Pre-race deterrents - how its surroundings can affect a horse's race

It is an ordinary raceday at Newmarket’s Rowley Mile Racecourse. I am taking my notes by the pre-parade ring. This pre-parade ring is much better than the one over at the July Course, I say to myself. It is a relaxing place for the horses, not least for the young horses. Quite spacious, it is an inviting place. At the July Course, on the other hand, the pre-parade ring is charmingly embraced by tall trees. That, however, makes it a tight and enclosed place, not one for the claustrophobics among us, be it on two or four legs. Trees on all sides and a fence on the one side also mean that the horses cannot see what is making that odd sound, when a trolley is being pushed along on metal wheels on the tarmac just a couple of yards away. Or glass is being smashed into a bottle bank behind the fence.

No, the Rowley Mile is a much nicer place to stretch one’s legs before a race. It must be. Then, as a ten-year-old gelding walks calmly past me, something odd happens. And it makes me think. The old gelding virtually explodes. From having walked around so quietly, getting ready for his 39th race, he swirls round, then kicks out three or four times, hitting the plastic rail again and again. The rail goes to bits, the handler manages to control the horse with one hand, while the animal is still shaking and looking worried. Why with only one hand? Because the other hand is holding a mobile phone.

A couple of weeks later I see another horse who spooks violently from having been seemingly relaxed, as it is being led past a spectator whose mobile phone rings. Do racehorses react to mobile phones? Most people would probably say no, and perhaps these incidents were pure coincidences. However, they do lead us to an interesting thought: what are the most common deterrents in the preliminaries to a race? How can racecourses improve in this department, and how can a trainer best prepare to avoid, or at least minimise, the effects of various deterrents? Another question is, of course, is it in the best interest of safety to let handlers use mobile phones when leading up horses for races? Perhaps there are enough risk factors around them already.

Some trainers are noticeably good at delaying their horses, in particular their juveniles, on the way to the paddock, ensuring that the runner experiences as little stress as possible before the race. What is it that they are trying to avoid? Surely, letting the horse have a little walk, and loosen up, before he canters down to the start is a good move. Still, time and time again one sees horses that are deliberately late entering the paddock, making just one of two laps in front of the public, then leaves the paddock to go down to post. Many trainers also take a dislike to the parades prior to big races, as the walk in front of the stands can upset the horse, and make it nervous. This can be described as another ‘deterrent’ but some have voiced the opinion that a parade is a part of the test for a racehorse. Just like breaking smartly from the stall, travelling with ease through the race, and being able to quicken when it’s needed. What is the main difference here? The main difference is of course that racehorses are being trained to do all these things, they are given plenty of practice at home. But for one thing, they never practice a parade. Not even in the prep races leading up a big race, where a parade is required, offer the chance of practicing a parade.

Horses are animals of habit. Thoroughbred racehorses are much happier, more relaxed, when they know what is going on and what is expected of them, than when they are faced with a new scenario. A racehorse with some experience knows that, when he is led out of the paddock onto the track, he is expected to canter down to the start. Is it then so peculiar that he gets worked up on the day when the handler does not let him go, the jockey takes a hold of the reins and both humans try to make him keep walking. Could this have the same effect as it has on a dog to take a strong, firm grip on the lead when a stranger approaches? To most dogs, this is a bad signal, and they normally assume that the stranger represents a danger. Hence the owner’s strong grip.

Horses are not as intelligent as dogs but it is my guess that many of them do get extra anxious when they are asked to do a parade before a race. It is something new, it is something unexpected, and the horse simply wonders why this is happening. Can we put it on our list of deterrents? Yes, doing a parade can probably be called a deterrent. On a normal raceday, however, there are no parades. There are other phases the horse needs to negotiate, before the race is off and running. From travelling to the racecourse, being saddled, going to the paddock, to eventually being loaded into the starting stalls. When asking a keen paddock watcher which deterrents are observed the most in the preliminaries, we get this short list as a reply: Loud intermittent noise (like car alarms), windy rain, children running towards the paddock screaming and musical bands too close to the paddock area. It is a varied mix, don’t you think? One common denominator is simply, something the horse did not expect.

