I think about it a lot. I mean for prolonged periods, frequently, every day. More than anything else in my life.
I’m talking about spending hours of my spare time pressing play, pause and rewind to understand it better. Making copious notes about it, in a mysterious short-hand that will be seen and understood only by me. Being unable to go back to sleep at 3am, my unconscious mind working away at it.
Naturally, I’m talking about racing, horse racing: my love, my livelihood, my life. And here, where the race between the fast and the slow, the quick and the steady, matters so much, seems like a good place to explain myself and my, all right then, obsession.
I’m talking about wrestling at the most inopportune moments with the irrepressible thought that 14 furlongs on a flat, galloping track with a long straight might be the ideal circumstances in which a horse called Caplin could win two months from now. (By the way, you’ll find English translations of most of these terms at the end of this piece.)
Caplin isn’t going to win the Derby, you understand. He’s a relatively unremarkable horse, in truth, but I think about him. And it’s not just him. I think about Skymax and Allmankind. About Prejudice, Bo Samraan and Spargrove. And Eagles By Day.
I wonder whether racehorse trainer Marco Botti is ever going to try Al Hamdany over two miles on the all-weather. If you’re reading this, Marco: these aren’t the droids you’re looking for and two miles on the all-weather is what Al Hamdany wants. Even 14 furlongs would be a start. You can go about your business.
Of course, unless you share my obsession you won’t have heard of these horses. Indeed, you might never get to hear of them… unless I can persuade you that following their unfolding stories is something that should interest you, even if you think horse racing has no appeal. Even if your instinct is to dislike it.
This is not about gambling. I haven’t “got any tips?”, as I’m always asked whenever a stranger forcibly extracts from me what I do for a living. Either that or they look profoundly bored and blurt out “I don’t really follow horse racing” as if I’m about to rope them into some horse-based pyramid scheme in a desperate attempt to feed my betting habit.
You don’t have to bet to like racing. Most people like both but it’s not obligatory. I like it because it actively tests my understanding of the sport. But to focus primarily on the gambling – even when you’re having a bet – is to miss the point.
Instead, think of every race as the denouement of a series of plot devices, the subtleties of which can bring about wholly different conclusions with the change of just one variable. Your task is to envisage the ending.
This is not the fool’s pastime you might assume it to be. It’s a highly complex logic puzzle. The NHS should prescribe racing as dramatised sudoku: the 3.20 at Catterick can save your mind. The latest medical research advises starting early to reap the full benefits of this mental boot-camp. Doctor, in this case I’m telling the truth: I got the habit when I was eight.
I was reminded of this just a few weeks ago, when my mum and I were clearing out her loft. In a carrier bag carefully labelled in the much neater hand of my youth, we came across more than 300 model horses I accrued as a child, at 30p to 70p a pop from my weekly pocket money – the surplus to be spent on three 10p cross doubles and a 10p treble on that afternoon’s televised racing, any winnings played up at Monmore Green dogs that night. (Dog racing = lower difficulty rating.)
These three-inch-high figures were used to recreate the thriving training centre of Newmarket, underneath the dining table in a boldly carpeted room in Wolverhampton. Or else they re-enacted a past Grand National, frame-by-frame accuracy supported via my VHS recording of the race – plastic tab removed to prevent my aunt overlaying it with an episode of The Thorn Birds.
My grandpa was to blame for all this. I adored him and he spent his spare time picking out the horses he was going to bet on, telling us which were going to win, walking to the local bookies, inexplicably changing his bet at the last minute, watching his original selection triumph and wondering why he had changed his mind. This was the meaning of Saturdays for me.
As I got older, he would take me to the occasional race meeting – including Champion Chase day at the Cheltenham Festival, for which my otherwise uber-strict parents would annually permit me to skip school.
It was there I learned to practise the full ritual: surveying the horses in the paddock, watching these powerful athletes gallop to the start, competing to find the best price about my selection amid the intoxicating energy of the betting ring, losing myself in the theatre of the race, letting my emotional response to what I witnessed pour unfettered from my mouth and then cheering the principal actors – steaming from their exertions, jockeys victoriously upright in their stirrups – back into the winner’s enclosure.
