races is decided by a whip infringement?” 

The answer, it seems, is not much at all.  In order to keep Admiral Rakti close enough before coming with his withering finishing burst, Zac Purton had to pretty much throw the whip rules out the window (seriously, see the stewards report).  For his infractions he received $3000 worth of fines, out of a winning purse of $1.75 million, $87,500 of which went to the jockey.  All of which seems hard to reconcile against the nagging thought that had he ridden within the rules Admiral Rakti probably would not have won. 

I thought Zac’s ride was world class and the horse’s effort breath-taking but in all honesty, can this situation be right? 

When we have one good enough to run in a Caulfield Cup this will be one more thing to worry about!

 

Casting minds further back, when UK jockeys first started coming out to ride the European cup raiders much criticism, some of it quite angry and fevered, was thrown their way on account of their willingness to track three wide to ensure their horses were close enough to the pace.  Many local pundits considered that going three-wide before the home turn was crazy tactics and insisted that these horses would be much better served by having Australian riders.  The issue reached its zenith of ridiculousness when John Reid copped criticism for going three wide to keep close touch on Persian Punch, a mammoth horse, better suited by 2 and a half miles with zero turn of foot whose chances of running a place if ridden back in the field were about the same as my chances of singing the soprano part from madame butterfly. 

Obviously a rail-hugging ride, followed by miracle splits to hit the front without going around a rival, are always going to give a horse plenty of help on Australia’s relatively tight courses.  But by the same token, the fact that a rider could let a horse get way out of its ground in a slowly run race and be deemed blameless because they “would have had to go three wide otherwise” is surely a nonsense.

Come to this year and we have seen both the Cox Plate and the Caulfield Cup won by horses who were deliberately ridden three wide for the majority of the trip.

 

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After our thoroughly depressing trip to Casterton in early July, our good buddy Sanctuary managed to almost single-hoofedly swing the stable fortunes around by hitting a purple patch of form through July and August, including a strong win over the Warrnambool steeples under an inspired John Allen ride.  Sanctuary was aided that day by a very hefty weight pull on the odds-on favourite, top jumping mare Kirribillli Gold, who ran on bravely for 2nd under her large impost, but even with that in our favour to beat a mare of that class was a big thrill for all concerned.

Sanctuary followed up that effort by storming home into 3rd in strong company at Sandown before another solid effort when 3rd in another open steeple back at Warrnambool.  He may well have given that race a much better shake were it not for a nose-dipping error at the third last flight, but in the end the obstacles are there to be jumped and certainly no-one could deny that the winner that day, Simon Ryan’s Universal Sound, thoroughly deserved to get his nose in front after being heart-breakingly pipped into 2nd on a number of occasions.

Almost as pleasing as Sanctuary’s form was the home we found for his good mate Nantucket Bay.  The US-bred gelding had to go through a month of box rest to help him recover from his tendon injury, and then just as the prescribed box rest was over I received an email out of the blue from an experienced horseman promising a good home to a gelding to be a paddock companion for a pregnant mare.  It was terrific for all his owners to see the lad off to a new life and we certainly hope he enjoys making the switch from racehorse to midwife!

While Australia’s jumps racing has remained both entertaining and safe for months now, the upcoming state election has seen the issue brought back to the fore by those who view it primarily as a political football.  The South West coast Greens candidate wins the award this month for the most stupid statements referring to jumps racing, after a recent interview he gave to the Warrnambool standard.

“It is deplorable that we have to continue to call for an end to an activity that is banned in other states due to its inherent cruelty,” he said.

Clearly jumps racing is not inherently cruel but it IS inherently a cool, wet weather sport, and as such WA, NT, NSW and Qld never had a proper jumps racing industry; only very small industries that were ended due to lack of numbers over 70 years ago.  Tasmanian jumps racing came to an end not due to welfare concerns but due to the fact that it was impossible with their small number of races to administer or maintain appropriate SOP’s for health and safety of all participants, or indeed to maintain a home population of horses, jockeys and trainers.  (In fact, Tasmania has even in relatively recent times struggled with administration of its flat racing for similar reasons).

The Greens candidate provided other ignorant statements, including a repetition of the completely inaccurate and misleading fatality statistics yelled through megaphones whenever anti-racing people gather.

 

Here, just for interest sake, are some accurate statistics:

Since the last death of a jumps racing horse in this country, Australia has slaughtered approximately 2.5 million calves and cattle, over 8 million sheep and lambs, 1.2 million pigs and a staggering 150 million chickens (source Aust Bureau of Statistics).

The very best cared for of these animals could only dream of having the quality of life all jumping horses enjoy as a matter of course.

Sadly though, many meat production animals among these staggering numbers actually endure horrible and very short lives before slaughter, a fact predicated upon them not by cruelty among anyone involved in the meat production industry but rather by the push for lowest prices from the general public and their favourite retail providers. 

What a damn shame for animal welfare in this country that the mainstream media would rather give maximum publicity to hysteria around jumps racing, rather than help Australian consumers make informed choices about the meat they buy.