What do you need to prepare a racehorse, and what is the passion?
By Haya bint Al Hussein
On the 25th of March, we will celebrate the running of the Dubai World Cup, a horse race that hosts some of the best horses in the world running in a country with a great heritage tradition in this sport. Many people love to attend and follow this race, but many also want to know more, simple things that would make their day at the races more exciting and informed.
Often there are questions that may seem too basic to ask, and the books and accounts on horse racing are too specific and purist based to explain to a newcomer what this incredible sport is all about. In a countdown of articles that will run the week up to the Dubai World Cup I hope that my words will help share the sport with a greater audience.
The seasoned racehorse knows exactly what race-day entails.
Their excitement is obvious. They seem to instinctively know the essence of racing and most Thoroughbreds love to have their nose in front.
The sleek, glistening horses that we see cantering to the start before each race may have spent months in preparation, especially so for the bigger races.
The best trainers seem to have an instinct for what each horse needs to perform at its peak on race day. It is both a science and an art.
Each trainer will put in place a training programme for each horse. The key is to build fitness carefully.
Horses may be large and powerful, but nurturing their supreme athleticism requires trainers to walk a proverbial tightrope.
Overtraining is an ever-present risk and trainers must use their experience to set a consistent regime that brings improvement.
The consequences of overtraining are the same for horses as human athletes. Injuries and strains can result, and performances will likely plateau as the horse does not recover well enough between exercise sessions.
A horse that peaks too early will be unlikely to maintain its form until raceday.
Specially formulated diets will reflect their workload and the need to reach peak fitness for their targeted race. Some feed manufacturers market competition feeds, mixed to meet the considerable energy demands of racehorses.
Trainers may use such feeds, but almost certainly they will have their own nutritional supplements to add.
Preparations will not always run to plan. Racehorses, like human athletes, will have off days, as well as little niggles and injuries that require attention.
That attention could range from extensive veterinary care to a half-hour massage to relax tight muscles. Some of the care given to horses will be entirely proactive, designed to keep the horse supple and performing well.
The best trainers have careful systems in place to ensure horses do not receive substances banned under the rules of racing. Horses can have blood and urine samples taken by authorities for testing at any time.
The bigger operators come to rely on quality staff – horsemen and women with the knowledge to spot matters that may be of concern and report them. But whether a small or a big operator, a racehorse normally employs between 3-5 people to attend to it. Making racehorses the largest animal employer of people in history and to date.
Major events such as the Dubai World Cup Carnival will require horses to relocate. This is no easy task. Horses like routine in their lives and travelling to strange new surroundings can cause stress.
Trainers and their staff will often go to extraordinary lengths to ensure their horses remain happy, healthy and fit when travelling internationally. Familiar faces will travel with the animal, sometimes weeks or months before the race and often with a supply of the horse’s familiar feed. Routines will be kept as normal as possible.
As race day nears, the workload will tend to taper off to ensure the horse is well rested for its big day at the track.
Horse pursuits and racing have their own terminology, which could easily confuse those not tied with the industry.
The sport has its own specialist equipment, too. Racing saddles, for example, are much smaller and lighter than conventional saddles. The shoes are typically made of lightweight metals to reduce weight. Indeed, much of the gear is designed or chosen with weight in mind.
Trainers tend to organize the racing schedule of horses as a campaign.
They will quickly come to terms with the distances over which each horse is strongest. Some horses are sprinters, best aimed at distances of up to 1400m, while others are stayers, better suited to races over 1600m.
Racing has a raft of officials with various roles, but perhaps the most controversial is the “handicapper”. This person decides what weight a horse should carry – including the jockey, saddle, and even lead weights – in a race.
In some races, all horses carry the same weight, usually around 53kg, which is in effect balancing the contest, as not all jockeys – lightweight as they are – will weigh the same. Allowances will be made for younger horses and mares in some cases.
However, in handicap races, the leading chances may carry much greater weights. A range between 49kg and 60kg is not uncommon in some races around the world.
Needless to say, owners and trainers may not always agree with how much weight a horse is required to carry in a race.
Campaigns for horses will often aim toward one big race, with lesser races treated as part of the build-up.
As the race nears, trainers will turn their attention to strategy.
Some horses like to run from the front; others prefer to tuck in behind. Some have a great sprint finish while others might be better staying at the front of the field while trying to burn off their opponents.
Trainers will discuss race strategy with the jockey. However, with a dozen or more horses thundering around a racetrack at close to 60kmh, such plans aren’t always successfully executed. A rider instructed to head to the front and stay there may find himself hemmed in – surrounded by horses and unable to find a gap to move forward. Conversely, a horse that prefers to stay back in the field may be unwittingly edged to the front, especially so in slow races.
While the talent of the horse and the skill of the training team account for a lot, there is still an element of luck. And that is the nature of horse racing.
When the horses and jockeys make their way on to the track, the owner and trainer are reduced to the role of spectator. Will it be their day? That is part of the magic of racing. A horse with an impeccable breeding history and a multimillion-dollar price tag could well be up against a horse with a much humbler background but with raw talent and a penchant for speed.
When the starting gates open, the world seems to stand still for those with a passion for racing. The speed, the explosive power, the excitement of the contest, consumes everything for a wonderful few minutes.
Afterwards, the thrill of the race gives way to a range of emotions as the sweat-covered horses make their way from the track. There is the jubilation of the winning owner, bristling with a sense of accomplishment. Joy can also be seen on the faces of those whose horses have run their way into the minor placings. For others, there is a touch of regret at a race plan that didn’t succeed, or a performance that fell short of expectations.
But nothing can take away from the excitement of an owner watching his horse galloping in pursuit of a win. It matters little to an owner whether they are watching a world-class field at one of racing’s iconic venues, or a modest encounter on a quiet country racetrack where a small prize pool is at stake. The thrill is exactly the same.