Someone once said that riding racehorses was the only job in the world where an ambulance follows you around as you work!
When you think about the fact that you have a 550 – 650 kg animal moving at something around 50 – 60 kmh on very fragile legs, often in a pack of 15 – 20, all trying to get to the same target first and with each member of that pack being controlled by a 50 – 60 kg person pulling on bits of fancy string connected to bits of metal in the animal’s mouth whilst effectively standing on little metal steps swinging from a strap around the animal’s middle – it’s just crazy! Add in the fact that, in many instances, the only thing you can rely on the animal to do is to do the unexpected, and that puts the whole thing into the realm of near insanity.
When you do it all with the added complication of jumping fences, it just gets ridiculous.
Take the Wellington Boot last weekend as an example. One horse broke down, two put on buckjumping displays just after the start of the race, and the race around the home turn looked like the first seconds of State of Origin. For another example, wait for the Golden Slipper next weekend and the flurry that will happen in the run to the first turn, in spite of the fact that the jockeys will almost certainly be given a reminder about being sensible by the stewards before the race.
Let’s not forget barrier incidents. At Queanbeyan yesterday, one of the starters threw itself to the ground behind the barriers, one favourite flat out refused to load, and several others tossed the jockeys out of the gates.
And spare a thought for Winona Costin. Back to ride on the second day after a five month injury layoff, she was on one of the buckjumpers at Wellington, came off after an admirable try at staying on – and broke both wrists. Some days it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed!
Don’t forget the trackwork riders. Especially in the tragic case of Riharna Thomson, who lost her life after a trackwork incident at Canberra last week
I’m not sure if this is right, but to me anyway, it seems that these incidents are becoming more frequent. Horses are “flight” animals. They don’t generally stand and fight – with the exception of the occasional stallion – and they can get fizzy. The art and science of training a racehorse has to include educating the horse to understand, as much as possible, the inevitable stresses of racing and raceday. It is interesting that most of the incidents at the barrier, and of unruly horse behavior during races happen at the provincial and country meetings. It’s unusual for a Waller or Waterhouse/Bott horse to play up!
Perhaps it’s time to ask some questions about how we prepare trainers to be trainers. Maybe it’s time to look more closely at the qualifications people need to have to really be able to educate a horse to racing. Jockeys serve a formal apprenticeship, and need to pass riding skills tests, and to serve time on lesser licences before they move into the city racing. It’s true that trainers are asked to complete a Certificate IV in equine training either before they apply for a trainer’s licence, or within a specified timeframe after applying, but that’s it! And with the greatest of respect for those people who have done a Certificate IV in anything, they are really “entry level” qualifications that can be completed in a short period of time.
The argument that trainers should serve a more formal apprenticeship over a period years is a strong one, even from a potential trainer’s perspective. Look at the examples. Mark Newnham spent years as Assistant Trainer to Gai Waterhouse, and his start in training ranks has been very strong. John Thompson spent years with Bart Cummings. Kris Lees spent years working with his father, Max, and proved the value of that experience by winning $2 million in prizemoney for his owners in his first full season as a trainer. And there are many more examples.
It’s simple really. The biggest thing to learn as a trainer is patience, closely followed by the capacity to treat success and failure as the imposters they are. What teaches a horseman patience is years of working with horses, not a Certificate IV. Trainers are never overnight successes.
Jockeys do risk their lives on a daily basis. That’s a fact. Trainers don’t. But the risk to a jockey riding an inadequately educated racehorse is multiplied many times over the risk when riding a properly and patiently educated - and treated – racehorse.
So, let’s think about whether trainers need to be better trained before they take on the responsibility.
Easily countered by the fact that, since racing began in Australia in the 1840’s, 873 riders have died in races. The Menzies Institute, a renowned research institute, has published a study showing that licensed jockeys fell in races once in every 240 rides. Who knows what happens in trackwork?
Maybe it’s time for a change.