One such day in 1986 I crossed the threshold to addiction, when I first set eyes on Very Promising – the horse most responsible for my love of racing. He’s looking over my shoulder right now from my study wall, captured in perpetual flight at Cheltenham’s final fence. That day in the Champion Chase he finished second to runaway winner Buck House, trying in vain all the way up that final climb to reel in the swifter horse.
Later that year, the joy his narrow Mackeson Gold Cup success evinced in me caused even my mum’s order to “stop jumping up and down on the settee” to turn into a pleading exhortation for success. Very Promising could never quite win at the Festival, however, tingeing those invigorating days with a sharp pang of melancholy on the long train journey home.
It was also at Cheltenham where I was forced to confront the grim reality of death in the afternoon. One of my favourite chasers, Hazy Sunset, was put down just yards from where I was standing. I was a townie, I had no experience of livestock and therefore deadstock. I’d buried a few goldfish. This was shocking.
I cried, to the evident social discomfort of my grandpa, and my conscience worked away at it for a long time. I still reflect on the morality of my chosen sport and whether it poses an acceptable risk to the well-being of its participants. Back then, to the doubtless relief of my parents, I did not articulate my compulsion via demands for expensive riding lessons. Instead, I immersed myself in the sport as an observer.
I bought the sport’s specialist newspaper, the Racing Post, on a Saturday whereas my grandpa continued to pick his horses from The Sun. I plotted campaigns for racehorses I imagined into life, keeping copious records about wins and losses that existed only in my head. I produced a weekly newspaper, detailing their exploits for a readership of one.
When I went to university, this complex fantasy world was shouldered out by work and friends and evenings playing pool in the college bar but I still kept my hand in – dropping into Ladbrokes on my way back from tutorials, persuading uncomprehending fellow students to switch over from Pingu so I could watch the Derby in the TV room, slipping off to Newbury by myself – the delicious spontaneity – rather than attending lectures. Racecourses were safe spaces for lone females and the exhilaration of standing next to a fence – the speed of the competitors, the crash of the birch as they jumped, the jockeys shouting encouragement – was a secret far removed from my everyday life.
There was a University Turf Club but it never occurred to me to join it. My relationship with racing was not a social pursuit; it was too intimate to be shared. In the third year, I had a small portable TV of my own, only ever switched on to watch Channel 4 Racing. Two days after term finished for the final time, I started work experience at The Sporting Life.
Five years later, by now a proper racing journalist, or so I thought, I found myself sitting next to a professional punter in a television studio one afternoon. Next to this man I knew nothing. And we were broadcasting live.
So I started to watch racing more closely, more often, more analytically. I gained the confidence to link things I’d observed – something about the way a horse walked, a quick wide move made by a jockey that petered out, pacesetters all finishing well beaten while a horse that was struggling early came through to win – with a better understanding of what all this might mean. I’ve gone through a hell of a lot of stationery.
You start at the beginning, with an unraced horse. You have nothing to go on except its pedigree. A horse’s parents pass on a number of characteristics – not just whether he’s grey or chestnut, tall or compact, but more nebulous attributes such as the distance over which they showed their best form, the type of ground they were most suited by and whether they were precocious or slow-maturing types.
You know this information from the race histories of the parents, which can be found on the internet, and sometimes must be paid for, but also by analysing a horse’s siblings and what suited them best, too. On the dam’s side of the equation, you have a smaller sample size because they produce only one foal per year but the most in-demand sires cover more than 150 mares per year – twice that if he’s shuttled Down Under for the southern hemisphere breeding season. Over time, this results in a great deal of data.
The Tortoise Trio
Lydia has selected three horses for us to follow over the coming months. Success, if it comes, will come at Tortoise-pace. Create your own “stable” via one of the sport’s many horse-tracker facilities. Racing TV and Attheraces both offer this service in exchange for the price of your registration details.
