It seems to me that with flat racers, we want to see the high profile stars go on for longer, so that we can enjoy their stories and successes for longer, hoping our favourites get another year before heading to the studs or to homes outside of racing to discover a new career.
This is what I love about National hunt racing, we fall in love with the horses, we feel connected to their wins and loses and we can do this for years, following the highs and the lows, rooting for the underdogs and revelling in the amazing comebacks after injury, time off or a poor run of form.
But how do we really know when it’s the right time to retire a horse? I’ve had a few people recently ask me about horses such as Tiger Roll, Don Poli, Perfect Candidate and Laurina, asking me when should horses retire, what are the signs that a horse isn’t loving their job anymore and is age a factor? These questions have led me to putting my thoughts together in a less restrictive format than a 240 character tweet.
Is age a factor?
Yes. Absolutely and without a doubt. However, I don’t think it is as big of a factor as it used to be. In the last ten years we have had huge advancements in veterinary and holistic treatments and we know so much more about how to keep our horses in the best physical condition. Whether that is through physio treatment, swimming, water treadmills, holistic treatments such as laser therapy or feed supplements, the options for helping these athletes are endless.
Another area in which there have been huge advancements is in the surfaces that horses train on. So much goes into finding the best surfaces that create good footing for the horses to train on and can be used in all weathers. It’s then about trainers working their horses on the surfaces that are best suited to the horses and their race types. If horses work on a surface all the time that replicates the feel of good ground, then they enter a race on soft or heavy ground, they’re probably going to struggle. This is way many trainers are investing in deep sand gallops, to help replicate these conditions. Horses bodies work differently on these types of surfaces and training on varied surfaces will not only help on race days, but helps create a strong all round athlete, hopefully leading to longevity in their careers.
After all, that is what they are, athletes and they should be treated as such. We can’t expect our favourite footballers to be at their peak forever, nor can we expect this from our horses. But we can do things to help keep them feeling young.
I was asked this in relation to Don Poli and Perfect Candidate. After their performances at Haydock recently someone said ‘Would you retire Don Poli given his age? Or would you look at Perfect Candidate and hope there was more to come?’
For me, I couldn’t possibly say or have an opinion. In the race Don Poli looked to me like he was wasn’t feeling it. Where as PC just kept going, no matter what, he kept trying to please his jockey. But as a viewer, there’s so much we don’t see. I’m fortunate in that I’ve ridden Perfect Candidate and ridden behind Don Poli. At home Don Poli looked great, he looked enthusiastic, keen and in amazing condition and from that I can see why his connections would keep him in training.
But he has nothing left to prove!
You can probably guess who I’ve seen this written about. But to be clear, it’s the small and mighty Tiger Roll. I totally agree that Tiger has given us all so much joy, he’s been a wonderful horse to follow for fans and I’m sure a horse of a lifetime for his connections. But to me, that doesn’t mean he should stop.
We’ve seen footage of him training and schooling, loving his work, keen, enthusiastic and every inch the racehorse that he has always been. As fans, we should be giving him more of a chance and again, trusting that his connections have his best interests at heart.
Unfortunately, Tiger Roll is a gelding, he can’t be sent to stud or to the breeding sheds and outside of racing he isn’t a valuable horse. He could go and retire and enjoy the rest of his days in the paddock, or retrain to do something else, but then as fans we wouldn’t be able to see him, follow his journey and support the horse we have grown so fond of. And whilst he doesn’t have anything to prove, if he still enjoys the training and still enjoys racing, then we may as well scream him home.
What are the signs that a horse is ready to retire?
I suppose there’s no real firm answer to this as there are so many different signs that horses can give us and it is up to the horsemen and women of the racing community to look and listen for these signs.
Whether that is a change in enthusiasm, taking longer to recover after a race, a change in attitude on the ground, essentially just any change that may indicate that something mentally or physically is meaning the horse no longer enjoys the job.
After that I’d say the best thing to do is actually investigate rather than retire the horse. There are plenty of things that can be resolved that may lead to a lack of performance. Stomach ulcers are prevelant in ex-racehorses and many horses that retire due to lack of performance, may have just benefitted from a scope of the digestive system and treatment or management of ulcers. Investigations into bone structures and joints can also help. I’ve cared for horses that have shown no lameness, but have changed in their enthusiasm or worked differently to compensate for joint issues, with investigations and catching arthritic changes early, there’s lots to be done to help and support the horses and get them back to a good level of work.
Equally sometimes the issues aren’t physical, sometimes it is a mental thing and connections to the horses could consider a change of environment. After all, how many of us haven’t actually disliked our jobs, we’ve just disliked where we work, or got tired of the same routine?
A change of trainer, a change of training plan or a change of jockey can have a massive effect on a horse. It can help to refresh them, trainers, jockeys and work riders may have new ideas that help the horses. The facilities may mean that the horse can have a routine in its work or down time that actually suit it better.
Laurina is a prime example of this, the change of scenery may have helped the mare, she looked in wonderful condition what turned out to be her final appearance and she looked a happy, healthy horse on the outside. But obviously the move of yard couldn’t stop the underlying issue of her breeding and I believe her retirement is the best decision for her.
Let the horse go out on top.
This is one that really bugs me, I don’t really know why, but after Don Poli and Perfect Candidate’s recent appearance, you had people calling for Don Poli’s retirement because ‘he doesn’t want to race’ and Perfect Candidate’s retirement because ‘we should let him go out on top’.
My issue with this is that people apparently can’t be pleased, they want the horses to retire when they’re not happy and they want them to be retired when they are happy.
But is retiring a horse, that clearly loves his job, at the best interest of the horse?
If PC was retired now, would he have as good a quality of life? Would he be loved in the same way that he is loved by the Fergal O’Brien team? And besides, PC wouldn’t know the difference between retiring after a win and retiring after a poorer run. The horses do not associate like that and I think the ‘let the horse go out on top’ is more for our benefit than theirs sometimes.
I think ultimately, as fans of the sport and lovers of horses, we need to put our trust and faith in the people who care for these horses day in and day out. The grooms who get up before sunrise and do night checks when many of us are in bed, the trainers who see the horses work everyday and tailor the routines to the horses needs and the owners who work so hard to pay thousands of pounds a year and dare to dream of winners, deep down they are all horse lovers, who know these horses better than we do and want the best for them.
A horse gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart and wins with his character.
Thank you as ever for taking the time to read my pieces. I’m hoping to be out and about doing more yard visits soon.
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And a special thank you to Jack and Tom at JTW Equine Images for the photos in this piece.