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Hey good looking: how to tell the tubby from the tip-top

Novice horse-watcher Tom Kerr seeks help from three experts in the field

On the gallops in Newmarket with Hugo Palmer, who advises: “The problem is there are no rules”
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First published on Monday, September 29, 2014

Hugo Palmer is casting a critical eye over the half-dozen horses about to head out from Kremlin Cottage Stables for third lot, assessing their physical fitness and demeanour as they walk in a circle by the main gate with no more conscious thought than you or I might use to determine ripe fruit.

"Take this one," he says, gesturing to an unraced two-year-old pacing before us. "He's a younger horse and he's disproportionately heavy in front and it's overloading him. Can you see that?" I murmur assent, staring grimly at the horse's front half. In truth, I can't see anything.

That's hardly surprising, because another truth is I don't have a clue what I'm looking for. I've always thought of myself as a pretty clued-up paddock judge, but the reality of the matter is that when it comes to telling a good-looking and fit horse from an ugly and fat horse I don't know my Frankel from my gallops hack.

I didn't grow up with horses or in a racing family and I doubt I ever looked at a horse with anything approaching an analytical eye before I caught the racing bug in my mid-teens. Since then, a dozen years of amateur paddock-watching has gifted me only a random hodgepodge of assumed knowledge, anthropomorphic pseudo-psychology and dubious prejudices. For every triumphant paddock selection, there have been a dozen ignominious failures.

For example, I have never picked out a grey in the paddock. For some reason, I view them as the hipsters of the racing world - all show and no substance. Don't ask me where that came from. Like the rest of the detritus littering my neural networks, it was just some nonsense I'd picked up along the way and filed away without ever questioning its validity.

However, a recent string of devastating reverses on the racecourse finally caused me to question whether this Sargasso Sea of nonsense was really cutting it. So a few weeks ago I determined I would rectify this glaring oversight in my racing education. Lining up a trio of Britain's top judges of horseflesh to spill the secrets of equine good looks, I hoped eventually to fashion that detritus into a raft I'd float to riches and glory.

My first point of call: the Newmarket yard of Hugo Palmer, who recently celebrated his first Group-race victory in bravura fashion by registering another within a week. With grey flecks of hair over his temples, the 33-year-old looks more experienced than his relatively young age suggests. In this case, appearances are not deceptive.

Palmer has a rare breadth of experience to draw on. He worked with Lord Huntingdon at West Ilsley while still at school and spent a foaling season with Cheveley Park Stud before university. As a student, his holidays were occupied working for one of the world's foremost buyers of horses, John Warren. He then completed five years as assistant to first Patrick Chamings and then Hughie Morrison, before capping a dizzying education with a spell working for Australian racing legend Gai Waterhouse. If anyone can teach me what to look for, it's this guy.

Unfortunately, as I am dismayed to discover, the dark art of horsewatching can't be distilled into an hour's conversation. "I can't pretend that John and Gai stood there every day saying 'right, this is what you need to learn'," says Palmer. "They don't do that – you learn by osmosis."

Attempting to make my mind as permeable as possible, I ask Palmer what rules a horse-watcher should follow. "The problem is there are no rules," Palmer replies, dispiritingly. "There are plenty of correct horses who go wrong and plenty of crooked horses who stay sound. Anyone who's been in the game for a long time will tell you champions come in all shapes and sizes.

"The only thing good horses have is proportionately they have heart room. They have depth to them and have room for their heart and lungs. Horses who don't have room for the heart and lungs are never champions."

And before the race? "If you're in the paddock you want to see if the horse looks fit, it looks muscular, you can see just a hint of its ribs. You don't want to see a horse who is ribby and light and looks like a prune, but if you can see a hint of its ribs and it looks like its about to go and run in the Olympics, that's what you're looking for.

"If its skin looks thin and light and clean, almost like it's been painted on, and it's shiny and it dapples under the light, those sorts of things in the paddock are all signs a horse is in fantastic shape."

As I head off to meet my next expert, Palmer passes on some final words. "You're drawing on your experiences from everywhere," he says. "I suppose that's the essence of being human rather than animal. My mother has a magnet on her fridge that says 'I've learned so much from my mistakes I'm thinking of making a few more'."

If it's mistakes this requires, I should be all right.

Oliver St Lawrence advises on conformation at Aislabie Stud

A couple of miles out of Newmarket lies Aislabie Stud, a neat and modern facility bloodstock agent Oliver St Lawrence shares with trainer George Peckham. Hailing from an Irish racing family, St Lawrence has more than two decades of experience buying horses at sales around the globe.

The genial agent seems politely doubtful about my quest to learn what makes a good-looking horse, but to his credit he is game for the challenge. He leads me to the barn where two yearlings, destined for the sales in the next few weeks, are paraded before us as today's anatomical models.

They sashay towards us and I size them up with what I hope is a professional air. Both are gorgeous animals exuding good health. I warm to them immediately, albeit more for their impeccable behaviour, quiet inquisitiveness and amiable nature than their conformation. As they gaze up at us, the master and the moron, I try to resist the urge to coo at them.

"She's got a pretty nice head, which is something I like to see," begins St Lawrence, sizing up the first filly. "She's a New Approach filly and she has plenty of bone – sadly plenty of horses break bones or chip bones, so visually a good bone is important. You can see a good thickness of bone here, some have virtually a little pencil of bone. I'm sure there have been plenty who have won big races but you just think they could fracture a leg on the gallops. You also want to see a nice depth of girth for them to put muscle on."