This is not an exact science. Some horses bred to be sprinters turn out to be stayers and vice versa. How a horse is trained involves humans adding their own determining factors to the formula, something else the true obsessive has to learn. Some specialise in training sprinters or stayers, two-year-olds or older horses, and it’s not always obvious whether nature or nurture is primary. Local factors also play a part – in Australia, say, horses are routinely campaigned over a greater range of distances than in Europe, where horses tend to specialise. A horse’s pedigree might also suggest whether he is likely to be most effective as a two-year-old or whether he’ll need more time to reach his peak.
So, before you’ve even clapped eyes on a horse, you have theories about what he might be like. The next step is to travel to a racecourse and look at him as an individual in the paddock before the race.
I don’t pretend even after all this time to be able to run my eye over a horse, like others I know, and tell you whether he has had a back problem or whether his conformation is “correct”. As an outsider looking in, rather than a trainer or breeder, some things remain mysterious to me.
Yet I can see whether a horse has to grow into his frame, whether he looks weak or well-muscled or a bit tubby, whether he uses himself athletically with a swaggeringly loose walk or potters round stiffly and whether he exudes evident physical well-being in the lustre of his coat.
If he’s skittish or timid in the paddock, it might suggest he’ll lack sufficient application in the race. Some paddock analysts – yes, this is a thing – don’t like seeing the whites of the eye or a horse sweating between his back legs. Once the jockey is on board, you can glean further information from the horse’s gait when he canters to the start. A rounded action, in which the horse’s knee is very much bent, can indicate a preference for soft ground and perhaps flatter tracks. A low, grass-skimming action might indicate faster conditions would be preferred but this is not a hard-and-fast rule.
In fact, all pre-race theories are ultimately subordinate to the more tangible evidence provided by a race and each one yields yet further information to revise your working conclusions. A horse might sweat profusely but his track record shows he runs well anyway so you’d be more worried if he didn’t. Behavioural or physical differences are significant.
The meaning of a race is also more intricate than the order in which the horses pass the winning post. The outcome of each contest is a culmination of a series of factors that cause each horse to perform at or below his optimum.
The most obvious elements I’ve touched on already – suitability of trip or ground, fitness or maturity – but there are many other factors to consider. Topography: is the course flat or undulating? Galloping or sharp? Left- or right-handed? Some horses demonstrate a clear affinity for the characteristics of certain tracks. Britain has 61 circuits and each is unique.
The stall your horse exits from should also influence your thinking. Chester’s tight left-handed circuit, squeezed in between the river and city walls, is the most obvious example. It tends to favour horses drawn on the inside simply because they have less far to travel from start to finish.
Some other draw biases are subtler or even topographically counter-intuitive; they can also fluctuate over time, as humans try to influence them. Others are spontaneous – on Ascot’s straight track, when 30 horses split into two or three groups across its width, if all the natural front-runners are drawn low and your horse starts from stall 28, he’s in trouble. From a timing perspective, the race on his side of the track might be conducted via less optimal splits than the race unfolding among the low-drawn horses.
Faster or slower strips of turf are also relevant – whether created naturally, via man-made irrigation, or self-fulfilling prophecy. If jockeys perceive a track bias, group-think takes over and one is created. Until an individualist wins doing the tactical opposite.
Horses also develop, or have developed for them, styles of racing – from the extremes of needing to dominate or sitting detached in last, to everything in between.
The ideal way for a horse to run a race is to distribute its energy evenly from start to finish. All of these factors can impact on a jockey’s ability to achieve that goal, including the horse’s and rider’s own proficiency – and sometimes tearing up the rules can be the best tactic.
And, of course, we must consider weights. Britain’s race programme is dominated by handicaps in which, unlike the championship races contested off level weights by the best horses, the contestants carry different weights to enable those of varying ability to compete against each other. The heavier the weight carried, the greater the known ability of the horse (see glossary for more).
So, every race ever run is a discrete puzzle comprising all these cryptic devices. The trick of it is to use these clues to anticipate what will happen next time, when a different set of variables will apply. I have books and books of notes, the product of watching past races from the perspective of each individual horse. If there are 25 runners, I’ll watch it 25 times.
