3 March 2002
Swedish horseman takes the softly-softly route in teaching horses to overcome jumping difficulties
Yogi Breisner is the David Leadbetter of racing. He teaches horses to jump, not golfers to swing. But his players cannot tell him how they feel. “Oh yes they can,” says Breisner. “We have a lot of communication.”
He is Swedish. In his main sport, three-day eventing, he took his own £200 bargain horse Ultima to win European gold and after 20 years over here is now performance director for the British teams. His real name is Goran (without the Sven). He is a fuller, more ruddy-faced Eriksson without the glasses, and his World Cup this year is the Cheltenham Gold Cup a week on Thursday. Leading contenders Bacchanal and Marlborough are Breisner pupils. A couple of years ago both of them had plenty to communicate about. Most of it bad.
Their problems were totally different. Marlborough, 16-2 hands high (5ft, 5ins at the shoulder), dark bay, roman-nosed and elegantly handsome, was ludicrously flawed and over-bold when he first tried steeplechase fences. True, he ran up a hat-trick of wins and had a lovely flowing natural leap, but he also failed to get round three times in his opening eight attempts. He was a beautiful player in search of a brain.
With Bacchanal you could spot the trouble before he even got to the tee. . . sorry, to the steeplechase start. He’s a more barrel-bodied, light chesnut and at 520kgs is 18kgs heavier than his confederate at Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows stables outside Lambourn. But though he also stands 16-2, he looks much smaller because of the low set of his short, little neck with a small, albeit intelligent, head at the end of it. Bacchanal has a balance problem. If he were a golfer, his swing would make you shudder.
His hurdling career climaxed with a glorious defeat of the Irish star, Limestone Lad, in the Stayers’ Hurdle at the 2000 Cheltenham Festival. But even there his jumping technique was awkward and heavy-headed. He had and has more power and stamina than any horse in the country. But even a minor mistake can cost you three lengths, with 24 birch-packed obstacles to cross in the Gold Cup; a race in which, amazingly, he and Marlborough now represent the first ever runners for the Henderson stable. Bacchanal needed to build a method that could withstand the heat.
That’s where the trainer should earn his corn, and there are those that say that Nicky Henderson is abrogating his responsibility by calling on outside (and Swedish) help and having regular Breisner clinics. Henderson shrugs wearily at the criticism. “They can say what they like,” he says, not bothering to mention a mere 24 Festival winners in the last 17 years, “but I think what Yogi does is marvellous. It gives the horses, and often the riders, a specialised eye on what they do.”And the way he does it is by building confidence. In all the time he has been coming here, I have never heard him shout.”
The quiet authority in that soft, careful Swedish accent is the most pervading characteristic of the 90-minute session. Horse after horse would come in to practise just three show jumps set up by Breisner on the sandy surface: a 3ft-high plastic gate down one side of the 100ft-long school, a row of red oil barrells and then a blue and yellow double to be raised and spread depending on the individual.
The instructions are few, the interjections gentle. The difference between this and the ranting which used to accompany the traditional “why can’t you effing jockeys do anything right” British schooling session, has an uncanny similarity to how Breisner’s fellow-countryman, Eriksson, has tackled our national game.
“We are trying to get horses to help themselves,” says Breisner, as a young mare fresh from France forgets her lines and crashes through the gate, “trying to understand what they find difficult. With Bacchanal it was obvious that his balance was very much on his forehand, so we have put the combination jumps closer together, making him come back and sort himself out. His method will never be very pretty but he has gradually built up his own way of doing it and is quite effective now.”
So what of Bacchanal’s pronounced right-handedness which disfigured the early part of his recent win at Newbury much as a tournament player slicing off into the rough? “Well, we did discover that his right hind shoe had been torn off in the race; that could be excuse enough,” he says. “But we might try putting something on his bridle to help him think straight.”
With Marlborough, going straight wasn’t the problem, unless you count going straight on when take-off was the sensible option. “He always had a great jump in him,” says Breisner, “but he would tend to over-jump, come down too steep, and unnerve himself. So we would put a pole out the far side of a spread to make him stretch more in the leap. And we tried to make him handle situations for himself.”
That included jumping some pretty big obstacles. “There would be poles set well over five foot,” says stable jockey Mick Fitzgerald. “He jumped them well, but I was amazed.”
Fitzgerald was still discomfited when his first two tries on Marlborough ended in disaster and Henderson gives much of the credit for the horse’s subsequent five victories and eight consecutive clear rounds to his jockey’s decision to anchor Marlborough at the back of the field in search of concentration. The jockey himself is in no doubt where the honour is due.
“Yogi has been a fantastic help, not just to the horses but to me,” says Fitzgerald, who as a highly skilled golfer treasures a good coach’s touch. “He understands it all so well. I used to be much too active with my hands, was too keen to push my weight forward in front of the jump. It’s similar to golf because practise under supervision reinforces your technique.”
“With Marlborough we had to jump him enough so he can do it in his sleep. With Bacchanal, who can also get quite nervous, like he was at Newbury, we have to get him confident in his own way of doing it. That means practise, and making that practise a good experience. These horses now are right on top of their game.”
“Yes,” says Breisner with that voice out of which Malmo will never wash, “we have to listen to what they tell us.”