'The care and love remain great but more work really can be done in every sense'
Lee Mottershead gets the Newmarket trainer's views on horse welfare
As John Gosden speaks from his Newmarket office, the words carefully considered and eloquently placed as ever, there is a competing sound in the background. It is not noise, rather a familiar, rhythmic, comforting beat. It is the clip and the clop of a horse's hooves, the constant background music of a busy racing yard.
Few know the sound better. Few are better equipped to talk about the animal who makes it.
Gosden has known racing all his life, first as the son of a hugely respected trainer, Towser Gosden, and for nigh on four decades as a licensed trainer himself, initially in America – before which he was assistant to Sir Noel Murless and Vincent O'Brien – and then back home in Britain, where a steady stream of major success has developed into a raging river.
Next week the master of his profession has the second favourite for the Investec Derby in Roaring Lion, who will be taking a third shot at toppling Saxon Warrior in the world's most famous Flat race. He also had the Oaks favourite Lah Ti Dar, but an unsatisfactory blood test ruled her out of the race on Friday. It must have been a bitter blow for Gosden, for Lah Ti Dar's preparation had been meticulous, a gallop during Tuesday's Breakfast with the Stars being aborted owing to the coach's concerns about travelling her back to Clarehaven Stables during the day's increasing heat. It was an example of Gosden's attention to detail in the sphere of horse welfare.
At the end of a week when the Racing Post has examined the subject in detail, Gosden is well placed to culminate a series the Princess Royal began, for while his personal landscape has changed considerably over the years, it has always been against the backdrop of racing and horses. He can talk about how things are now and how they were then.
"What has not changed is the care and love for the horse," says Gosden.
"There is enormous affection shown by the people looking after horses and riding them. There is a real affinity between the human and the equine. For me, it's the most lovely thing about working in a racing stable.
"The other thing that has stayed the same, certainly in this part of the world, is the sheer luxury horses are kept in while in training. A lot of pampering goes on because, of course, these are athletes. Trainers are like football managers looking after their squads. We are looking after the mind and body of each horse."
Changing tack slightly, he continues: "One other thing that hasn't changed is it remains a great advantage to be born a filly with a pedigree. Such a filly, and certainly one with race performance, will always most likely go to stud for breeding, so she is assured a pretty nice life. The area we always have to look at is with regard to the colts. Unless they are great racehorses they tend to have to race for their livelihood.
"An amazing amount of work has been done in that area in the last ten years alone, but the point where a horse has no purpose, function or value, that's where you need to have your antennae up and a backstop in place. By tracing horses we can deal with that in a far better way.
"In any walk of life there will always be people who are amoral. If you find people acting like that you have to come down on them very hard, there's no doubt about that."
Gosden's reference to tracing is a reminder David Sykes, the BHA's director of equine health and welfare, is working to improve the traceability of racehorses so that thoroughbreds can be followed by the governing body from being foals right through to the end of their lives. With such a system in place, an even brighter light will be shone on the lifelong responsibility racing people have for the horses who represent them.
Gosden agrees considerable progress has been made. "I find on the whole people are incredibly conscious of where a horse's life may end and to where the horse goes," he says.
"It's not nice to talk about, but I remember a grim time back in the seventies when old mares would be going through the ring and the guys with the big trucks would be there, waiting to take them straight over to Belgium and France and into meat production. That had to be stopped and it was stopped by setting the minimum price well above that level.
"What happened to horses after they left racing was not previously as closely analysed as it is now, and there is no doubt there have been huge improvements. It would be wrong to say people were more cavalier in the past but they were harder."
Gosden then meanders into anecdote territory to show that even among the hard horsemen of old there was softness.
He recalls: "Before the King George my father sent Aggressor to Manton, where his great friend George Todd trained and where I later trained for six years.
"We drove there and on arrival found the flag was at half mast. My father knew something had happened and it had.
"George trained some wonderful geldings who raced for many years and then stayed with him as they got old. A golden rule was they would never leave the place and he would personally hold them as they were put down. His reaction to losing one shows the care and affection coming from a trainer who had been injured in the first world war."
It is unusual these days for a horse to live out retirement in the same place he or she was prepared for racing, but where the horse does end up is a big issue that will rightly only get bigger.
Gosden adds: "It remains fair comment that horses are cared for here far better than they are in many other jurisdictions. Where some horses trained here eventually go is a concern, but in an open marketplace you can't really say to an individual at a sale that he or she can't bid because the aftercare in their country isn't that great. We would all end up in court pretty quickly.
"At a public auction you also never quite know who is bidding, that's for sure. When it comes to private sales I can assure you we're very careful about where the horses are going. If we found out it was somewhere we wouldn't want them to go, a deal would become no deal.
"A lot of our own horses get sold to carry on racing in this country, plus the likes of Hong Kong and Australia, and I'll happily follow them. Western Hymn, who served us so well, is now being retrained as a riding horse, while Dick Doughtywylie is a much-loved riding horse in Kent.
"What we do have to be careful about is giving horses away to a well-meaning person who stands them in a cold, muddy field without much food. They become miserable and fall away to nothing."
Such misery can be prevented. Inevitably though, horses fall victim to a myriad of injuries and illnesses. Yet although the breed is evolving, there are no radical developments to report.
"I'm clear in my mind the issues you read about today have always existed," says Gosden. "For example, we used to tube horses, whereby you had what was like an old-fashioned rubber bath plug in their throat and they would breathe through that.
