I thought it would be a good idea to try to explain to people in layman’s terms the gear changes that you see in the Form Guide each day for a particular meeting across all 3 codes. It’s great for a horse to have a “tail chain on” or a set of “heart bar shoes” but what in reality does that mean?
GEAR CHANGES are one of the most important parts of a Form Guide. A set of blinkers put on a horse for the first time may make a horse a) switch on – and bolt in or b) fire it up so it pulls so badly it’s bowser is flashing long before the finish line is reached. If a trainer or owner have been setting a horse for a plonk – it may have no form – the only saving grace to them possibly “getting time” from the stewards is saying it’s form reversal is due to the blinkers going back on or whatever. The stewards can’t debate the point because they must authorise EVERY gear change. A trainer can’t just turn up to race his horse, pacer or greyhound and decide he or she will shove a set of blinkers on it. The Stewards will either authorise or disallow a gear change – up to and including acceptance time only. They have the power to scratch a horse who is presented incorrectly ie. if a horse turns up to the races with “work shoes” on and he has not been “plated” with “race plates” and there is not time to plate it – it may be scratched. A horse may “throw a plate” on the way to the barrier. They may not have time to have the horse re-plated and the stewards may instruct the farrier at the barrier to remove all plates and for the horse to run with no plates or just front plates on or whatever.
The stewards may allow a race day change of gear ie. “blinkers on first time” if they have stuffed up in their internal system. For instance, a trainer may have steward’s approval to race a horse in blinkers for the first time but the stewards have failed to advise the various racing media outlets. The stewards will go to great lengths to try to ensure that all interested parties – commentators, bookmakers, punters etc. all have plenty of time to acquire that information.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF BITS
Lugging Bit – for horses that “hang” or “lug”. Horses may “lug” or “hang” either inwards or outwards. The normal ring bit (one ring – “O” shaped – each side of the mouth to which the bridle is attached to form the steering mechanism) is replaced by any number of possible other bits (the most common being a butterfly bit or a bit which has a fixed metal “D” shape that fits under the jaw). A butterfly bit is a bit in the shape of a butterfly which sits (on either side) outside the mouth to allow the rider to exert more pressure on one side of the mouth or the other to keep the horse travelling more tractably.
Norton Bit – for horses that pull hard – to help overcome that problem. The Norton bit has the normal 2 rings (one on each side of the mouth) with 2 mouthpieces (bits) and a nosestrap. The reins pull on the bits causing a double scissor action within the mouth which pulls on the top of the mouth. A horse can still get it’s tongue over this bit although it is certainly harder for that to happen than with a normal bit. A tongue tie is often used in conjunction with a Norton bit to make sure a tongue problem is out of the equation.
Snake Bit – a piece of rope or cord off the 2 rings (one each side of the mouth) that is placed around the bottom jaw and over the tongue. This bit is not allowed by racing authorities in some states. It is more commonly used in pacers.
Snaffle Bit – a normal type of broken mouth bit having two metallic pieces joining at the centre. The most common type of bit used across all disciplines within the equine world.
Pacifiers – a mesh invention put over a horse’s eyes used to try to help excitable horses relax or “pacify” them. The closely knit mesh ensures the horse has to concentrate just to be able to see. The stewards may direct them to be removed if muddy conditions apply to negate the possibility of restricted vision.
Crossover Nose Band – a device for horses that open their mouth in races and “pull”. A crossover nose band has 2 straps that cross over the front of the nose to from an X. The bottom strap does up under the chin – the other one is half way down the nasal bone. The crossover nose band stops the horse from opening its mouth.
Glue on Shoes – for horses with very bad feet from a multiplicity of problems. Some horses have very thin walled hoofs (ie. there is no room left to put a nail in the thin wall to fit a plate) so a glue on shoe which is an aluminium plate covered in plastic has about 10 tabs on it – you put glue on the tabs and it sticks to the horse’s foot. (I guarantee punters should NEVER back a horse racing with glue on shoes – they win very rarely. One well known farrier told me they will “take four lengths off a horse”).
