Stalls Phobia

Stalls Phobia

Monday, July 2, 2018


One of the biggest disappointments of Royal Ascot was Harry Angel being unable to show his true ability after becoming upset in the stalls.

All races start in the stalls. Harry Angel's race, in effect, ended there. He will hopefully bounce back in another major sprint, but what happened before the Diamond Jubilee Stakes was a clear reminder of the mainly unavoidable dangers associated with starting stalls.

As a jockey you are never more vulnerable than when in the stalls. Harry Angel's jockey Adam Kirby could tell you that.

There is a rail within the gates on which jockeys can put their feet down. Harry Angel managed to get one of his back feet stuck on it. When the starter - who was not to blame - let the field go, for the horse it would have been like asking him to jump on one leg.

Almost exactly the same thing that happened to Adam once happened to me - and I remember it being a total nightmare.

The gates opened but my horse did not go forward because he couldn't move forward. I felt like I was about to fall on my face.

Within two strides a thoroughbred goes from a standing start to 30 miles per hour. That speed is achieved thanks to an amazing amount of force that comes from the horse pushing off from its rear end. As a horse propels itself out of the gates his backside will drop by about three foot. The horse goes right down and then comes up from his hocks as he launches himself into a gallop. It is a massively explosive action - and one that is needed in a flight animal.

That's why a horse can easily slip if he jumps away very quickly on fast ground that has recently been rained on.

My hairiest moment in the stalls came at Newmarket in 2001. The juvenile filly I was riding had a very light mouth, so we put the lead rein in the noseband. Even so, she still flipped up and reared over, breaking my leg and putting me out of action for six months in the process.

That filly did what seems perfectly normal to a horse. When they don't want to go into the stalls their natural reaction is to rear up on their hind legs and stand high in the air. You see that a lot in two-year-old maidens.

When a horse rears up the stalls handlers know the best response is to give the horse some loose rein. Some people would think the most sensible action would be to pull the horse back down. However, if you do that you greatly increase the chance of the horse flipping over.

Our handlers understand how a horse thinks. That is why whenever there have been changes made to stalls teams, or even talk of change, the jockeys have made such a loud noise of protest. We probably have the best stalls handlers in the world.

I also remember being in the stalls once at Kempton, where my horse was persistently rearing up. He wasn't in a Harry Angel state of meltdown, rather he was just a big, strong colt who was misbehaving. I tapped him on the top of the head with the handle of my whip. He stopped immediately, probably because he thought he had hit the top bar. I got banned for five days. Had I allowed him to continue misbehaving he would have got his two front legs over the front of his stall.

When jockeys are in the stalls, they are equally responsible for ensuring their mount does not get out by going under the gates.

That means the jockey needs to have hold of sufficient rein so that if the horse does try to go under, the jockey can give a jab on the reins to keep the horse upright. That said, if you grab too short on the reins, something you often see inexperienced apprentices doing, the horse will drag you with him if he puts his head down. When that happens you become completely trapped on the horse's neck. Most experienced jockeys will therefore sit in the stalls with one elbow on the rail.

When a horse is in a really bad way the only thing to do is grab him by the ear. You are not in any way trying to hurt the horse but the ear is particularly sensitive and taking hold of it seems to act as a calming influence. You see a lot of riders touching horses' ears in the stalls in an attempt to distract them.

There is one common denominator to many of the problems we see at the start of Flat races. Many racehorses are claustrophobic.

Horses go racing in a horsebox and will normally travel in a single stall. However, an awful lot of them travel to the races in a double stall. That's because of their claustrophobia. If you put them in a single stall they would kick the box to smithereens. Granted a little more space they are fine. You see it as well in a race. Some horses do not like to be crowded in amongst the pack and prefer to come wide. Sole Power was a great example of such a horse.

I don't know why so many horses are claustrophobic, but they are. Perhaps it's linked to the fact they are, at heart, wild animals and therefore dislike being in a confined space. Most horses cope okay. Those horses who do not cope so well are not in any way mad or bad. The truth is they are likely more in touch with their natural instincts.

All trainers have to deal with horses who have stalls issues. Over the winter we left a rug on some of our babies at night and then put them in starting stalls before giving them a bowl of feed. Indeed, if you had a horse who would not enter stalls for love nor money I guarantee if you put him in a field or pen and then left feed and water in the stalls he would eat and drink eventually.

Unfortunately, with a big, strong and extremely valuable horse like Harry Angel the job is not so straightforward, but Clive Cox is a superb trainer and I'm sure he'll think of something.

In a more general sense, there is not a great deal you can do to make things safer at the start - although I know Gary Witheford, the greatest stalls expert in racing, wants Britain to follow the lead of other jurisdictions by allowing tappers. These are basically sticks that you use to tap the horse on the back of the legs as a way of encouraging them to move in the correct direction. This is far better than using a blindfold.

My personal gripe, and it is one I've been banging a drum about for years, is the need for total silence at the start.

There is nothing worse than someone roaring the stalls numbers as it upsets horses. Equally, when the starter shouts, "ready jockeys", just before pressing the button it puts the horses on edge as they seek to anticipate the gates opening.

They stopped doing this in Hong Kong and instead introduced traffic lights. Amber means a couple of horses are still to be loaded, while green means the starter is set to press the button at any time. Similarly, in France you wouldn't hear a pin drop at the start. You also see far fewer horses misbehaving there, in my experience.

There are not many things we can do to increase safety at the start. Silence would be simple to achieve and could make things at least a bit better.

Even Warriors can have an off day

You should always forgive a horse one below par run - and I'm very happy to forgive Saxon Warrior in the expectation he wins the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby.

Ballydoyle's top colt did not even run a bad race at Epsom. He finished fourth, which is perfectly respectable, but we know he can do a lot better and he ought to show that at the Curragh.

Moreover, his effort at Epsom was magnified as he was favourite for the Derby. On the same day any number of horses will have underperformed but nobody will have said anything.

Every athlete has a bad day now and again, even the very best. That's why guys like Federer and Nadal sometimes lose tennis matches they should really win with ease.

There are many occasions when if a horse unexpectedly fails to fire, it's best not to think too much about it but simply accept it and move on.

Heat hasn't left us hot under the collar

It has been hot this week but I would be lying if I said it had impacted on us to any great degree.

Every horse has been given a wash in the morning, regardless of whether we've thought the horse needed one or not. We've been giving them more electrolytes to keep them hydrated and we've found some of the wooden boxes have become pretty warm.

Otherwise, though, the heat has been no big deal. In fact, I would have the heat any day over the Beast from the East that hit us in the spring.

Hughesie's Hottie

Wissahickon looked like a Group horse in the making when winning at Lingfield and can climb another rung of the ladder in a hot handicap at York (3.20).