Weighing Racehorses - how regular monitoring can provide vital information
As racing has slowly embraced the technological era, so horsemen's lore has been reinforced or refuted by scientific advance. One area of increased awareness is the importance of monitoring the weight of the racehorse. From stud to stable, weighing machines have augmented, and even supplanted, the empirical judgment of the eye. Applications range from gauging the development of the weanling to assimilating the optimal fighting-weight of the performance horse to monitoring the effects of transportation.
Eliciting the comments of a diverse cast of trainers from the Flat and National Hunt communities on the use of weighing machines precipitates several common themes. There are two main areas where the use of weighing machines have proved illuminating: in establishing the weight that a thoroughbred is at its most athletically efficient, and in monitoring the systemic stress of competition and its attendant recovery rate. On the first topic, it is clear that a good deal of experience is required in interpreting the data which weighing the thoroughbred over a significant period yields. It is accepted that the thoroughbred develops physically until the age of five, yet there is no corresponding linear relationship with its mean weight. Fatty tissue is gradually replaced by muscle, so the racehorse gets bigger but leaner. This results in its weight varying considerably with factors such as pedigree, training, feeding and environment. Judging optimal performance weight is, therefore, far from being an exact science. "A lot of my horses weigh the most at the age of two.
Russian Valour, for instance, is the heaviest successful horse of any age I have trained," Mark Johnston said before the smart juvenile won last year's Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot. Dermot Weld, another qualified vet, is said to believe that the weight of his top Flat horses varies little between two and three years old, again perhaps due to the alliance between training technique and the variance in tissue type. The brilliant Irish trainer is therefore in a strong position to formulate a relationship between weight and performance. Eric Alston has been weighing racehorses for 15 years and is a strong advocate of the practice as a training aid. "The key is appreciating that horses are individuals and building up a pattern of how their weight varies with age and time," he says. "The eye is still very important, but weighing gives you that extra bit of confidence in your judgment of when a horse is right." Some equine giants range up to 570kg, but the majority fit within the range 470-515kg. When you consider that some can lose more than 25kg (roughly 5% of their bodyweight) through a single race, it is clear that monitoring recovery rate is vital to continued wellbeing and performance level. A thoroughbred at peak fitness should put back the lost weight within three to four days if all remains well with them, though individual rates vary and some even make a full recovery within 24 hours.
Leading National Hunt trainer Henry Daly believes that weighing horses has an important role to play in the analysis of post-race recovery. "I find that horses lose between 7.5kg and 25kg post-race," he says. "Travelling is a major factor. In my experience, the distance a horse races from its home base is roughly proportional to its weight loss, all other factors being equal." "This is especially true of the young horse, first time out. A novice can appear to win without having a stressful time, for instance, but when you get it back home it has experienced a significant weight-loss and your training must be adjusted accordingly."
William Bedell, whose company The Horse Weigh is a market leader in manufacturing weighing equipment, reports that the demand for weighing machines has mushroomed across the thoroughbred industry. "Our weighing units are constantly under development and the feedback from training yards - which constitute 40-50% of our business - is vital in development," he says. "The new-age trainer is soon on the phone if he believes he is missing an important aid to maintaining or improving his position." One of Bedell's most valued clients is the Shadwell Stud in Norfolk, whose manager Johnny Peter-Hoblyn is effusive about the importance of the equipment to one of the world's leading thoroughbred nurseries. "Weighing is an essential part of Shadwell's monitoring techniques, " he says. "Aberrant weights enable us to pick up potential problems before they are apparent to the naked eye, and before they become more serious. Weight loss can be the sign of the onset of viral problems, but just as important to us is controlling weight gain. "If a foal picks up more than 1.5kg a day, the extra burden on its young joints can lead to developmental problems. Having quality tools at our disposal, such as the weighing machines we have here, is crucial to the stud's success."
Weighing machines are also in use by racehorse transporters whose customers are sensitive to monitoring the physical stress of getting their horses to the racecourse. James Paltridge of International Racehorse Transport (IRT) has vast experience of travelling horses round the world, notably to events such as the Breeders' Cup and Melbourne Cup. "Obtaining reliable readouts can be difficult, as weighing machines seem to be calibrated differently. For this reason we have our own at either end of the journey when we fly horses to Australia," he says. "A horse can lose up to 30kg on a long-haul flight, mainly as a result of dehydration. Getting a horse to drink in a rarefied atmosphere is difficult, particularly if it is travelling from a winter climate to warm weather." "IRT uses weighing machines in order to provide the customer with information about weight loss. This is also of great benefit to the company liability-wise." Now comes the thorny issue. If knowledge of a horse's weight is so useful within the various enclaves of the thoroughbred industry, should it not be placed in the public domain on race days?
After all, the image of the sport is dependent to a significant extent on transparency, particularly in the aftermath of the blow to its integrity delivered by the Panorama and Kenyon Confronts programmes two years ago. Rupert Arnold, chief executive of the National Trainers' Federation, sums up the position of his members towards trackside weighing. "We discussed the topic at most of our regional meetings last autumn," he says. "So long as weighing was carried out at a convenient position and with minimum disruption - and we believe that it can - that is not a significant concern. "The main issue in the trainer's mind is the misinterpretation of the information in sensitive cases. Weights can vary significantly through natural variation, and isolating it as a central factor in the performance of a horse is far from straightforward. "Integrity is an important issue to trainers, but it is not very clear that weighing racehorses would improve matters. We are all for expanding information sources, but even the more sophisticated punter is more likely to be misled than enlightened by racehorse weights."
British horseracing already has a model available if it is considering publishing weights. With integrity issues always to the forefront of its considerations, the Hong Kong Jockey Club introduced the practice three years ago. According to one professional punter, however, the information has been subject to various degrees of interest. It is far from evident that winner finding nor performance interpretation has been made easier as a result. Newmarket trainer Luca Cumani experienced mandatory weighing when sending Falbrav over to win the Hong Kong Cup last December "I had no problem whatsoever with having Falbrav weighed before the race. Anything which is helpful, useful or interesting to the racing public is a service which should be offered. There is little disruption to the horse." Cumani has no qualms about the practicalities of weighing but does doubt its efficacy in providing novel information. "I used to weigh horses in training but gave it up because it was adding nothing to my judgment. After a couple of years of recording and analysing the data, I came to the conclusion that I could judge a horse's weight within 5kg on the vast majority of occasions. "Of course, this is a personal opinion, but every experienced trainer should be able to do the same, if he lives with his horses every day."
It is far more important for those clamouring for technological improvements to focus their attentions on sectional times rather than weights, for British horseracing is screaming out for better time information in order to market itself better to the rest of the world. Racehorse weights are of considerable use to the professional horseman who has all the facts at his disposal with which to interpret the information correctly, but it is doubtful they would be anymore than interesting to the public. As far as integrity issues are concerned, it is possible that a mature horse reappearing after an absence could be checked to ensure it is not carrying more than a reasonable amount of excess weight. However, establishing what constitutes a reasonable variation, and dealing fairly with cases which are judged to be outside normal parameters, makes for extremely difficult policing.