Bendik Bø - the Swedish trainer and inventor
When he rode his first race, the horse was a year older than him. They did not win. ”I never was a very talented jockey”, he says. He has many other talents though. The Norwegian Bendik Bø (39) is a successful racehorse trainer and inventor, based in Sweden.
He was never afraid to try his hand at new tasks. He was shoeing his first pony when he was only 14 years old. ”I had been watching the farrier at work and helping a bit”, he remembers, ”one day he did not turn up – so I did it myself, secretly of course, but it was fine.” Some thirteen years later he was a full time farrier himself. ”I had around 200 horses on my list”, he recalls, ”just shuttling between the stables on a three wheel moped. My business was going well, one year my turnover was 1.7 million kronor. It was hard work, but the fine whisky was too easy to come by. Drink nearly ruined my life”.
”So, five years ago I sought professional help, got rid of the drink, began developing my main invention, and went into training”. He now handles one of the biggest strings in Scandinavian racing, training nearly 80 horses at Täby Galopp. At the beginning of last year, he had eight.
Bendik Bø’s main invention – it is not the only one – is a vibrating floor for horseboxes, to give the horse massage from the ground. He first got the idea when working for a trainer in Italy in 1992. They had the very useful sprinter Prairie on the team. ”Though he had tendon problems”, Bø recalls, ”and the vets told us his career was over. I felt we could give him a chance, and even had a bet with one of the vets that we would get him back on the track and win a certain amount of prize money with him. We did get him back on the track, and he won five races for us in Sweden the following season. We then took him to Italy, but his problems came back. After some improvement, we could train him though, and entered him in a Listed race in Milan. I was driving the horsebox, doing a trip of 350 kilometres. It was an old horsebox, very stiff, and not a very smooth drive at all. We could feel a lot of vibration on our way to Milan. On arrival, I noticed that the horse was moving, and clearly feeling, so much better than I had ever seen him. He won the race, running 1200 metres in 1:07.and beating a good ex-English horse called Reference Light, who was second in a Group Two the same year.”
”When driving back from winning that Listed event, I remember thinking how convinced I was that the ”vibrating” box ride had something to do with Prairie’s performance that day. And I said to myself, ’I must find a way to get this box into the stable...” he says. Prairie, who had been a champion in Sweden, also ran fourth to Special Power in the Premio Certosa (Gp 3) at San Siro. Bø won the bet with the vet.
The idea of a vibrating floor was to be experimented with, and pondered on, for nine years before Bø and members of his family back home in Norway started working seriously on the project five years ago. ”During those years, my life took some twist and turns”, he explains openly, ”I was heading in the wrong direction. I always wanted to return to a life working closely with horses. Alcohol is a very, very dangerous friend, however, and could easily have ended all my ambitions. Admitting himself to a clinic in Norway for seven weeks, he came out a tea-total, and very determined young man. ”Some may have said I was not going to get away from the drink”, he says, ”but I did, and I decided to put my life to better use. The same year we decided to give the vibrating floor a real crack too. My house was tidy and it was time get the drawing board out.”
From starting out as an amateur rider, to be just a run of the mill jockey, then an inventor and very good trainer, Bø strikes us as a man whose strong will has pushed him through storms where many would have turned back and gone back to more conventional life than working with racehorses in Scandinavia. After all, making a decent living from thoroughbreds in Norway, is not much easier than making a living from skiing in England. That was also why he turned his back on the sport when he was 16 years old. He was young but had been involved for years and already saw how tough it would be, financially, to make it.
A career in the saddle was always going to be a ride against all odds. Bø is 1.78m tall, and his lowest riding weight was 57 kilograms. ”You just can’t live like that for very long”, he says, ”and after riding about 20 races, and no winners, I left the sport and took an agricultural education instead. When that was completed I was riding out from time to time, and did some farrier work to make extra money – but eventually I left racing to work on a cow farm in Norway. It lasted just a couple of years. I was soon drawn back to the horses, and to racing”.
His ticket back into horseracing came when he was offered an apprenticeship with trainer Trond Hansen, one of the leading trainers in Norway - now based in Germany. ”It was a good time to join his yard”, he says, ”as we had some classy horses, like Salient, who had been bought out of Dick Hern’s team for 110,000 guineas – then a record price - at the 1985 Tattersalls Horses in Training Sales in Newmarket. He was previously owned by the Queen, by the way, and was a top horse in Scandinavia. We also had a 2000 Guineas winner and a champion sprinter the same year.” The inspiration was back, although it meant riding out in 20 degrees below at wintertime, hardly eating at all, and sometimes travelling about ten hours by horsebox to race meetings in Sweden and Denmark. ”My interest was back, though my race riding was still not going all that well...”
