The horse, an athlete to be admired!
The most exciting and exacting time when involved in following racehorses, is seeing them in the paddock pre-race. It is also, I believe, essential if you are really interested in what makes a good or exceptional competitor – for that is what they are.
The two disciplines are flat racing and National Hunt. For both I am looking for presence, attitude, movement, conformation and something that occasionally is almost impossible to describe – an innate feeling that the thoroughbred generates in me, one of awe, she/he is saying I am the best, the business, so forget the rest!
Let’s take the horse that is bred to flat race first. It needs to have strength, this is not to be confused with bone; there are many (particularly fillies) that are light, but have all the bits in all the right places. Reasonably compact, with a good intelligent head and a bright open interested eye. The neck needs to be well set on and the shoulder sloping to give freedom of movement. The back needs not to be long, the quarters powerful the hocks well placed underneath. When young they are “leggy” that’s fine as long as all is in proportion and not ever behind the knee or too upright in the pastern. Watch how they walk, tracking up by a good 12” gets a plus and the walk should be very active. A horse that walks well will usually gallop well. Now look from the front; is he/she standing over “good ground”. Let’s say the width of a small terrier dog, or do the legs come out of the same hole? If we are looking for a short to middle distance horse we need the first, if we are looking for stamina for longer distance the second is no problem. However for the flat racer we are talking about let’s stick with a good space between chest and legs.
The race bred thoroughbred is not renowned for good feet. No foot, no horse? Well, not necessarily so – as long as all four look the same, nothing odd or boxy, given the task they are bred for it is not a major consideration and these days the trainers and farriers are well able to compensate for most of the common problems.
What have we left to look at as a snapshot – the action generally. Is the horse grass cutting, pointing the toe, or can we see more movement from the knee? In the paddock at walk, there is not so much information for us, so we need to watch he/she canter down to the post, much is learnt about how the horse will act on the ground by their action here. And also how naturally balanced they are.
A little anecdote:
Newbury races 1976. I was paddock side watching the 3 year old colts coming in for the Greenham Stakes, a very important trial for the 2000 Guineas.
No horse would be anything but impressive at this level. All were being led round, in the peak of condition, a visual feast of power and beauty. And then – Wollow came in. He was quite extraordinary; not particularly robust, tall and still quite leggy but oh my, what presence. His head held high, a stunning head; totally imperious and somehow looking down on, and apart from, every other colt in the ring. He moved like a ballerina, elegant and light. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The big burly colts suddenly became uninteresting, he was covered in stardust and he knew it. Luckily so did I!
He won by 7 lengths.