Yorkshire trainer Mark Johnston has some interesting views. “There will always be deterrents when a horse goes racing”, he says. “In my opinion, the most unnecessary of these are the bands many racecourses have. Often they are far too close to the paddocks, and this causes a risk. Also, the big screens at the racecourses can be a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I think these screens are good, and we all like to have them, but when they put a screen up at Goodwood the horses seemed never to able to take their eyes off them. It is too low. There is also a big screen close to the horses in the paddock at the Newmarket Rowley Mile course, but this one is higher up and does not bother the horses at all. In the pre-parade ring at the same course, there is big statue of Brigadier Gerard in the middle, and some horses get scared by it. There are many things that can be called deterrents. “I think the whole idea of saddling boxes sighted by the public is misplaced, and this can cause problems”, Johnston continues. “It is an attraction for the racegoer but not in the best interest of the horse. It is almost like letting fans into the dressing room at Old Trafford before Manchester United play a match. Of course, everyone would agree that would be ridiculous. All we want is to get the horse to the race in the best possible way, and to saddle in a poor, uninviting saddling box, with lots of people quite close, is not ideal.” Sir Mark Prescott takes the same view: “The one thing you can do to avoid that the horse ‘chucks it away’ before the race is to saddle in the stables, when you can get permission and when it is feasible to do so. I think it is interesting to note that Aidan O’Brien always saddles his horses outside, obviously thinking that they are then less likely to be upset. We all have our little ideas, which may or may not help.” When we talk about paddocks, pre-parade rings and saddling boxes, which are the better courses? “The paddock at Longchamp must be one of the best in the world”, Johnston says. “You know how packed it is on Arc day, and how noisy it can get, yet the horses are always calm and relaxed there. I believe that is because the crowd is higher up, and also because the horses cannot see open spaces. Horses don’t like seeing unfamiliar open spaces. When it comes to saddling arrangements, the best courses in Britain are Haydock and Ayr, where we saddle in the stables right next to the paddock”.

The issue of upsetting factors for horses prior to races are obviously related to young horses, more than older and experienced horses. “Yarmouth, for example, is a good place for a juvenile to make his debut”, Johnston says. “We saddle in the stable, there is no pre-parade ring, the paddock is right next to the course and there is not a walk out to the racecourse.” Yarmouth is 240 miles away from Johnston’s base in Middleham but he often sends juveniles to the seaside course, which is just 70 miles away from Newmarket. It is easy to see why trainers Newmarket trainers like Henry Cecil, Sir Michael Stoute and John Gosden run many of their debutants at Yarmouth. “One bad place for juveniles, however, is the July Course in Newmarket”, Johnston comments. “The pre-parade ring there is dangerous, sooner or later someone will get kicked. It is too tight, there are too many people there and the area is often very noisy.” Johnston is not at all keen on another place either, the much closer to home racecourse at York, where a long walk is required before racing. “This is the worst place”, he says, “we need to walk the horses all the way across the Knavesmire from the stables to get to the paddock. One can get special permission and take them around in the horsebox, but that is not at all practical, with parking problems and so on. Horses often get upset when walked across the track like this”.

When we mention parades, Johnston’s opinion is that they should be “scrapped altogether”. He continues, “cantering the horses down in racecard order should be fine and become the standard”, he says, “but parades are not good. I do not feel it is right to expect a racehorse to parade for big races. They are not used to it and many get stirred up. It can also give you an advantage, though, as I found out when I trained Bijou d’Inde. Nothing fazed him and he was like a big, old police horse. Other horses, like Quick Ransom and Yavana’s Pace, always got upset in a parade.”

Racecourses allow music, crowds quite close to the horses in the saddling areas and pre-parade rings, but virtually every racecard has a warning about flash photography – something they do not allow. “This is quite interesting”, Johnston says, “as I have never seen a horse being bothered by a flash from a camera.” Camera flashes are very quick, probably much quicker than most people would guess. Mostly they light up for only between 1/800 second to 1/20,000 second (though there are some high-speed mode cameras giving out series of flashes, each of about 1/300 sec.). Can horses catch these flashes of light? According to Rayetta Burr, a two-time Eclipse Award winning photographer working for Benoit & Associates at Santa Anita and Hollywood Parks in California, where they stage some twilight meetings, the use of flash is not upsetting horses. She says, “Regarding flash photography in the paddock or winners’ circle, this has never been a problem here on the West Coast”. It seems that racecourse managements are focusing on something that really is no problem, while totally overlooking other risk factors.

Henry Cecil has an interesting comment, when we ask him about deterrents in the preliminaries. “I feel that the most incidents occur due to horses being upset in the paddock by umbrellas”, he says. Of course! An umbrella cannot be a good thing to swing around a racehorse, not least since they are in use on wet, sometimes windy days, when the horse will be a bit on edge anyway. My suspicion of mobile phones, on the other hand, does not get professional support. Mark Johnston is not too concerned. “I have no experience of horses getting upset by phones”, he explains. “Obviously, we are not too happy if the handler is on the phone when leading up the horse, but I do not think the sounds from phones are a risk. Our senior riders always carry a mobile phone”.

So, my theory that the old gelding smashing that rail at Newmarket did so because his handler was answering the phone may not hold much credence. Johnston must have seen thousands of horses close to ringing and active mobile phones. Other than distracting the handler, which can be bad enough, they do not cause a risk. A crowded saddling box, a loud band, the sight of an umbrella, a big screen or the prospect of a rather bouncy parade, are factors far more likely to put the thoroughbred off balance prior to a race. And, different as they are, these factors have one thing in common: unlike wind and rain, they should all be easy to eliminate.