Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Racing start

I am the proud owner of a six-year-old ex-racehorse. He’s terribly well bred — his sire’s stud fee was in the region of $60,000, and his mother won the Princess Margaret Stakes at Ascot. If he was a human, he most definitely wouldn’t talk to me — though he was born in America, and they’re not as hung-up about class over there, are they?
Despite his grand start in life, his racing career was somewhat short-lived: having been flown to the UK at the tender age of two, he raced twice, won the second time, then tweaked a suspensory and was retired. He had a year off completely, before being brought back in for retraining, and 18 months ago I bought him for the princely sum of £100 plus VAT (which, at the time, was only 15% — as if he wasn’t bargain enough already).

If he’d had the fortune to end up with some professional rider, he’d probably be well on his way to his first two-star by now, but as it is my poor horse has been lumbered with a woefully amateur rider. Nonetheless, I do harbour wild and crazy plans to one day take him affiliated eventing. He has a scopey, stylish jump; he does a nice test, and he enjoyed his first cross-country schooling session (except for the ditch. But let’s not talk about that). All going well, the plan is to do a BE80 this season — though I did say that last year… Admittedly, it’s not exactly a gargantuan goal to aim for, but the last time I did any sort of eventing I was still in my teens, so bear with me, it’s been a while.

Actually, the last ever horse trials I did was a Pony Club two-day event, more than a decade ago (my, how time flies). I had another ex-racehorse in those days, a former chaser who had won numerous times over fences and therefore seemed an ideal eventing prospect. I’m not sure whether it was his lack of boldness over a fence, or mine (okay, it was definitely mine) but his strengths most definitely lay in the first phase. So at our last event together, we sauntered into the dressage arena with barely a 20m trot circle as a warm-up — blame teenage lethargy for that — and posted the sort of score that had the other competitors crying on their Mummy’s Puffa-clad shoulders. They really needn’t have worried, we had two refusals in the showjumping and got eliminated in the cross-county, but we had them running scared for a while.

I mention this story because that two-day event was the first, and last, time I ever encountered steeplechase fences. Terrified that my horse would take one look at them and all my careful retraining work would come instantly undone, we crept up to the first fence with all the pace and reluctance of a kerb crawler, and ground to a halt. The second attempt we managed to clamber over in an ungainly fashion, and by the third fence my horse realised what was happening and took total control, flying round at speed and meeting each fence perfectly, like he’d been ready-programmed with sat-nav. I just sat there, uselessly. I may have had my eyes closed for the majority of the round.

This moral behind this long and, ultimately, rather pointless tale is that racing and eventing go hand in hand. There are obvious similarities — the adrenalin thrill of riding a horse at speed, jumping solid obstacles at a gallop, the demand of bravery and boldness from the horse, and the rider’s need for balance, strength and skill. Oh, and both are horrendously expensive habits that are very difficult to break.

There are further links between the two sports. Take, for example, Olympic silver medallist Tina Cook, the daughter of Josh Gifford and sister of Nick Gifford, both successful trainers. Then there’s Daisy Berkeley, whose father Dave Dick won both the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It works the other way, too — Mark Todd left eventing to go train racehorses in his native New Zealand, albeit temporarily; and William Fox-Pitt has made little secret of the fact that one day he’s likely to retire from eventing and turn to training racehorses instead.

While the modern sport is full of Warmbloods, there are — I’m pleased to say — still a significant number of Thoroughbreds in competition. Former racehorses are blessed with the sort of speed, stamina and athleticism that’s made them successful at all levels of eventing, from grassroots to four-star. Initiatives like the Retraining of Racehorses’ eventing series has also made competing an ex-racer an increasingly popular option: there’s three levels of championships for this year, with first prizes ranging from £750 up to several thousand, so there’s money to be made as well.

The fact is, thousands of horses come out of training every year, and the more who can go on to successful second careers, the better. So not only are you doing an extremely good deed by taking on an ex-racer, you can also pick up a potentially decent competition horse for a very reasonable price. But while there may be obvious parallels between racing and eventing, the path from racetrack to horse trials doesn’t often run smoothly – as I know only too well. So before I dig out the old body protector and dust off the moth balls, I’ll be speaking to a number of riders to find out some of the highs and lows of eventing an ex-racer. Look out for their stories over the coming weeks.

1 comment:

  1. After taking a long break from horses, I came back 15 years ago and have ridden OTTBs ever since. There is no greater animal.