A winner, at long last
Some two years later, a Swedish jockey, of the opposite sex, persuaded Bø to come with her to work at Täby Galopp outside the Swedish capital Stockholm, where racing is considerably bigger than in Norway. ”At long last”, he recalls, ”soon after moving, I rode my first winner. I was 20 years old, my stubborness got be to the winners’ circle – but it had taken some time!”
A few more winners followed, and Bø also began riding over jumps. Working for Olle Stenstrøm, who trained quite a few good hurdlers and chasers, the young Norwegian was now partnering winners on a more regular basis. He moved on to work for Claes Bjørling, who took horses from Sweden to Italy. Bjørling also bought horses out of sellers in England and campaigned them successfully in Italy. Bø rode at many of the Italian courses. He enjoyed success at Capannelle, Pisa and Treviso, and also rode at Cagnes-sur-Mer in France.
”One of our best jumpers was a horse called Obeliski”, Bø tells us, ”Mr Bjørling got him out of a claiming chase at Southwell, when his official hurdle rating in England was just 128. I rode him to be fifth in the Italian Champion Hurdle. I remember being very proud of having beaten the high class English hurdler Staunch Friend and Steve Smith Eccles in the race. Not bad you know, on a cheap claimer. My boss also claimed a horse called Bighayir, who had won ten races for Martin Pipe, but he did not jump well enough when we took him to Cagnes-sur-Mer.”
The French course does, like Bendik’s boyhood city, sit by the seaside. Though that is the only thing Cagnes-sur-Mer and the city Larvik in Norway has in common.
Bø grew up in Larvik. He is by no means the only man with a thinking cap fostered in the small seaside city. Larvik’s most famous son is Thor Heyerdahl, the anthropologist who sailed the raft ”Kon-Tiki”, made of Balsa wood, from Peru across the Pacific Ocean to Tamoto Islands, to prove that ancient Peruvians could have reached Polynesia in this manner. In 1947, Heyerdahl and his five companions made the 8000-kilometre crossing in the primitive vessel, taking 101 days.
Growing up in Norway, let alone Larvik, without knowledge of Heyerdahl’s name and work is virtually impossible – but Bendik was not interested in anthropology. He liked horses better. He turned up at Hovland Ridestall, the local riding school, when he was ”seven or eight years old”. He had no money in his pocket for riding lessons of course, so instead he struck up a deal with the owner of the place. Bendik mucked out boxes without being paid, and was given sporadic riding lessons in return. After a few years of this, he and his schoolmates were given responsibilities in the stable, owned by Knut Rimstad, who combined running a riding school with racing a small string of his own horses at Øvrevoll racecourse outside Oslo. The boys also travelled with the horses to the races. ”Some of Rimstad’s racehorses were even used for lessons at the riding school”, Bendik recalls.
The ambition was clear enough; to become a jockey. And the teenage boy was never short on imagination. When a replacement rider was needed for a horse in an amateur race that very evening, at short notice, he got his friend Roy Arne Kvisla out of the classroom at school. Kvisla, who is now a trainer in Lambourn, had never ridden in a race but he was old enough to do so. Bendik was not, so he knocked on his mate’s classroom door. It was a daring move, as behind that door they were having an important test in chemistry. Bendik told the teacher that Roy’s mother was ill, and that he had better come along with him. The teacher agreed. The boys headed off to the stables, from there to the races at Øvrevoll, where Kvisla rode the horse – and won the race. Fortunately, the teacher never bothered with the racing results when browsing the morning papers!
Bø himself rode his first race at 15, the minimum age for race riding, partnering a veteran called Federation. The horse was a year older than the rider. ”We finished fifth”, Bø tells us, ”I kept on riding, and over the years I have partnered over 80 winners on the flat and over jumps. But to be honest, I never was very good as a jockey”.
He rode his last race in 1994, when experiencing a bad fall on a hurdler that broke both front legs during a race – on the flat. ”I just heard a solid bang when we went down”, Bendik recalls, ”I took a heavy, heavy fall and that was it. No more race riding for me. I decided to quit while still in one piece.” His riding career, which had began on a 16-year-old plodder at Øvrevoll when he was 15, thus ended with an incredible and nasty fall on a jumper at Täby Galopp when he was 27.