"The quality of wind surgery now is phenomenally well developed. Larynx issues remain about the same but we are seeing many more palates being done. The reason for that is the boom of the commercial market.
"Back in the 1970s racing was largely made up of owner-breeders. The sales were not nearly as paramount as they are now and that evolution has had an impact.
"The proper breeder still breeds for the raceday but with the rise in sales values from 1980 onwards a lot of people started breeding for the market. There is now an inclination to cover a filly with a flaw who really shouldn't be at stud. That is one reason why more imperfections have come into the breed."
Gosden adds: "I think the BHA has a great team of vets and the veterinary care at racecourses is first class. They are top people who look out for the horses in every way. Similarly, the veterinary care in clinics and hospitals is second to none. The care in the past was also good but it was much more based on the stockman's approach. What can now technically be done for horses is fantastic.
"Where there was once suffering, now there isn't. Things are dealt with better and more quickly. Colic surgery, in particular, is amazing. A horse who would have gone through agony and died can now be happy and healthy within a month."
For some horses, as for some animals and some humans, death can be a way of avoiding considerable agony. In discussing horse welfare it would be wrong not to raise the subject of intervening to end a horse's life. There are times when such an action would be indefensible – but not always.
Gosden says: "I have had horses here with a bad ligament injury. They are never going to race sound. To put them in an auction and sell them for the minimum value would be cruel and wrong. In those certain cases, ones where an animal has no future to even be a riding horse, one does have to very seriously consider euthanasia.
"In instances such as that euthanasia should not be seen as a dirty word. It would be the correct thing to do. You would treat a pet who was hobbling about in just the same way. A horse isn't like a dear old dog who can live at home on top of a wheel."
He makes his point well. Indeed, when talking about horse welfare Gosden is known as being the right man for the job, most famously so when speaking live on BBC television following the death of Godolphin star Rewilding in the 2011 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, a race he won with Nathaniel.
"He has put the leg down wrong and broken the cannon-bone clean," Gosden told the BBC.
"He ran down the track in front of everyone and stopped. He was very calm and collected and we held him. He had to be dealt with because the leg was completely gone.
"It is a freakish thing of nature and I've seen it happen with horses running loose.
"He's out now and he's fine but he was in no pain – that's the extraordinary thing about this. When they break a leg like that, it’s as though nature anaesthetises them. They feel absolutely no pain. They feel more with a cut. I fed him a bit of grass and he munched away. Unfortunately, he obviously had to be put down."
By talking to a mass audience in such an informed, educated and compassionate manner, Gosden very likely spared the sport a public relations disaster. It is an incontrovertible truth that any activity in which animals play a central role must constantly remain on the right side of public opinion. Gosden, the ace communicator, believes as the world has changed that job has become harder.
"If you go back in time, horses were an everyday part of life," he says. "They were a form of transport and people everywhere were conversant with them. Now, as a society, we're becoming a little more disassociated with animals in every sense through urbanisation.
"If you live in the city you might see them on a screen but you're not going to be touching them or getting close to them. People have become more distant from the horse and in America that's maybe why they prefer Nascar racing as it's something they can relate to.
"Can we do more? Of course we can. The Kentucky Horse Park does a great job and attracts huge tour buses. We probably need something like that where people can see all different breeds and type of horse, including retired racehorses.
"People in cities would enjoy it. You can see that just from how much people who come to the National Stud love stroking and touching horses. People need to do that more to counteract the distance that has developed between people and animals. I'm clear that more work really can be done in every sense."
Gosden adds: "Anyone who walks around a stables or equine clinic would be amazed at the care shown to horses. However, we're not good at getting that message across. People turn up at the races, watch the horses race and then go home without knowing any of the work that goes on behind the scenes."
Behind the scenes that work continues. As Gosden concludes his thoughts and evening advances there is no longer any clip or clop to be heard. The horses are back in their boxes, but neither out of sight nor mind. At all times of day, here and right across the industry, their welfare comes first.
Lasix remains a major problem in America
It was in America that John Gosden's training career began in 1979. He stayed there for just over a decade and has subsequently been a frequent return visitor.
The former California resident has spoken of the US thoroughbred as having been contaminated and degraded. Those are strong words but their source has strong views.
"American horses used to be a lot tougher 30 or 40 years ago than they are now," he says.
"The influence of medication has covered up a lot of the weaknesses in horses. Many of them go to stud and you're never quite sure what they were racing on."
Gosden has been one of many international horsemen to regularly criticise the administration of anti-bleeding drug Lasix, not simply in training but on the cusp of races.
"We have to be concerned about Lasix," he insists. "Can you name another athlete that receives an intravenous injection the day before and the morning of competition? You can't.
"I trained in America for 11 years and I know it does improve performance. A horse races lighter and carries less body weight plus it also reduces pressure on the capillaries. There are a few horses it might dull but not many.
"I understand why, given the conditions of American racing, a lot of trainers feel it's a therapeutic thing to do, but if you saw an Olympic athlete receiving injections the night before and the morning of competition I think you would tend to walk away."
In the expectation that the drugs will work, the vast majority of European trainers have taken a 'when in Rome approach' at the Breeders' Cup, although at Keeneland in 2015 Gosden's Derby and Arc hero Golden Horn was defeated in the Turf when not using Lasix. The Aidan O'Brien-trained Found, who was given the diuretic, beat him into second.
Gosden says: "Andre Fabre has never had a problem not using Lasix, but it's not easy for European trainers racing in America, that's for sure."
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