Good morning all,
In this week's article Caroline answers one or two of the queries you have put forward to her. I found it a very readable article and I hope you do too.
Conformation and Ground: Influential Factors
Many thanks again to all of you who have read my guest pieces over the lockdown period and interacted via the comments section. I owe a couple of these a response, which gives us a chance to consider these interesting points today.
Firstly picking up on one of Tony Randall’s queries a few weeks ago, let’s have a look at what clues pedigrees can provide as to how horses will perform on track themselves. Tony asked about the influence of breeding on going preferences in particular, which fits nicely into this. I’ll say straight away that I’m not going to give you a pile of statistics here, or a data analysis piece. That’s because I don’t have the raw data to do so, and also because there are much better-qualified experts out there who look at that sort of thing, such as geegeez.com and Timeform. So this is more of an overview from my perspective, based on what I’ve gleaned over the years.
Once I’d got hooked on racing in the mid-80s and started watching it regularly on the BBC and Channel Four, I came to view the state of the ground as being one of the single-most important factors when evaluating the chances of a horse on any given day. As I started to see the same horses appear in top class races during the course of a season, I learnt who appreciated what conditions and just what a difference it could make to some of them. One of the earliest who struck me in this regard was a chestnut of Paul Kelleway’s (Gay’s father) called Risk Me. He proved to have a notable preference for soft ground, granted which conditions he was a G1 performer at around a mile. However, on firm ground he was well-beaten in other top races. Once I’d grasped this fact, I was confidently – and correctly – able to dismiss his chances in his later appearances on good to firm or quicker. But why was he so much better on soft?
TV pundits often reference a horse’s breeding when discussing it prior to a race, and I remember absorbing the information along the way that the offspring of Risk Me’s sire, Sharpo, tended to favour a softer surface. The received wisdom seemed to be: like father like son. Sharpo himself was a top class sprinter from before my time of following the sport, but apparently he too had a pronounced preference for soft ground. So in turn did his own sire, Sharpen Up. The take-home message was that going preferences were an inheritable trait, and that it was worth examining the pedigree of a horse to try to ascertain what their offspring would favour in this respect. I would say that this early lesson still holds true today. In a sport of extremely fine margins, where all factors count towards finding an edge in a race, any correlation between what a horse’s parents or close ancestors succeeded at on the racecourse and what their latest family member is being asked to attempt is worth noting. If nothing else, it provides signposts or starting points, both for the horse’s own connections and for the rest of us.
But this still doesn’t answer the question of WHY some horses prefer soft ground, or WHY it should be passed down through generations. My conclusions on this, drawn over a much longer period of observation, are that they are heavily linked to conformation. The way that a horse is put together will determine how it moves; how it moves is affected by the surface upon which it is galloping. You may have heard commentators mention that some have a ‘daisy-cutting action’ whilst others show a pronounced ‘knee action’. The former is more of a skimming motion, which allows the horse to flow forwards without drawing up his front legs noticeably through the stride pattern. It is a lighter, quicker style of moving and, because of this, is better suited to quick ground rather than soft, into which he’d be inclined to sink and waste time and energy pulling himself out of on every single stride. As you’ll appreciate, that effort takes its toll over the course of a whole race. Conversely, the horse with a knee action is already lifting his legs up and out of the ground on each stride quite naturally, making him that much more adapted to dealing with the soft ground which requires this. When the ground is faster, the knee-action horse is still doing this, only without the rewards associated. Instead, he is left going up and down on the spot (so to speak), rather than being propelled forwards with minimal fuss like the efficient daisy-cutters. Obviously I am exaggerating the effects here to make a point, but I believe this is the crux of why different stride patterns are suited to different types of going. And those mechanics, the physical elements which combine in any animal to produce its movement, are inherited – just like in humans.