Shockshod Shoes – for horses that have soft soles or soles that bruise from jarring. The shockshod shoes are cased in rubber and have a polyurethane cover which sits against the hoof to help absorb the “shock” of impact.
Tail Chain – applies to male horses only to eliminate a gelding or stallion from drawing in air through their anal cavity whilst racing which will lead to the possibility of stomach pain and sub-standard race track performance. To eliminate this a leather strap is placed around the butt of the tail and a chain (3 to 4 inches or 7.62 to 10.16 centimetres) hangs off over where the tail joins the anus and the fact that it is rubbing that area means the anus remains closed firmly and thus no air will be entering to the stomach. (Fillies and mares have their vagina partially sewn up in a caslick operation to eliminate them drawing in air through their vagina.)
Nose Roll – a sheepskin product placed downwards from the eyes toward the mouth to make the horse hold the carriage of its head on a better angle to the rest of its body.
Blinkers – can be either a one eyed blinker (for either of the near or the off side) or a complete set of blinkers covering both eyes. The idea of a set of blinkers is as the name implies to focus the horses’ attention on what is happening directly in front of it and ignore what is happening behind it. A horse has a much greater range or sphere of vision than a human. From a punting perspective “blinkers on” for the first time can sometimes “switch a horse on” to perform to their maximum ability. On the other side of the equation, an extra leg and a heart and lung transplant wouldn’t improve some horses! Greyhounds may race in a full set of blinkers or just a near or off side blinker. Although it is not overly popular (in greyhound racing) blinkers are there to help them chase and concentrate on the “bunny”. Blinkers are also put on some greyhounds to stop them fighting in a race.
Winkers – a sheepskin device which attaches to the cheek straps of the bridle once again to help the horse focus it’s vision to the front, but winkers allows more side vision than a blinker.
Tongue Tie – as the name implies a few different products are approved to allow a horse’s tongue to be tied to eliminate the possibility of a horse swallowing it’s tongue and choking down, or playing with their tongue in the run which can take their concentration away from racing. A tongue tie may be made from women’s stocking, a leather strap or an elastic tape which have certain width and thickness guidelines established by racing authorities.
Tongue Control – a leather device which is an extension of a nose band which goes into the horses mouth and restrains the tongue to prevent the horse from swallowing, choking down or playing with their tongue.
Tongue Control Bit – (“W Bit”) is a separate bit made of thick wire shaped in a “W” shape which sits underneath the bit. The raised section is in the middle of the mouth to prevent the tongue being put over the bit.
Heart Bar Shoes/Plates and Egg Bar Shoes/Plates – are technically for the same purpose of helping horses that have internal hoof problems (like bad heels), navicular disease (which is a degenerative bone disease within the foot) etc. Their purpose is to support the hoof by taking pressure off the heels and evenly distribute that pressure around the rest of the hoof.
Set of work shoes versus a set of racing plates – in a barrier trial you may sometimes see or read where a horse won a trial “with shoes not plates”. It is a well known way of slowing a good horse down. On raceday the stewards check every horse to make sure it is plated correctly. On barrier trial days professional punters will often stand at the gate where the horses walk onto the track and mark down the horses names who are trialling in shoes (not plates). It is regarded in the industry that the following rule of old time trainers has stood the test of time. The rule says that 1 ounce (28 grams) in a horses foot (with a heavier shoe) is equivalent to 1 pound (1/2 a kilo) on it’s back, so it is regarded that a set of shoes on a horse as opposed to a set of plates will slow a horse down over 1000 metres by 6 lengths (because a set of shoes weigh so much more than a set of aluminium plates).
Barrier Blanket – a recent addition in Australian racing to help load bad or troublesome horses into the barrier. The barrier blanket weighs about 40 kilograms and is placed over the horse as it if were being rugged and stabled for the night. Many horses respond positively to it and are much calmer – which benefits everyone (barrier attendants, starter, other jockeys and other runners). The barrier blanket remains on the horse until he/she jumps from the barrier stalls. The barrier blanket gets tied to the back of the stalls when the horse is loaded and remains in the barrier as the horse jumps. This wonderful invention is attributed to “The Horse Whisperer” – Monty Roberts.