To this day, Øvrevoll is the only thoroughbred venue in Norway. Harness racing is dominant, and the country has no more than 380 active thoroughbreds. This season, Bendik Bø has taken over the stable of retiring Michael Kahn, many times champion trainer in Sweden. This move puts him in charge of close to 80 horses, more than a fifth of the racehorse population in his native Norway. And he is still mucking out boxes – ”we’ve got to work”, he smiles.
There is an active exchange of horses, trainers, jockeys and staff in general, between the Scandinavian racing communities. In particular between Norway and Sweden, and Bø has been back and forth between the Oslo region and the Stockholm region a few times. In 1986, when he travelled east to pursue his career in the saddle, it led to a life as a farrier, making good money, but also to a lifestyle that led to too much partying and drinking. The tall, slim and happy Norwegian was never violent when drunk, just having a good time and often playing his violin to entertain the party. 15 years later he was heading back home, to get rid of ”a dangerous friend” as he calls it, to cure his alcoholism. ”I woke up one morning feeling really fed up with my life”, he reflects, ”it was time to take a turn”.
After travelling back to Norway to sort out his problems with drinking, which his motivation helped him do in less than two months, Bendik took out a license to train horses there. He was based back in his hometown Larvik, training a small string. ”I wanted to work on the vibrating floor and do more research with active horses”, he says, ”and with other family members I set up the company Vitafloor. My idea was to get horses with problems, treat them, use the floor to give them effective massage, and train them for racing. In order to get enough such horses, and get enough experience with racing horses that had been using the floor, I had to turn to trotting. With only five to six thoroughbreds, I had over 20 trotters in my stable. I had trotters racing at all the big tracks in Norway. It all went relatively well and we even shipped a horse to win a valuable race in Sweden. I am convinced that my years working with trotters is very valuable today.”
Bø trained thoroughbreds side by side with warm blooded trotters, and trotters of Nordic race, often described as ”cold blood horses”. He says that getting as much experience as possible, with a variety of individuals, is how to become a good horseman. As long as you pay attention of course. After five years in Norway, he moved back to Sweden for the 2006 season, to train at Täby Galopp. His initial team there was even smaller. ”I took over from Roy Arne Kvisla as he left for England”, he explains, and I had eight horses to train.” At the turn of the year he had 42. He saddled 26 winners from 118 runners, for a healthy 22% strike rate.
It helped him tremendously of course, that he revitalised the 10-year-old sprinter Waquaas to such an extent that the gelding won three races on the bounce early in the season, including a pair of Listed contests; the Taby Vårsprint and the Norsk Jockeyclub Sprint. Bø was off to a good start on his return to Sweden.
Today, he is in charge of the biggest string in the land. There is no spare time, ”We employ ten full time, plus use some freelance work riders”, he explains, ”but I work seven days a week myself, as does my partner Mette Kjelsli. What spare time I get is often dedicated to my inventions. But you know, I can also think through those ideas when on an eight-hour drive to the Danish or Norwegian Derby meeting!”
”We race year round here”, he explains, ”on turf and dirt, and I divide my horses in two groups, the best horses are active through the spring, summer and early autumn, while the lesser lights will be racing mainly at wintertime. Taby Galopp owns a farm close to the track, where I rent some boxes. This is where we send the horses for breaks, though some also go back to their owners’ farms for rests”, he says. His string consists approximately of 60 per cent imports, mainly bought in England, and 40 per cent Scandinavian breds.
Simple solution the beginning
Returning to the inventions, Bø tells the fascinating story about how he took the first small steps towards what today is the highly sophisticated Vitafloor.
”I took a big board, attached an engine under the board, placed the whole thing of four blocks of wood shavings, and switched the engine on”, he tells us, ”I tried walking on it, lying on it and feeling the massaging effect. This was just my first prototype of course, but other jockeys used this vibrating board too, just to get a relaxing massage after riding. It was obvious that it would not be quite that simple but at least I had discovered that my theory was working, to a certain extent. So, I kept on thinking about solutions for many years.” Today, Bø has sold the Vitafloor to various trainers, both of thoroughbreds and harness horses, and veterinarian clinics in Scandinavia, and recently his company exported the first floor to Dubai.
