By Gai Waterhouse
I have just returned from an annual visit to the UK and it's always a learning curve. Newmarket celebrated 350 years of horse racing since King Charles II traveled to this small town in Suffolk and commanded that a course be created to enable him to run a race in his name. This was the beginning of modern horse racing.
English racing is fascinating. The public have the privilege of being able to interact with Her Majesty The Queen and The Royal Family in a much more informal way.
It is wonderful to see the sheer exultation on Her Majesty's face when one of her horses wins at the Royal Meeting, and a great reminder for us all that they are still human beings and they too feel the thrill and excitement that we all experience when our horses reach the pinnacle of success.
The abundance of races over varying distances are a joy to behold. One of my most treasured memories in this historic town was watching our great friend, Frances Stanley, ride in the Newmarket Town Plate. In 1666 the inaugural Town Plate was run and won by King Charles II and he stated that it should be run forever. The race is over three miles and six furlongs of the Newmarket Round Course, adjacent to Frances and Peter Stanley's New England Stud back paddocks. The race is started by flag and there are stipulations for both horse and rider. Horses must be at least four years old and have finished first, second or third in a British or Irish point-to-point steeplechase in the last 18 months. Horses carry 12 stone and overweight is limited to four pounds with a maximum permitted field of 15 runners. Riders must be 16 or older and professional jockeys, stable staff and grooms are not permitted to ride. The winner is presented with a box of Newmarket Sausages, a product the town is almost as proud of as its racing. It is a truly marvellous event which has been won by both an accountant and a neurosurgeon in recent years, and this year it was won by one of the greatest supporters of our industry, Sheikh Fahad Al Thani, whose racing silks have been carried to victory in none other than the Melbourne Cup aboard Dunaden. I am not convinced that the moment Dunaden crossed the line that day, Sheikh Fahad had envisaged himself carrying the yellow and blue silks to victory at the famous July course, but his exultation as he passed the winning post in front was clear for all to see. A prince won the race and an MP finished second–what a wonderful start to any race meeting.
The July Cup is a Group 1 sprint over 1200 metres on Newmarket's July course, and it would have to be one of the most testing sprint races in the world. I walked the track and I can assure you it is very testing. To race ride in England, jockeys have to be extremely fit. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens once said, “I thought I was fit until I went to England. It's a whole new ball game over there.” James McDonald, who is originally from New Zealand, but is now based in Australia as Godolphin's number one rider, put in some breathtaking rides in the UK. He steered Big Orange to victory in the G2 Prince Of Wales's S., leading from pillar to post giving the gelding back-to-back victories in the race. He used the horse's speed and outwitted his fellow riders, a technique that is certainly underutilised, especially in Europe. Down Under it is a popular trend for horses to come from back in the field but being married to a statistician and form student, it is interesting to note that those expected to be in the first quarter of the field, win about 25% more than their numbers would indicate.
Many years ago, when my father T.J. Smith first took out a training licence, he and my mother Valerie traveled to America. Dad was determined to learn more, better himself and improve his knowledge, enabling him to achieve his desire of being Australia's greatest trainer. He returned with one invaluable piece of information that became a game changer: the amount of corn and oats that was fed in the 50s in the U.S. was far greater than that fed to the Australian horses, most of which were being fed a chaff base. Dad returned to Sydney and immediately changed his feeding program with the assistance of veterinary sensation, Dr. Percy Sykes. His winning total for a season went from very few winners in 1947/1948 to 26 in 1951/1952, to 54 and the start of his 33-year Sydney Premiership run in 1952/53. If you want to read more about my father, his biography, The Midas Man, is a riveting story.
Similar to my father, I have noticed the difference between the feeds in the UK and Australia. Most horses in training in England are fed pellets or cubes, which reminded me rather of chicken feed. Over the years, I have experimented with a number of different feeds, but I have found that the most important ingredient is corn, and it is the ingredient that appears to be lacking in the European diet. I have noticed that when the European horses come to Australia, there's big changes in their physical development. They grow and strengthen, and bloodstock agent Johnny McKeever has said, “I'm astounded with the increase in body weight and muscle tone the horses I purchase for Australia put on in such a short period of time; they grow several inches.”
The most popular training track for speed work in Newmarket is the Al Bahathri, an all-weather gallop commissioned by Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum and named in honour of his great filly who won the G1 Irish 1000 Guineas and the G1 Coronation S. amongst many more before going on to be a very influential
broodmare. In 1983 the filly was purchased from Keeneland's July Sale for $650,000, a huge sum at the time. Rob and I found it interesting that trainers elect to use the more gradual gradient of the Al Bahathri track when giving horses their final gallop, as opposed to the more pronounced and testing canters where horses undertake their slower work.
It is very hard to compare English and European training facilities to those that we have in Australia, America and many parts of Asia. What they do develop is great stamina, and I know from training European horses that their aerobic levels are far superior to my Australian stayers. Japan, similar to Europe, has a strong focus on building a horse's aerobic capacity and this can be seen in their successes on racetracks around the world.
Speaking of Japan, I was delighted to see Charles “Chuck” Fipke, proprietor of C.F. Farms, make the pilgrimage to Hokkaido, where he purchased the Deep Impact–Topliner yearling filly (lot 81) from Katsumi Yoshida's Northern Farm draft. Being a half-sister to Group 1 winner Star Billing, the Deep Impact filly's blue-blooded pedigree caught the eye of Chuck, an astute breeder in his own right, having bred multiple Grade I winners such as Perfect Soul, Perfect Shirl and impressive filly Forever Unbridled. Chuck, no stranger to the dominance of Sunday Silence as a broodmare sire, also bred and raced Tale of Ekati, a Grade I-winning son of Tale of the Cat out of Silence Beauty (Sunday Silence).
With two days of inspections, the team–under the watchful eye of the Lady Trainer (via videos and photos taken on ground– technology is such a dream)–Co-trainer Adrian Bott and International Bloodstock Advisor Su-Ann Khaw motored along on the hunt for a regally bred filly reigning from the sire line of the great Sunday Silence. The striking daughter of Deep Impact showed plenty of scope and athleticism in her appearance, ticking all the boxes both on pedigree and type for the team. We agreed in unison lot 81 certainly presented herself as the most attractive filly in the Select Sale, and I'm elated Chuck secured his very own precious gem.
As the old adage goes, 'The world is constantly moving forward so if you are standing still, you are moving backwards.' I think that it is important to be open-minded and learn from others, no matter what we think our own credentials are. I certainly don't intend to let the grass grow under my feet.