Near Side/Off Side All riders only mount a horse from one side – the “near side”. If you stand behind a horse and look towards it’s head the left hand side is the “near” side and the right hand side is the “off” side.
Bandages On/Off – straight forward as the name implies – a horse with bandages – but some top horses race every start in bandages so you really have to know what the trainer is putting them on for and that doesn’t appear in the gear changes – merely the fact that “bandages” are “on” or “off”.
Cheekers – made of rubber and go from the top of the bridle to either side of the nose onto the bit to keep the bit up in the roof of the mouth.
SPECIFIC HARNESS RACING GEAR CHANGES
Whilst many types of “bits”, “blinkers” and “tongue ties” are common for both thoroughbred and harness racing use, there are some commonly used harness racing gear changes that bear special explanation. These appear at the end of the undermentioned list.
The harness racing authorities across Australia have a specific “gear change” form which the trainer must forward to them at least 48 hours prior to the nomination of any horse – for a race or trial. The form contains 100 possibilities to be ticked ie. 95 specific gear changes and 5 generalised ones.
In number order of the harness racing authorities check list they read:-
1) Open Bridle
2) Bit – Headcheck
3) Bit – Snaffle
4) Bit – Straight
5) Bit – Rubber
6) Bit – Pulling
7) Bit – Lugging
8) Bit – Extension
9) Bit – Slipmouth
10) Bit – Lip – Cord/Strap
11) Bit – Other
12) Tongue tie
13) Tongue tie – W Bit
14) Blinkers – Dolly Varden
15) Blinkers – Block (eye)
16) Blinkers – European
17) Blinkers – Telescopic
18) Blinkers – Hood
19) Blinkers – Pelling Pacifiers
20) Blinkers – Mesh goggles
21) Blinkers – Murphy Blind (Near Side)
22) Blinkers – Murphy Blind (Off Side)
23) Blinkers – Spring Loaded
24) Shadow Roll
25) Headcheck – None
26) Headcheck – Fixed
27) Headcheck – Running
28) Headcheck – Release Pin
30) Chin Rest
31) Nose Band – Conventional
32) Nose Band – Drop
33) Nose Band – Figure 8
34) Nose Veil
35) Lugging Pole – Near Side
36) Lugging Pole – Off Side
37) Neck Strap
38) Burr Pole – Near Side
39) Burr Pole – Off Side
40) Burr Bit – Near Side
41) Burr Bit – Off Side
42) Burr Neckstrap – Near Side
43) Burr Neckstrap – Off Side
44) Burr Rein – Near Side
45) Burr Rein – Off Side
46) Cheekers – Brush
47) Cheekers – Other
48) Reins – Pulling
49) Reins – Rings
50) Reins – Bar
51) Deafeners – Fixed
52) Deafeners – Hood
53) Deafeners – Removable
54) Deafeners – Plugs
55) Boots – Bell
56) Boots – Knee
57) Boots – Shin/Tendon
58) Boots – Scalping
59) Boots – Bumper
60) Boots – Pastern
61) Boots – Wrap Around
63) Hopples – Round
64) Hopples – Flat
65) Hopples – Half
66) Bloomers – Leather
67) Bloomers – Sheepskin
68) Hopples – Length
69) Hopple Shorteners – Elastic
70) Hopple Shorteners Cord – Pin
71) Spreaders – Conventional
72) Spreaders – Elastic
73) Spreaders – Menzel
74) Spreaders – Guiders
75) Spreaders – Go Straights
76) Shoes – None
77) Shoes – Front
78) Shoes – Hind
79) Shoes – Pads
80) Shoes – Special
81) Toe Weights
82) Shaft Extension
83) Shaft Spreaders
84) False Shaft – Near Side
85) False Shaft – Off Side
86) Gaiting Strap – Near Side
87) Gaiting Strap – Off Side
88) Bucking Strap
89) Kicking Strap
90) Tail Tie
92) Stallion Support
93) Anti Choking Device
94) Wind Sucking Device
95) Other – Please Specify
The other 5 generalised form enquiries relate to the trainer being required to advise the Authority if:-
(a) the horse has been gelded and the date of the operation
(b) if the horse has died and the date of same
(c) if the horse has had it’s gait converted from a trotter to a pacer or vice versa
(d) if a previously hoppled horse is to race unhoppled and
(e) the advising of any other specific medical or surgical procedure
MORE DETAILED EXPLANATION OF COMMON HARNESS RACING GEAR CHANGES
Hopples – can be any of a) round b) flat or c) half. Round and flat hopples are self explanatory – the leather is either round or flat. Some pacers race much better in say a flat hopple as opposed to a round hopple or vice versa. The half hopple is used on trotters only (not pacers) and on their front legs only and are attached to a strap running straight back to the sulky. As an educated estimate 20% to 30% of trotters that race across Australia would wear half hopples.
