Peter Scargill on the factors influencing a horse’s going preference
First published on Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Countless hours are spent by punters and racing professionals alike attempting to fathom whether a horse will be capable of performing at its peak on underfoot conditions, and many more spent assessing what role the ground played in the horse’s performance in the race.
Most of the winter is spent attempting to figure out which soft- and heavy -ground winners will be able to excel on the likely quicker going at the Cheltenham Festival, while the British summer invariably has Flat trainers pulling their hair out as horses wanting firmer ground are left to look at the rain falling outside their boxes.
When trying to assess how a horse will handle the ground there are three key elements to focus on: breeding, conformation and action. That is to say a horse’s family, how they are put together and how they move when travelling at speed.
The first place to look is the pedigree, which can be poured over and picked apart from the moment of inception.
For trainer Andrew Balding it is the first stop when a new horse enters the famed Kingsclere, and he says: “The first thing you’d look at is a horse’s pedigree, as ground preferences tend to be inherent. We would always do a detailed pedigree analysis when a horse comes to us and that would give us an idea about the going, albeit it doesn’t always play out.”
Stallions can quickly build up a reputation for siring horses who have a preference for certain ground, and this can continue to have an influence on pedigrees further down the line as dam sires and sire of sires.
Pivotal, the star stallion at Cheveley Park Stud just outside Newmarket, excelled on good-to-firm ground when racing for Sir Mark Prescott, but since retiring has gathered a reputation for siring horses who often prefer softer conditions.
Chris Richardson, managing director at Cheveley Park, says: “Pivotal has had champion sprinters to Classic winners over a mile and a half and a lot of his progeny prefer a bit of ease in the ground. But then a number have also bounced off top of the ground too.
“I think it really plays out when they go into harder training but there is a certain amount you can see early on.
“I do watch the foals and the yearlings we have here in the paddock, and we have big paddocks here to allow them to run. When you turn them out and watch them belt across the paddock you can get a feel for a high-knee action or a daisy-clipping action, which might suit different goings even atthat early stage.”
The action is something Balding focuses on once he has assessed a horse’s pedigree and moved on to training them.
“A horse’s action does give you a good idea about the going it will handle,” he says. “An exaggerated knee action or round action – when a horse lift sits knee higher than average when galloping and hits the ground hard – rarely leads to a horse being so accomplished on good ground. The opposite would be a low, fast action – or a daisy-cutting action – where they do not pick up their knees very much at all and that would be better on faster ground.”
Examples include Stewards’ Cup winner Magical Memory, who has a notable daisy-cutting action, while the popular Top Notch Tonto has a distinctive high knee action.
“But it’s not always straightforward,” adds Balding. “If a horse has appeared not to go on the ground it might also be to do with the horse being immature, and it doesn’t mean they will never handle the ground. You have to take a lot of things into consideration.”
Before a horse reaches the trainer they will often go through the sales, where their conformation will be put under the microscope by bloodstock agents such as John Kilbride.
Last year he used his expertise to buy future Classic winner Jet Setting for a mere 12,000gns, and he says the key areas to focus on are the shoulder and pastern [the area between the hoof and the horse’s ankle joint] when determining what going will suit.
“The action is related to how the foot shifts when it hits the surface,” he says.
“If a horse has a longer pastern and [a sloping] shoulder, the horse would act on softer ground better as it would be better at handling the shift. You see it a bit more in jumpers with the longer pasterns, but then they’re a different type of horse.”
The importance of the horse’s action on their ability to handle the ground would even lead Kilbride to overlook elements of the pedigree if the animal in front of him told a different story to the one on the sales catalogue page.
He says: “The physical look of a horse does dictate the action and the action reacts to the going. In that instance, I’d be more inclined to go with the physical appearance than the pedigree. Sometimes you can find different thingsin a pedigree that can point to why a horse may or may not be suited to different going.
“I’ve spent so much time in my own head trying to draw lines between dots. With Jet Setting, there is Pivotal on the dam side and I used that as my answer to her liking soft ground on pedigree, but in reality it was her high-knee action. It’s not that she’s a lot better on soft than other ground, it’s that the others weren’t as good as her on it.”
A horse’s conformation and action are routinely put under the microscope by equine filming company Sirecam, which films horses in training and selling at auction each year.
Sam Sangster, director of Sirecam, believes the physical differences imprinted on horses by different stallions is a factor in how they act on the ground.
He says: “We see a lot of different horses, probably 100 or so a week. You can build up a catalogue of horses who have sold over a number of years and build up a family tree. You can see which stallions have been used with the same mares and you can see the physical differences in the yearlings.
“You can then look at the pedigree and perhaps say that a lot of the family have been suited to soft ground but this stallion is imprinting a different model on the horse. Horses with bigger feet for example,which you can see in the videos, can tend to be better on softer ground.”
No-one feels a horse’s action more than a jockey, and their opinion is always sought after races as to whether the ground was a help or hindrance.
Luke Morris has ridden in more races than any other jockey for the past five seasons, so has had plenty of opportunities to assess how horses handle ground. He feels it is when they are operating at their physical limits you can really tell about the going.
