Sunday 15 July 2018

Have You Ever Wondered Why Horses Snort? The Scientists Can Now Explain

I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the blog before that Margaret Thatcher’s husband Denis often needed some Dutch courage from a stiff drink, depending on the Blessed Margaret’s mood. He prepared himself either a pre-prandial G&T snifter or a much larger one that he called a snorter – or if absolutely needed, a huge snorteroony. So you can tell from this intro that the theme of today’s short blog has to be snorting (but of the equine variety).

Often when I’ve been in yards looking at our horses they have come across for a chat and a cuddle, and at the very moment you’re patting them on the neck they let out a big snort. I’ve often wondered why, and had always assumed that they were just trying to expel dust, straw, insects or whatever. While they obviously do do this, a piece of research by Mathilde Stomp (I know, this is beginning to sound like an April Fool blog) of the University of Rennes found that snorting actually corresponds to a horse’s welfare at a particular point in time. Most interestingly, she found that horses don’t snort with fear or astonishment, but with pleasure, and that the frequency of snorts rises as an environment becomes more pleasant and decreases as it becomes more stressful (and you are probably already saying that this is the opposite to what used to happen in the Thatcher household).

They also found that horses in natural pastures snorted more than those in stalls; horses facing a wall never snorted, and when horses were moved to a pasture with plenty of grass, snorting levels increased tenfold. Dr. Stomp was quoted in The Times report by their Science Editor Tom Whipple and she concluded that: “These results provide a potentially important tool as snorts appear as a possible reliable indicator of positive emotions, which could help identify situations appreciated by horses”.

For evermore, when a horse snorts in my presence I’m going to assume it is because he or she is a happy horse. It’s a wonderful thing, science, isn’t it?

I read about this at the same time that I met up with two researchers, Dr Siobhan Mullan and Dr Deborah Butler, from the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School, and we’re going to work with them on a study funded by The Racing Foundation entitled Measuring Racehorse Welfare: Development and Implementation of a Racehorse Specific Welfare Assessment. Over the next year they are going to come and visit our racehorses and do a structured assessment of their behaviour and wellbeing so that they can highlight the best practices in equine welfare that produce the most healthy and happy horses. Their intention is to draw their research together into a “welfare assessment protocol” that can then be used by the racing industry. I’m very much in favour of more research in racing so that conclusions on best practices in training and horse welfare are grounded in facts and data rather than just intuition, experience and doing things in the same way they have always been done.

Not surprisingly when I met the researchers I shared with them the conclusions on snorting. It’s an interesting life I lead!?! I can feel a snort coming on …

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.

Sunday 1 July 2018

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime: The Racecourse Experience at Worcester, Bangor and Royal Ascot

On average I go racing twice a week, so around 100 times a year. Indeed many people like me, who organise partnerships or syndicates, probably see more variety of racecourses, Owners & Trainers facilities and the overall racecourse experience than almost anyone other than jockeys and trainers. However, because trainers by and large are far better looked after and treated than owners, our insights are probably much nearer the reality of British racing. Indeed the Racehorse Syndicates Association (RSA) has been lobbying for more input into the corridors of power on this subject, but so far have been cold-shouldered by bodies such as the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA), which is a real pity.

Anyway, over the last six weeks, three experiences have stood out: one terrible, two excellent.

First the terrible one. On 2nd June, Worcester staged its annual Ladies’ Day, with a huge crowd of over 10,000. Unfortunately the result was that temporary Owners & Trainers facilities had to be used and there was an outcry from such trainers as Alan King, Warren Greatrex and Paul Nicholls. Owners described it as the “worst track they’d ever attended”. This is a real pity, because the track itself is a fair, flat, galloping one which I like a lot, and indeed on the day our horse, Dr Dunraven, lost his maiden tag, winning a 2m handicap chase. It’s not really the fault though of the local management. Jenny Cheshire, who heads their marketing, does a fantastic job and is always incredibly helpful. The bottom line is that the owners of the track, ARC, desperately need to make significant capital investment. At the moment the Worcester owner experience is so dire that it is dissuading owners from going. A recent survey showed that 44% of owners who leave British racing do so because of the poor raceday experience. If they all went to Worcester regularly we’d have no owners left.

So on to a much better one: Bangor. The ROA does a jumps racecourse league table based on prize-money, and in that Bangor is very lowly at 39th of 41 tracks (Worcester is 34th). So you might think that Bangor is a course that owners wouldn’t like. When I went there recently I couldn’t help but notice that it is punching massively above its weight. They have recently built a brand-new Owners & Trainers room that provided a sumptuous buffet with complimentary wine for owners. There may be no stands, with viewing being from a bank at the side of the track, but all the owners I spoke to could not have been more complimentary. It just shows what inspired leadership can achieve, even at one of the lesser tracks. I’ve always subscribed to the adage that “Ships sink from the Bridge”, and with the excellent management of Chester and Bangor, these ships are definitely full steam ahead. Bravo, Bangor.

Then the third one, which is an obvious selection, being Royal Ascot. Having studied the style guide, ensured that there were no missing socks or naked shoulders, my wife and I were duly togged up for the Royal Enclosure and had the most magnificent time on one of the best days of the Flat season, Day 1 of the meeting. Admittedly we were being wined and dined in a private box, but the whole occasion was British racing at its absolute best. No complaints over prize-money at over £7.3m during the week, and I gather that there were over 300,000 spectators. The attention to detail was the best I’ve ever seen on a racecourse – not just for humans but also for the equine stars. As an example I was really impressed by the misting machines that the horses could stand by in the unsaddling area to cool down.

Encouragingly, as far I could see, there were no problems with crowd violence, although it was strange to observe sniffer dogs trying to find drugs, amnesty boxes and breathalysers at turnstiles in case anyone showed (in lovely Ascot phraseology) “overt signs of inebriation”. Apparently there were more than 100 extra security staff.

A few highlights of the meeting for me were:
  • Accidental Agent: really magnificent to see this winner for Eve Johnson Houghton and her mother, Gaie, in the Queen Anne. It was Eve’s first success at Royal Ascot and it was an extremely emotional one. She said that “you’ll have to man the lifeboats” to escape all her tears. The horse was named after her maternal grandfather, John Goldsmith, who was a member of the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. The horse was bred by Gaie, but led out of Tattersalls Book 2 in 2015 unsold at 8,000 guineas. This gives hope to all of us!

  • Calyx: won a really strong edition of the Coventry over 6f, and in the process became the market leader for the 2000 Guineas next year. Talk about a chip off the old block – he was the spitting image of his dad, Kingman.

  • Stradivarius: the Gold Cup has always been one of my favourite races of the season, and this was a vintage finish with three horses battling it out right to the line. Exhilarating. The horse is on track to land the £1m bonus designed to encourage the owning and breeding of stayers. All he has to do (?!?) is win the Qatar Goodwood Cup and then the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup at York. Who knows, he might even go to Australia for the Melbourne Cup in November.

  • Landmark successes: everyone seemed delighted for Sir Michael Stoute to record 76 winners on the first day, beating Sir Henry Cecil’s record. Both Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore passed significant milestones with 60 and 50 Royal Ascot winners respectively.

  • Startling moments: two horses, Vintage Brut and Main Street, each only beat one horse home in their respective races at the meeting. Incredibly they had changed hands at the Goffs Ascot sale on Monday night for £280,000 and £300,000. The buyer was Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Chairman of Leicester City. He actually spent considerably more than that and was well into seven figures. The phrase “more money than sense” comes to mind.

The day-to-day fare of grass-roots racing will seem something of an anticlimax for a few weeks.

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.