Another factor that I’ve learned can affect how a horse handles different going is a very simple one: the size of its feet. This isn’t very easy to see on television but, if we ever get to go racing again one day, take a look at the horses’ hooves as they walk round the parade ring. As with human shoe size, this doesn’t necessarily correlate to height, and you’ll see plenty of variety in foot size. The general rule of thumb is: the bigger the feet, the softer the ground they will handle. This is particularly pertinent to extreme heavy ground, where ‘feet like soup plates’ are the order of the day. This makes sense when you think about it: the broader the contact points with the ground when it is deep and full of divots, the easier a horse will find it to balance its weight on such an uneven or unstable surface. Horses with neat, small feet, conversely, may find themselves all at sea when the going gets tough. There isn’t such a pronounced opposite effect, of horses with small feet having an advantage on fast ground, but it is worth noting that feet are another characteristic that adapts certain horses to particular conditions.
Finally, the overall build of the horse can lend itself to favouring certain ground conditions over others. Big, heavy-topped horses who are naturally quite burly or powerfully-built through the shoulder are likely to hit the ground hard when they gallop. I’d say there’s a good 100kg range in weight between the smallest, lightest racehorses (the Forest Flowers and Diminuendos of this world) and the biggest Topofthegame-esque steeplechasers. The cushioning effect of softer ground may make this a more comfortable activity for the heavier, powerful types than racing on quicker going. This will influence whether the horse will ‘let himself down’ and feel able, both physically and mentally, to fully extend its stride on quick ground. Horses aren’t stupid: if they’ve experienced discomfort from galloping on a firm surface before, or become jarred up from doing so, they will remember it and may be less willing to go through that particular pain barrier again.
I have touched on some of the physical factors that affect horses’ suitability for different types of going here but of course there are many other, more nuanced ones that also contribute. One paddock watcher I’ve chatted with at Southwell, for example, is particularly interested in the angle of a horse’s pasterns (part of the ankle joint) when judging how well suited they may be to the Fibresand surface there. I’m not even going to pretend to understand this one! I mention it to illustrate that a lot of aspects will combine to contribute to which surfaces or going types a particular horse will favour. So, whilst trends certainly help, it always pays to study the individual if you get the chance, and apply what knowledge you have of its conformation and breeding to your decision-making.
To summarise on breeding and going preferences, it is quite likely that if the sire or dam of a horse demonstrated a particular going preference or surface aptitude in their own racing career, they will pass on some of the characteristics affecting this to their offspring. Using that information in your betting decisions can help pinpoint suitable runners for a race, especially in maidens or novices when you have little form to go on. But it is just one part of the puzzle.
Last week another reader, Philip Talbot, raised an interesting question that he is currently facing: ‘As a recent retiree I have thought of becoming more educated in the science and art of bloodstock (for pleasure and interest, sadly not as the owner of a mare or stallion!) but…and this is a question for you…where does one start???’
Where indeed, Philip! It’s a good question. There is so much information available today that it’s quite daunting to try and pick through. My main suggestion would be to follow your nose; read what interests you and this, in turn, may point you in new directions to find out more about particular aspects or to research certain horses further. I grew up reading articles on bloodstock by some very knowledgeable writers like Tony Morris and Nancy Sexton, both of whom I would strongly recommend, along with others who contribute to https://www.thoroughbredracing.com (you can sign up for free emails signposting their articles each week). I also enjoy the free content in the Racing Post’s bloodstock section, although sadly more and more of this seems to be disappearing behind the paywall. If you subscribe to either of the dedicated racing channels, they sometimes have excellent bloodstock features too, and even ITV have been known to go behind the scenes at stud farms and yearling sales; these are a great insight. Finally, if you are ever in the Newmarket area with time and resources to spare, I can thoroughly recommend the National Stud tours that are open to the general public https://www.nationalstud.co.uk/tours/ and hopefully will be again one day, post-covid. David and I were lucky enough to join one of these last year and we both absolutely loved it and learned a lot. That’s the joy of racing and bloodstock, isn’t it? No matter how much you know, there is always so much more still to explore!
Thanks to all for their input and keep safe.