Over time, I accrue a series of criteria that I believe favour particular horses and look out for when all moons align in their favour. This can often be a frustrating process. Human error frequently intervenes – the trainer’s campaigning of the horse might not align with my preferences, the jockey might make a mistake, I might have got it completely wrong. But over time, measured and recorded over the course of each year, it works.
I should confess that this is not normal. Most racing fans I know are thinking about the race in three minutes or the big one this coming Saturday or, at the outside, this year’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March or 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket in May. They’re unlikely to be thinking about some trainer’s 68th-most talented. I’m interested in who’s going to win those classy races too, but I have room for both academic pursuits in my thinking.
I should also acknowledge that speed tends to be what gets most racing fans buzzing. The brazen speed of a thoroughbred sprinter – or, tops, a miler – is the element both of a horse’s talent and their development as a breed that most believe to be primary. It’s certainly what pays the bills most readily if you’re a racehorse breeder, bloodstock agent, owner or trainer – disproportionately so and probably to the holistic detriment of the breed and therefore the sport.
Yet not me. I specialise in stayers. I like a story that unfolds gradually and a staying horse – or, in microcosm, a staying race – is exactly that. I was always drawn to those horses who displayed grit, determination and sheer cussedness. The seemingly unspectacular victory born of simply not going away, of keeping trying to the line, of galloping stolidly on when others have given up – that’s what I find exhilarating.
Would you like to join me in my obsessive little world? The race I’m inviting you to fixate on isn’t that well known but combines most of the elements that bewitch me: the Melrose Handicap, staged at York over 14 furlongs in late August, for three-year-olds. From a handful of apparently inchoate clues, we’re going to amass a shortlist of likely candidates. Horses will join and fall off this list over the coming months but our aim is to identify the winner long before any horse is even entered in the race. Are you fit for the task? Stay on!
How to speak racing
All-weather a synthetic surface used in Britain only for Flat racing.
Draw the sequentially numbered bays within starting-stalls on the Flat, allotted to every horse relative to each other. Draw (or stall) number one is always nearest the inside rail.
Fences (or steeplechase/chase fences) “plain” fences must not be lower than 4ft 6in. Made of packed-together birch, held in place by a wooden frame. A sloping apron on the take-off side encourages horses to jump. An “open ditch” incorporates a small channel on the take-off side, requiring a larger jump from a horse.
Flat the code of racing in which horses do not encounter obstacles and race over shorter distances.
Furlong one eighth of a mile or 220 yards. Britain still advertises its races imperially (eg, 5f). Many other parts of the world use metres (eg, 1,000m).
Going the degree of moisture in a turf-racing surface. The full range of permitted going from slow to fast ground is: heavy, soft, good-to-soft, good, good-to-firm, firm.
Group races or the “Pattern” the elite contests of Flat racing, devising a series of tests for the best horses at all ages and at different distances. Group 1 is the highest level, with Group 2, Group 3 and Listed races below on a sliding scale.
Handicap races in which non-elite horses of differing ability race competitively against each other via the equalising application of weight based on a horse’s past performance.
Hurdles smaller, less rigid obstacles than fences, comprising a line of birch-filled panels staked into the ground at an inviting angle and uniform height of 38in.
Jump (or National Hunt) racing the code of racing requiring horses to compete over hurdles and fences on turf.
Paddock or parade ring a railed-off loop, usually behind the grandstand at a racecourse, in which all runners must parade prior to each race.
Stalls (also starting-stalls or gates) introduced to Britain in 1965, a mobile structure used only in Flat racing to promote an equal start for all runners. In jump racing, horses line up in any order in front of a tape drawn across the width of the track.
Stayer a horse’s distance preference is loosely deemed to conform to these four categories: sprinters, milers, middle-distance horses and stayers. A horse would be deemed a stayer if excelling at trips of 12f and beyond.
Trip another word for the distance over which a race is run.
Lydia Hislop is a contributing editor at Tortoise. She is also a leading presenter for subscription channel Racing TV and writes a weekly column called The Road To Cheltenham from November until March on sportinglife.com. She does have friends, honestly.
Illustrations by Nathalie Lees
Photographs by Getty Images