“You can get a feel on the way down to post whether a horse is really going to go on the surface,” he says. “Sometimes horses will travel grand on the bridle and it’s only when you give them their head and let them go that they start to struggle as the ground is too slow or they’re not letting themselves down on fast ground. I’d say a lot of the time you don’t really get a full indication until you really go for them in a race.”
However, Morris sounds a word of caution when it comes to solely assessing a horse’s ability to act on the ground by the way they moves at full stretch.
“Sometimes you get a horse with a bit of a knee action and you think it’s crying out for soft ground, but when they actually run on it they move so well despite that and they never go a yard on it,” he says. “It can be confusing and you can get yourself in a muddle if you read too much into it.”
The importance of treating horses as individuals is also stressed by Joshua Davison, a horse-in-training vet at Newmarket practice Rossdales.
He says: “There has been some science into how surfaces act with the foot but there are no results we have we can lead trainers with, instead it’s just perceived wisdom. There is nothing black and white we can point to regarding specific conditions and going.
“Really, you need to treat each horse as an individual when it comes to how they react to going.”
The rainy-day woman
'I have very few runners until conditions soften'
It is well known that when the rain falls and the mud is flying trainer Venetia Williams comes to the fore and starts having winners left, right and centre.
Such a bias towards a certain type of ground would indicate Williams spends much of her time buying horses suited to these conditions, or trains them in a way that means they are able to excel where others flounder. However, the reason for her success is much simpler than that, which ridicules much of the debate on going.
“I only run my horses on softer going so if I’m not having winners on that ground I won’t have winners full stop,” Williams says. “Like all trainers I want to win races, but my horses will only get the chance to win races on softer ground.
“Nothing is designed or pre-planned when it comes to getting these horses. By and large, I have very few runners until the ground softens.”
There is sound reasoning behind Williams’ decision to focus running her horses, whatever their background, action or conformation, on easier going.
The stresses and strains of running jumps horses over extended distances on firmer ground significantly increases the like injury, and Williams is looking to reduce possibility of this happening, allow horses in her care longer, more productive careers.
She says: “The risk of tendon injuries is far higher on drier ground; on the drier side good is what I mean. By and large, I only run my horses on good to soft ground or softer.
“Some horses won’t handle the extremes, I’m talking very heavy ground really, and they won’t enjoy it. That’s not always predictable until you run them on the ground. I think people sending horses to me know how I operate and that I tend to focus running my horses on softer ground.”
Winning races on softer ground has become something of a speciality for Jedd O’Keeffe as well, with the trainer pointing to the model of horse he prefers to buy as a likely reason.
He says: “Ideally you’d have an even spread of horses in your yard that go on all types of ground, so it’s not something we’re targeting as such.
“I go to the sales targeting a certain type of horse. I like a bigger, stronger individual with good bone and strong limbs. Those heavier-topped horses often appreciate a little more give in the ground and it’s also safer to run them on that ground.”
Trainers will often say a horse just about coped with certain types of going, but O’Keeffe feels it is best to try to run when conditions are optimal.
He says: “I don’t subscribe to the saying ‘a good horse goes on any ground’. I think there are plenty of good horses who don’t go on any ground, but you will get horses that go on ‘middle-of-the road ground’ which is anything from good to firm to good to soft.
“In our opinion every horse has a going threshold and we might have a horse who likes soft, but might get away with good ground but definitely not faster.
"However, you don't want to be just getting away with it, you want your horse to be running under ideal conditions."
Does a good horse really go on any ground?
The cliche ‘a good horse goes on any ground’ is a rather weary piece of racing wisdom, although as with all cliches there is a grain of truth there concealed. Some very good horses have indeed produced their brilliance on any ground. Most horses can go – and by ‘go’ w mean show form within a few pounds of their best – on most types of ground, although of course there will always be those who are restricted by preference for either fast or soft ground.
Frankel The best Flat horse we’ve seen made his debut on soft ground at Newmarket, unleashed his greatest tour de force when annihilating the Guineas field on good to firm, and climaxed his unparalleled career when splashing home in the mud at Ascot.
Brigadier Gerard The 17-time winner won his Guineas on fast ground, then went to Royal Ascot to win the St James’s Palace Stakes on ground that was soft before the first race and which took rain all afternoon. The ground was similarly testing when he won the Champion Stakes, was declared ‘good’ for the King George and ‘firm’ for his Queen Elizabeth II Stakes triumph.
Teenoso He won the Derby on ground that was regarded as the heaviest seen for years at Epsom, yet the following year proved his versatility by winning the Grand Prix de SaintCloud and the King George on fast ground.
Mr Frisk Set the record time for the Grand National on ground officially described as firm – conditions that will never again be permitted to prevail – and throughout his career displayed a distinct preference for ground faster than good (as opposed to his stablemate Master Oats, who was practically amphibious).
Gleneagles Last year’s Guineas winner excelled on fast ground but was notorious for being kept away from anything resembling easy ground, and was comfortably beaten on good to soft at Ascot towards the end of the year.
Reverence Some horses are often described as liking to hear their hooves rattle, but the sound of his hooves was anathema to this dual Group 1-winning sprinter, who showed a marked affinity for soft ground. He ran 20 times on ground described as good to soft or softer, winning nine races (three out of four on heavy ground). He also ran 17 times on good ground or faster, winning just once.
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