Another thing to watch for, St Lawrence tells me, is the horse's walk. "Some horses, especially as yearlings, seem to be pulling themselves along with their shoulder rather than pushing from behind. Everyone has their own version as to how it works, but something that seems to be using its quarters and pushing itself along is what you want."

Turning to the second filly, St Lawrence points out her burgeoning muscle definition. "This is a Street Cry. You can see she is considerably smaller, although she's far from being too small. I haven't seen this one in two weeks as I was in the States. She's put on quite a bit of muscle, she keeps putting more on her neck and her quarters."

Before I leave, St Lawrence warns that as a bloodstock agent he is looking for other things at the yearling sales. Conformation, the geometric physical structure of a thoroughbred, is more important at the sales because of its links with soundness. In the winner's enclosure you will see "some fairly horrendous faults on horses winning nice races".

Nevertheless, beyond that the paddock-watcher and the bloodstock agent are looking for similar attributes: athleticism, good health and muscle definition. The greatest challenge, I muse, remains distinguishing the truly race-fit from the rest.

Has he spotted one? Ken Pitterson casts his eye over Kempton runners

A few days later, I head to Kempton to complete my Great Expectations-style education with top paddock judge Ken Pitterson. The Weekender's resident racecourse expert has been doing this for two decades and knows the business inside out. By my reckoning, he has seen somewhere in the region of 30,000 fields pacing around paddocks across Britain.

Leaning on the rails before the first of four two-year-old maidens, he casually dismisses several runners as either unfit for the race or unfit for the sport, before drawing my attention to a Mark Johnston-trained animal making his third start.

"Look at Mister Rockandroll, he's much bigger and has size and scope," Pitterson says. "He's on his toes and playing about, but Johnston's do sometimes. He's big but there's still loads of space underneath, so there's much more to come, especially as a three-year-old. He'll definitely improve."

Pitterson points out two more horses – Game Show, a stocky but powerfullooking Godolphin runner, and Classic Villager, a well-tried juvenile making his fifth start – before making his way round the front of the stand to see them go to post. Ken explains this is a crucial part of the paddock-watching regime and not, as I had always assumed, a prime opportunity to grab a pint.

"Most of the time you want to see them go down to see how they handle the ground," explains Pitterson. "If it's good to fast ground you want a horse with very low action, so they skip across the surface. You don't want a horse with a high knee action as they're hitting the ground, whereas on soft it's reversed, because you've got to pick your feet out of the heavy ground."

We watch the action. Ken is almost embarrassed to see his three selections finish first, second and third in an 11-runner event. The man is a guru.

Returning to the paddock for the second race, Pitterson spends more time explaining the foundation skill of the paddock-watcher: separating the tubby from the tip-top. I've always known about muscle definition and looked for it, but never has anyone explained it so succinctly to me as Ken.

As he expounds, it feels as if I'm back at school again and suddenly, shockingly, grasping quadratic equations for the first time. I begin to see a horse's fitness at first glance – spotting tell-tale differences between the smooth barrel-like torso of the unfit and the ready-to-run horse's visible line of muscle just beneath the rear of its ribcage.

Using this simple method, Ken writes off virtually the entirety of the second-race field, saving a positive word only for Strong Chemistry ("the most forward and the most together compared to the rest"), who promptly wins at 1-2 by an easy six lengths.

Easy enough, you might say, but now comes the moment when I must put my education to the test. The next two races feature a plethora of untried newcomers – just the sort of head-scratching contest in which a good paddock judge hopes to make his experience pay.

Taking my position by the paddock rail, I watch as the horses enter for the third race. Charlie Appleby has already won the first two races and his runner in this, Mulzamm, looks a picture – sleek of coat, veins bulging atop well-muscled legs and hindquarters. He's an obvious selection and I duly stick £30 on his delightful nose. He is only 11-10, but to my quiet astonishment he wins. Beginner's luck, I wonder?

There is one final juvenile maiden to prove my skills and this time there is no short-priced favourite to make things easy. Again, I stand by the paddock rail, the words of Palmer, St Lawrence and Pitterson floating through my head as I size up the 12 runners. Are they fit? Are they walking right? Do they all have the usual limbs?

This one is tricky - most seem to be carrying plenty of condition – but one, Forest Maiden, again trained by Appleby, catches my eye as soon as she enters the paddock. She looks just short of full fitness but it's impossible not to admire her demeanour – relaxed and confident, she clearly stands out from the rest. I stick £20 on her at 11-2 and add £10 each-way on a Roger Charlton-trained horse, Arrowtown, for good measure.

To my no-longer-quiet astonishment, Forest Maiden wins, getting up literally on the line to deny the Richard Hannon-trained Mystic Jade. After four races in the paddock a winner has yet to escape. I feel like a paddock genius and a horse whisperer combined in one. It is astonishingly satisfying.

Later, I bump into my new hero Ken as I'm heading for the exit. "It's not always this easy," he cautions. Maybe not, but I've rarely felt happier leaving a racecourse than I do with a plump wallet, courtesy of lean horses.

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If anyone can teach me what to look for, it's this guy. Unfortunately, the dark art of horse-watching can't be distilled into an hour's conversation
E.W. Terms
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