Monday, September 19, 2016
For our yard, and for many others, this has at times been a season of sickness. Numerous trainers, including many in Newmarket, have spoken of having endured quiet periods due to some sort of virus that seemed to spread far and wide. We certainly did not escape.
Roger Varian and Saeed Bin Suroor were among those who openly discussed their experiences of going through a few difficult weeks. They showed the patience you need in such circumstances.
So did we and, thankfully, we have come out the other side.
Our problems started in May and, in truth, the horses were probably sick for eight weeks. But it wasn't all the horses. Only the two-year-olds were affected. My older horses were still winning left, right and centre. In some ways the way they were running disguised the problem we were having
Key to that problem was an absence of medical symptoms. Our juveniles did not even have snotty noses. What you look for when you think you have sickness is a good old dirty green snotty nose or a scope full of mucus. We didn't see that.
What we did find were their noses were quite scaly - not dirty, but not clean, either.
Scoping the horses and giving them tracheal washes showed a lot of them were troubled by bacteria. When that happens it's advised you treat them with an antibiotic. However, antibiotics certainly flatten me when I'm on them, so I was loathe to use them. This time, though, I felt I had to.
I need not have bothered. One bacteria simply followed another. What made the situation so baffling was the tests showed zero mucus, zero phlegm and zero blood.
The two-year-olds were also extremely quiet. You might have been walking one on a rein and a car would have gone by but the horse would not even have raised his head.
When you spent time with them you felt like you were looking at horses who were suffering from depression.
One Sunday morning I decided to water them myself. What I discovered was every one of the colts' troughs was full of water. Every trough should have been empty. That was another sign.
When horses are sick they will continue to eat as usual, although you can't feed them as much as you would do normally because if they're not doing their usual amount of work, you can't give them their usual amount of food, otherwise they get fat. The appetite of a sick horse won't change much, but they do lose their desire to take water. Dad told me years ago that it's when they stop drinking that you're in trouble.
We ran one or two of them. Their blood and scope three days prior to running was perfect but when they ran I watched with horror as they fell out the back of the television.
These were horses who were ready to run a nice, solid race. After they had run we would go over them with a fine toothcomb. They would scope okay with no mucus to be seen, yet regardless of what those tests were showing, I've been around horses long enough to know what a two-year-old should be like.
I asked myself: 'If I had the flu, how long would it last?'
I took the view that I still have to go to work when I feel crap. When I have the flu I know I'm not going to die, so I felt it was important for the horses to carry on exercising, but without stressing them. At least that also meant they weren't continually stuck in their boxes.
During those difficult weeks some of the greatest experts in the field came to see my horses. Some of these were people who helped Dad when he was going through a similar experience, back in the day when you would rarely hear the word 'virus' in connection with horses. I remember going out to ride horses for Dad that he thought would be placed. I would have to pull them up with a circuit to go.
In that regard Flat trainers are luckier than jumps trainers. Flat horses with a virus will run badly, whereas jump horses won't physically be capable of finishing a race because they have further to run and are placed under more stress for that reason. The damage done to Flat horses is also less than with jumpers as the stress placed on the lungs is not as severe.
After we shifted the bacteria from the horses, although they were scientifically better, I knew they were still not right. I sent blood samples to Newmarket and Ireland. All those who tested the blood reported back to us by saying we categorically did not have a virus in the yard. I told them I did. "Well, Richard," they would say, "scientifically you do not."
Looking back, the signs were bad over the winter.
When we gave our horses their Christmas vaccinations they coughed for about five days. That was it. I would rather see rubbish coming out them for ten days. When you give the vaccinations you are actually giving the horses a dose of the flu. You want them to get it so they are then protected for the rest of the year through the building up of their immune system. However, for that to happen you also require a cold winter that kills off bugs. We didn't have that
How did we get rid of it? I don't know. The only answer I can give was through patience. Nature did its thing.
We have so much more technology to help us but it was only through what we saw with our own eyes that we started to realise we were coming good again. Suddenly riders were having to hold on for dear life on the gallops. Stuart Messenger, who worked for many years in a senior role for Sir Michael Stoute, started telling me the two-year-olds had begun attacking him again at feeding time. It was obvious we had turned a corner.
We still don't know what caused the two-year-olds to become sick. That seems surprising but maybe it's not. My mother once had to go to a hospital with a virus. It nearly killed her but they still don't know what it was that hit her. That's in the human world, so you can imagine how far behind we are when it comes to racehorses. I think this may be a very mild form of some sort of horse sickness - after all, racehorses travel the world every day of the week.
I can say with certainty that Weathercock House is clean as a whistle because our boxes are tested for fungi by the Irish Equine Centre every six weeks. What I also know is one of my vets, Mick O'Gorman, who has been in the sport much longer than most of us, told me he had seen nothing like it before.
I can only talk about my own horses but, reading between the lines, it must be likely the problems so many of us experienced this year were linked, even if everyone's own situation was probably a little different.
I know this sounds awful but I was nearly pleased to hear other trainers were in the same boat. It convinced me the problems with our two-year-olds were not simply in my imagination. I know this was real. Some people in racing still say a virus is an excuse for slow horses. Heaven help them if their horses ever get it.
It was a fright, and it was frustrating, but we didn't do any damage.
Moreover, although I was unlucky to have sickness in my first full season with a licence, I was also lucky to have owners who were completely patient and supportive through that difficult period. They trusted me enough to accept I couldn't do anything with the horses during that time.
It was undoubtedly a rude awakening to being a racehorse trainer. However, what doesn't beat you makes you stronger. We've still had 30 winners so far this calendar year, so maybe I was more fortunate than others.
On top of all that, although I'm not a professor of equine science I've been reminded that whatever your eyes tell you is probably the truth.