Bø has also invented elastic reins. ”When the horse breaks into a gallop”, he explains, ”he will always stretch his neck out, and pull for a bit more rein. No rider has a hand quick enough to accomodate the horse during these few strides, to give the horse a smooth communication through the reins. I had noticed how, at the start of many a race, horses and riders were not in full harmony and perfect rhythm – they were not working as a team, and the horse was often tugging sharply against the bit when trying to find his balance. Therefore I made elastic reins. It is very simple, the rein runs in an s-shape, with elastic bands attached straight across. This means that the horse gets a bit more leeway and freedom when gaining his balance as he picks up speed – but when he pulls harder, the reins go to full stretch and take over. The elastic band is only a matter of a four to five centimetres but that is enough to make quite a difference.”
He has sold ”a couple of hundred” of these reins, ”I produce them myself”, Bø says. And when he got his first cat, he soon became fed up cleaning the cat case, so he invented a cat case that could be cleaned in 15 seconds. ”I have patented that too”, he explains, ”but it has never been commercially marketed. I am working on more important prototypes for the equestrian industry right now, the cat case was just for fun, really”.
At a track like Täby Galopp everyone knows everyone. ”There are about 20 trainers based here”, Bø tells us, ”and the number of horses stabled at the track is always around 400. The country has about 1400 racehorses. Swedish racing has been struggling, that is no big secret, but there is a positive will to move forward here, and people work well together”, he says.
On the racetrack committee
The racecourse management has formed a track committee, with meetings every two weeks. Bø is a member of this committee and he explains;
”I represent the trainers, there is also a jockey on the committee, as well as the general manager, the head groundsman and a veterinarian present. We meet for lunch twice a month, exchange ideas and discuss how best to improve the racecourse – both for training and racing. I enjoy this, we are all learning and it is important to take part”.
Racing takes place on an American style track at Täby, with a turf and dirt course, where they manage to keep racing going in the winter, by adding salt to the dirt track and by harrowing the track 24 hours a day through the winter months. The dirt track is 1742 metres, while the turf course is 1595 metres round. There is also an inner, figure of eight, steeplechase course.
”This may not be Newmarket or Chantilly”, Bendik says, ”but the training facilities are good, and remarkably consistent. I rarely feel the need to go to inspect the track in the morning before working my horses. And you know, small as this team is, we have a hard working and dedicated group of people here. But it’s also costly to keep racing going 12 months a year. I know one of the guys working night shifts on the harrowing, and he just told me that he burns around 500 litres of diesel every night. That’s a lot of money you know!” Racing goes ahead in freezing temperatures, as low as 10 to 15 degrees Celcius below zero, when riding weights are put up by a couple of kilograms to allow more clothing for the riders.
When asked about racing horses on dirt and turf, Bø is quick to point out that ”you get surprises all the time, but there are dirt type runners and there are turf type runners. I do not think any horse can be equally effective on both surfaces. I prefer turf, but when I have a horse winning a nice race on dirt, I love the sand”, he smiles, ”and without it – where would we be?”
He took two runners to Lingfield Park in England last November, when his domestic Listed winner Maybach finished tenth in the Churchill Stakes. ”It was an experiment”, he reflects, ”but Maybach ran better than his finishing position may suggest, beaten just 6 lengths behind Nayyir, when carrying just two pounds less. After all, Nayyir used to be a Group One horse. My other horse, the Argentinean bred King Nov, was unplaced in a competitive sprint handicap. We felt that he was given a tough weight bgut he was not disgraced, and I went home believing that we can take horses to England and win. I was very impressed by the Polytrack, it is far less demanding than our conventional dirt track. We will be back but, mind you, taking these two horses from Stockholm to Lingfield did cost 70.000 kronor all told (approximately £5000)”.
When Maybach won the Listed Nicke Memorial at Täby two months earlier, the reward was nearly £11,000, which is half of what Nayyir earned in the Churchill Stakes but more than the runner-up’s share in the Lingfield contest. And for the Nicke Memorial, Maybach was simply walked for about three minutes from his trainer’s stable to the paddock.
”The best races in Scandinavia have good purses”, Bendik explains, ”so it makes little sense for us to ship our best horses abroad during periods when we have opportunities for them at home.”
As an example, the Stockholm Cup International and Täby Open Sprint – both Group Three status – were both worth €88,398 to the winner last year. On the same Sunday, Longchamp staged their ”Arc” trails, including the Group Two events Prix Niel and Prix Foy, both worth only €68,400 to the winner.
Still, Bendik Bø hopes to be able to campaign more horses internationally, from his base at Täby Galopp. ”We have the knowledge, we have the horses, and we have the ambition, also among the owners, to do just that”, he says, ”and I certainly have the will”. We knew that.