What’s going on with all these non-runners?

With the BHA today introducing a raft of proposals aimed at reducing non-runners there is a lot of discussion of the issue and no doubt will be for the next few days, as it will be the hot topic in the bubble world of racing – its not impending nuclear war or the rise of fascism but it will be debated as fiercely no doubt. Some of the measures are good and some are not so satisfactory, as in any walk life people find loopholes and technicalities and exploit or abuse them and some changes are needed.

As a trainer its very frustrating to see the media debate the issues surrounding non-runners when seemingly they often don’t have a particularly firm grasp of the rules that are already in place. At times the realities of the challenge posed by the Great British weather are missed as is the unpredictable nature of half a tonne of incredibly fit and muscular beast that evolved to flee rapidly at the slightest hint of a threat from predators. A trait that has been exacerbated by over three centuries of highly selective breeding, for it this trait that leads to sheer majesty of a thoroughbred in full flight, but also for some fairly spectacular accidents. Therefore, there is a need to express what these challenges mean in reality for owners, trainers and staff.

Firstly owners, stable staff and trainers want to win races, sure we all get lots of pleasure out of horses and days out racing, but ultimately we are competitors, we want to win races and to win races guess what? We have to run our horses! We want to run, but we want to run when our horses are at their peaks, when the conditions are right for them to win. Its not cheap to run and for most horses its not purely about the financial reward, its about the satisfaction of developing and nurturing the flight instinct of the thoroughbred to carry your colours to a winning post ahead of some others. Its the planning, its the preparation, its the competing but ultimately its the winning.

There are many factors that have to fall into place for a horse to win a race but first and foremost the horse has to be healthy to compete. Like any top athlete pushing to the limits there are risks and as owners, staff and trainers our first responsibility is always to the welfare of the horse. If we don’t have that we have nothing. We can dream and plot to win this race or that race, we can prepare for months, even years for the big day but ultimately we can open the stable door early on the morning of the race and do our diligent checks – Has she eaten up? Is her temperature right? Has she drunk? Is she in season? Are her legs tight and cold? Are her droppings normal? Is she subdued or more wound up? The differences are often subtle, a tiny swelling there, a flash of the tail, stood in a different spot from usual in a stable. The night before all was well, and now that’s it – all the plans, all the work for nothing. Some signs are meaningless some aren’t – some things can be measured some are just a gut instinct built on horsemanship, years of watching and observing an intimate knowledge of the traits of each horse.  But what a trainer can’t do is send a horse out onto a racetrack and be doubting that they are at their best. 48 hours before they were peaking all was well we were going to run, we were going to win and now we know its not and we have a very serious and real responsibility to the majestic animal in our care. We must withdraw, a non-runner. As a punter its line at the bottom of the racecard, one less to enter calculations, makes the puzzle easier to solve, as a rival trainer or owner its one less to beat. But for those connected with the horse its real disappointment and also a serious concern, how bad is i,t what does it mean? On a simpler level its a perfect opportunity gone for an owner, plans to be cancelled, transport to be cancelled, a jockey looses a riding fee, staff a day at the races and some overtime and the chance to show the world their pride and joy can do the business on the track. But as with everything connected to training racehorses the first priority must be the welfare of the horse, we can’t gamble on that.

Most of the time the swelling will settle quickly, a minor bump from a vigorous roll in the night, a bad step the day before that just tweaked something when taking fright at a sparrow in a hedge, the new position in the stable, a result of a domestic with the horse that lives next door. The horse will be fine and could run the race of its life. But that responsibility is great and we can’t take the chance. By tomorrow it could very easily be fine, the rash that appeared all gone, the bellyache settled, the bruised foot no longer tender. Currently or until the new rule is introduced at least we have two options to withdraw a horse when we are unhappy on welfare grounds. The first is simple as a trainer, we can inform the BHA that the horse in our opinion is unfit to run using a self certification. This is free but means the horse can’t run for six days. We can’t use a spurious excuse because we’ve assessed that the opposition in a race in four days time are weaker because we can’t run in it as a result of the mandatory stand down. It might be there is no suitable race in any case and since its free it makes sense to use this system and hope the horse is fine in a couple of days. It might be the horse needs some medicine which means it can’t run until its out of its system and running is out of the question until such time has elapsed. However, its not very helpful when the problem likely isn’t serious and we can’t take the chance but there is a great back up race in three days time. Then we need an alternative so we can run if everything is grand tomorrow morning, so we pay for a vet to come in and issue a vets certificate which must then be forwarded to the BHA explaining the reason the horse is a non-runner. Again this system rules out the spurious withdrawal, don’t forget a vet who lies or falsifies information can be struck off, this means losing their livelihood a pretty serious consequence! Self Certificates and Vet Certificates accounted for about half of all withdrawals of runners last year. Its a shame that a vet cert has been extended to preclude running for two days under the new proposals but in reality probably a minor change as its very rare to declare one that close twice together in any case, although as Mutineer proved last week it can be done when racking up a double within 48 hours.

