HORSE AND HOUND COLUMN
When is a canter not a canter? When, outsiders will tell you, it is in a racing stable where to them it seems perilously close to a flat out gallop. In racing itself it varies from yard to yard and if anything it is getting quicker.
Time was when the big thing about riding out with a trainer’s string was trying to overcome the endlessly threatened feeling of the brakes failing and your horse taking charge and heading off into the wide blue yonder. Everyone has an indelible memory which only grows in drama over the years. Mine was in the Cleeve Hill mist above Cheltenham almost fifty years ago. Horses pulled harder then – or this one did.
He was a great big white faced bay called Time who in an earlier life had won the National Hunt Chase under a polished amateur called Ian Balding (wonder what happened to him?) and then started favourite in the Grand National under Tom Scudamore’s grandfather Michael Scudamore who is still very much with us in his eighties. Time was a good ride provided you had him anchored. He was anchored as I led the Frenchy Nicholson string on their long easy canter around the moorland heights of Cleeve Hill which was the standard exercise of his and many yards at that time. It was the pulling up that was the problem.
For just as I managed to ease him into a trot another horse in the string came past and the pair of us set off together at a gathering pace and into a rapidly thickening fog. Very soon the other lad and I were in the position everyone who has ever ridden a racehorse most dreads – two horses upsides and out of control taking each other on heading not just into the unseeable distance but down a route between two walls which ended in a quarry.
We had time to talk and it was not a good conversation. Neither of us had the guts to bail out and anyway they were two of the best horses in the string. It was a living, thundering, doom-set nightmare. Suddenly some gorse bushes loomed out of the fog. In jumping the first of them the horses checked their momentum just as we spotted the quarry wall ahead of us. It was check enough for us to circle violently and somehow resume control. It was – as they used to say in war movies – a damned close run thing.
It is much less likely to happen now because the default position for a training string is no longer the long, steady paced, hard pulling “canter” around the Downs but a short, sharp breeze up the all-weather. It is not that new a phenomenon. At the height of Henry Cecil’s flat race dominance in the 80s his string was renowned for doing the fastest “first canter” up Newmarket’s Warren Hill, and it was during the same era that Martin Pipe broke the old fashioned mould of jump training by getting his horses what then seemed shockingly lean and hard by interval training up and down his four furlong all-weather strip in Somerset. Now everybody does it and rather than worrying about the brakes your main concentration is often just keeping up.
Such reflections are prompted by a visit last week to the North Yorkshire yard of David O’Meara whose fourth season as a trainer has continued the fastest upward climb of any operator in the land. No surprise perhaps to find that David has adapted the basic no-nonsense approach practiced by his mentors Philip Hobbs and Jim Bolger. The horses hack very gently down to the end of the all-weather strip, turn round and come winging back. The most important thing you are doing is not holding but balancing.
Jim Bolger has always believed in allowing a horse to use his natural stride but is also as curious about other trainers’ routines as he is about every other subject on the planet. So, on knowing that one of his staff had worked in many of the top yards in Europe, Bolger asked how his first “canter” compared and took some satisfaction in the answer. It was quicker, he was told, than everyone but Andre Fabre. It was what we wanted to do all those years ago – let them roll.