Spreaders – are a round rubber elastic device which go underneath the shoulder to spread the horses front legs to stop the horse from hitting its knees.
Boots – all the different types of boots ie. pastern, shin/tendon, knee etc. all are fitted to those specific parts of the leg so as to give protection to those areas.
Lugging Pole – a round pole – the outer section is a hollow piece of fibreglass which contains an inner solid round piece of fibreglass (that slides in and out) and hooks onto the saddle at one end and onto the side of the head on the headcollar at the other end. It may go on either the near side or the off side depending which side the horse lugs.
Blinkers – blockeye blinkers only allow a horse to see forward (no side or back vision) whereas Dolly Varden blinkers allow a horse to see forward and out to the side – but not backwards.
Murphy Blind – is a device which looks like a home venetian blind and covers about 95% of the horse’s eye vision on the side to which it is attached (near or off). It is used to restrict vision further than the approximately 75% that a “blockeye blinker” will cover.
Deafeners – can be made of many things but are generally best described as a device to fit in both ears made of foam inside a furry material which helps keep the audible volume of various sounds around the race track down to a minimum so as to keep the horse more settled. The defeaners are hooked by a cord to where the driver can lean forward and pull the cord (thus releasing the deafeners) at any point in the race the driver wishes to. Normally the driver will release them in the last lap at say the 400 metre mark or wherever the driver wants the horse to sprint from.
Hopple shorteners – are controlled by the driver and he/she may shorten the early length of stride the horse may take in the first strides from a standing start or mobile start to help eliminate the possibility of the horse going into a full stretch gallop and losing all chance. When the driver is content that their horse is balanced in it’s gait he/she releases the “hopple shorteners” and the horse can take it’s registered length of stride for the remainder of the race.
Hopple Length – each pacer who races in hopples (they may race unhopppled) has a registered hopple length. A horse must race in that exact length hopple every start. A trainer may apply to the stewards to either increase or decrease the hopple length. Many trainers experiment with hopple length as if they can let the hopples out say 3 inches (7.62 centimetres) obviously the horse can take a bigger stride to help it cover a given distance quicker. There are some great harness racing stories about hopple length and horses. I wrote a story recently of how Queensland champion pacer Lucky Creed raced in the wrong hopple size one day at the Queensland non TAB Rocklea track and got beaten before winning something like his next 22 starts in a row. Subsequently, Ipswich pacing legend Jack Haggarty (well known as the starter for decades at tracks like Tweed Heads) has told the story of how he went to a Sydney auction and bought a tried pacer called Special Times. The following lot Jack Haggarty described as a mare who was “beautiful but no one put a bid on her”. The bloke who owned her gave her to Haggarty for no money on the basis that if she was any good Haggarty “was to send him one hundred pounds”. Jack bought her back to Queensland and she “performed poorly”. One day he put a different set of hopples on her and changed their length and she won by 17 lengths. Racing as Fairy Armagh she ended up winning 85 races and set 12 records around Queensland and ran 2 records in Sydney including running a mile rate of 1.57.5 in 1963 – Jack Haggarty told the Queensland Times newspaper (who did a feature story on him recently due to his ill health). He also told the journalist that he “sent the bloke the hundred quid”.
Maybe Jack’s story best typifies why a simple “gear change” can turn an ordinary racetrack performer into an elite athlete.