Of the other non-runners going was by far the biggest reason. The rules currently are that if the going changes from what you declared on you can declare your horse a non-runner. You may also declare your a horse non-runner on account of the going when the horse is actually at the racecourse.  This rule is simple but doesn’t really deal with the reality of how difficult trying to get a horse onto a suitable surface can be when trying to set your horse up to win. Some horses are versatile as to going, some are very specific, others change over time – the older horse may not let himself go on lightening fast ground anymore or may have strengthened over time and is now better able to get across softer ground than once upon time. In our quest to win we want to get this right, but as a flat trainer we are reliant on making a decision whether to run based on predictions of what the ground will be at least 50 hours in advance and often up to 60 hours in advance a fifteen minute downpour can ruin months of planning.

Firstly we are reliant on the clerk providing an accurate description of the ground at the time we declare – often it isn’t, and why that is the case is perhaps a deeper discussion for another day. We then have to assess a myriad of forecasts that give us different information and try and gauge which is the most accurate. We then have to try and calculate what impact that will have on the ground. If anyone is talented enough to claim mastery of this process please do get in touch. In reality we all know forecasts get it wrong, and not infrequently either which can make it nigh on impossible. To give an example, we may have a horse who wants ground good or even better good to firm ground, I have to declare her on a Thursday morning and the clerk tells us its good to soft but all the forecasts are for bright breezy days. Fantastic stuff the ground is bound to dry out. But what happens if the ground was actually soft, but the clerk knowing full well that the closer to good the bigger the fields (which are good for racecourses) and looking at the forecasts knows he should be alright is a bit creative. Then shock horror on Friday night we get a thunder storm that chucks down all the moisture that’s been lost, we are now back to soft ground. The clerk holds his nerve early on Saturday morning and sticks with his good to soft description a few hours of sunshine should dry it out and bring it back to good to soft. We’re forced to take our horse to the races, she is healthy and the going hasn’t changed – the conditions aren’t right for her but she must go to the racecourse only to be withdrawn on account of the ground, a waste of time, man power, money and bad for the horse as any journey generates some small degree of stress and sticks a bit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere too! The variations of the weather are huge and unpredictable which makes whole process rather unsatisfactory.

It seems to be forgotten that a run probably means at least a fortnight before another in the vast majority of cases, a run on the wrong ground can really sour a horse to racing but there are those who want to make it even harder to withdraw horses on account of unsuitable going. Owners spend a lot of money getting a horse to the races and not just the training fees but the transport etc, a race is a valuable commodity not one to be wasted in a situation where a horse has little chance. For those that claim we must stand up for the punters who pay for the whole show and are having their preparations for their betting ruined by non-runners I offer two thoughts. The first is that the punters contribution is of course important from a financial perspective to owners as the money filters through as prize money but the reality is owners as a whole invest far more into putting on the show you bet on than they receive back. The second and more important factor is that the welfare of the horse must come first and horses must not end up running on the wrong ground because of a rule forces them to, we ask a lot of a horse when it races and we owe it to them that we don’t make tougher for them than it should be or race them unnecessarily.

We all want to win races, owners, staff, trainers and punters. For that to happen the welfare of the horse must come first, horses need to be able to run where their chance of success is greatest and the system that governs the sport must be designed to allow horses to run easily in the races where they have the greatest chance. There should be no penalty for acting in the best interest of a horses welfare.