Monday, May 16, 2016
Every horse has a natural level of ability. As a trainer or jockey you do your best to help the horse reach that level. However, although there is only so much you can do to make an animal run faster, you can work on a horse's mental state, which I'm adamant is vitally important to how racehorses perform.
What I'm going to say now is what all trainers already know. My views are in no way revolutionary, and for many horsemen I'll only be stating the obvious, but those who have no experience of thoroughbreds might be surprised that what a trainer does involves the horse's head and wellbeing as much as the body and fitness.
Two of my recent winners provide good examples of that.
Dynamo runs at Lingfield on Tuesday when I'm hopeful he'll be able to follow up last month's win at the track.
When we got him he had been beaten on the Flat, over hurdles and fences. On his first few starts for us he showed very little, but at Chelmsford in early March he stayed on to finish fourth in a handicap, albeit only off a rating of 46.
As I explained last week, we then decided to let our apprentice Stephanie Joannides ride him at Lingfield, where she was a little unlucky on him. The way he ran was really encouraging, so we let him go there again two days later and he hosed up.
What is interesting to me, and hopefully to you, is the horse has been totally transformed since that win. It's a bit of cliche to say horses know when they have won, but I genuinely believe they do. Dynamo certainly does.
It's true he has been helped by the weather. When he arrived in the winter he was a little miserable. Since the sun started to shine and temperatures turned warmer he has been so much happier. As a result, he now spends at least four hours in a paddock every evening. When I see him in that paddock I hardly recognise him from the horse who was here just a few weeks ago.
We used to have to put a breast-girth on him in his canters as he was so skinny. Now we don't. He has filled out and become rounder. That is visual evidence of him having really turned a corner. More than that, he has actually changed colour and is now a beautiful rich bay having previously been a bit wishy-washy.
I'm sure the turnaround we've seen in Dynamo has come to a significant extent because, due to that win at Lingfield, he has gained self-belief and confidence. I know he is only lowly-rated but it's still lovely when you see a horse change so much for the better.
I accept the winning post might not look very different to a furlong marker but horses know that when a jockey eases off at the end of a race their job is over. You only have to watch how quickly they stop to see that.
You see so many horses who have ten duck eggs against their name suddenly winning two races back to back. I don't think that's always simply because a horse has become well handicapped. Loads of those horses will have won for the first time at 20-1 when their connections genuinely had no expectation of a win. However, once the horse has won a race, and crucially feels like he has won a race, he can blossom. That's all down to confidence.
I hope Cape Discovery now has plenty of confidence after he won on his first start for us at Windsor 12 days ago. He, too, is a horse, who is already an example of a happy horse being a more effective horse.
Cape Discovery used to live at the end of a row of boxes. You could tell he wasn't relaxed and that his mind was doing overtime because his head was always out of the box. For his first two months with us he also used to sweat every morning. A couple of weeks ago we tucked him away in a different box. He stopped living with his head outside of his stable and he stopped sweating as well. He was no longer worrying and he started sleeping more, which is also vital.
Horses need their sleep. We feed them at about 5am. After they've been mucked out they will have a roll in their fresh shavings before staying down for a sleep in their fresh bed. In the afternoons and evenings you see them doing the same.
Trainers like to see horses sleeping, snoozing or resting.
For that reason, everything closes at Weathercock House from noon until 4pm, when we open up again for two hours of evening stables. During that four-hour break there is total silence. I remember when I was a boy, aged seven or eight, going into the yard with my football and being chased out of it by the excellent Matty Lenane, who told me horses need to sleep.
They also need to eat. That used to be a problem with Cape Discovery. Since he has won he starts roaring his head off when he sees his breakfast being brought to him. Before that we were practically spoon-feeding him, giving him a smaller feed than we really wanted him to have, just so he would eat it. Now he is desperate for his food, which is absolutely what you hope to see.
Overall what you want are happy horses whose heads are in the right place.
Most modern professional sportsmen use the services of a sports psychologist. That suggests a degree of sporting performance can be attributed to an athlete's mental state. Why should it be any different with horses? There is surely every reason to think a horse's mental state can have a positive or negative impact on how well he runs.
That theory influenced how I rode as a jockey. I wanted to fill mounts with confidence, so I used to try to make a horse think he was going well, even if in reality he wasn't. I'm approaching training in a very similar way.
It's not only important for racehorses to get plenty of sleep. I'm sure it's also important for trainers to get enough kip. For this particular trainer that's proving quite difficult at the moment.
Little Dessie hasn't been sleeping great the last few nights, which means Lizzie and I have not been getting too much sleep ourselves.
That said, my lack of shut-eye is not simply due to having a baby in the house. Tony McCoy has also told me he slept better when he was a jockey. Maybe when you're living underweight and dehydrated your body needs more sleep? I'm also finding I have more on my mind than when I was riding. I was expecting that to be the case. As a jockey I never had too much to worry about, except for when I was going for the championship.
A new child and a new job means less sleep for me now.
Frankie Dettori has made a superb start to the season and he had good reason to be smiling at York after winning the Musidora and Dante on So Di Mar and Wings Of Desire.
The Dante had a much deeper field than usual and the fact Wings Of Desire could win it on just his third start, and having not raced until last month, is impressive.
I'm sure Aidan O'Brien will also have been pleased with the Dante runner-up Deauville. He was also pleased with US Army Ranger following his win in the Chester Vase. Surprisingly, not everyone seemed to accept that.
In his Tuesday Racing Post column Jonathan Mullin made some interesting points about the frosty Channel 4 interview that took place between Aidan and Nick Luck following the race. I have to admit I felt uncomfortable watching that interview. Nick, like plenty of others, may not have been overly impressed with US Army Ranger. Aidan, on the other hand, was perfectly satisfied. He said more than once to Nick that he was quite happy with his horse but that didn't seem to be the answer Nick wanted.
After big races Aidan always makes himself available to the media - and don't forget, guys, he doesn't have to do it.
Dynamo has blossomed since winning at Lingfield and has a clear chance of winning there again on Tuesday.