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The Right Start?

Author: John Berry


You know how sometimes you watch commercial TV stations and find that it seems as if it’s all advertisements? Well, you might think that that was the case on At The Races in Britain last Thursday night when, impossible though this sounds, there were two ‘ad breaks’ between the start of the horses being loaded into the stalls and the race taking place. One, you would have thought, would have been one too many. But two? Life, though, can be stranger than fiction. The loading started bang on time for the 6.45 race at Wolverhampton.

And the race started at 7.26. (So maybe having merely two ‘ad breaks’ was spreading the commercials a bit thin!). Unsurprisingly for a maiden race largely containing unraced or very lightly raced horses, a few of the runners were difficult at the start. Josephine Gordon’s mount Gibeno (a 4yo who had run poorly in two National Hunt races, in which, of course, stalls are not used, but had never raced on the Flat) played up quite badly in stall 11. Two stalls out from him, Richard Kingscote’s mount Cashel, a debutant, was behaving even worse. Having been very difficult to load, Cashel was very worked up once shut away in the barriers.

After he had been throwing himself around for about a minute, the decision was taken for his own and for Kingscote’s safety to take him out. That wasn’t exactly when the trouble started (it had already started) but that was when things began to go badly wrong. While Cashel was being backed out of the stalls (which wasn’t an easy procedure, as he had more or less thrown himself to the ground before the reversing started) his bridle either broke and came off or just came off. The grakle crossed noseband which he was wearing stayed on, but otherwise he was left with nothing on his head. Certainly there was nothing on it that anyone trying to catch him could get hold of.

The race obviously couldn’t take place until Cashel was caught, and it took over 35 minutes to catch him. For more than half of this time, Cashel was wandering around in the corral behind the stalls, an area the width of the track and about 20m long. As there were at least a dozen people plus a horse (the Kieren O’Neill-ridden Avago Josh, a 100/1 shot who had yet to be loaded into stall 12) also in this small area, it might sound hard to believe that he could not be caught but, if a horse isn’t wearing a bridle or headcollar and doesn’t want to be caught, he can, if he wishes, evade his would be captors more or less indefinitely unless one of them has a lasso and (equally unlikely in the context of a British racecourse) knows how to use it.

The one really strange thing about this is that the other horses were not unloaded from the stalls for about another 20 minutes. This was strange, as some of them, at the outset at least, were playing up badly, most notably Gibeno. Unbelievably, no serious harm was done. Twenty seconds, never mind twenty minutes, is a long time to be in the stalls on a restive, impatient, claustrophobic horse, but eventually the captive horses just bowed to the inevitable (or maybe were just worn down by boredom) and took heed of Milton’s famous line from his ‘Sonnet 19’: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’.

(This poem, written in 1673, the year before the poet’s death, is often referred to as being called ‘On his blindness’, but there is no evidence that Milton used such a title. Historically the sonnet was more likely to be referred to by its first line, ‘When I consider how my light is spent’). What made this incident, which thankfully caused no serious harm to man nor beast, so remarkable, other than its sheer unusualness? Well, the funny thing was on that very morning, while riding down the side of Long Hill and seeing some horses from another stable playing up badly during a practice session in the small block of stalls on the Heath outside the back of Beech Hurst, I had been asking myself a question which keeps popping up intermittently in my brain.

Three years ago we ‘celebrated’ the 50th anniversary of the first race started from stalls in the British Isles. (The race was the Chesterfield Stakes at Newmarket’s July Meeting, run on 8 July 1965 and won by Lester Piggott aboard the Ron Masontrained Track Spare, winner later that season on the Rowley Mile of the Middle Park Stakes). The question which I asked myself then, and have subsequently asked myself many more times, was whether our rulers would nowadays be allowed to introduce starting stalls, bearing in mind that they represent easily the most dangerous of all the possible ways of starting races? Every time I ask myself that question, I find that the only possible answer is ‘No’. Why do we use starting stalls? Well, I know why we use starting stalls: because they generally produce more even breaks than any other method, and because we are accustomed to using them.

But, bearing in mind that over the years they have been such a major cause of serious injury and death (even in the time I have been following the sport, two horses have been fatally injured in stalls accidents at the start of Classics, and there are only five Classics every year) should we not be asking ourselves why we use them, but whether we should be using them? By a chilling coincidence, Karen Headley (@K*_Headley) who is compiling a Twitter series of video clips of her father Bruce Headley (trainer of 2000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Kona Gold) reminiscing about days of yore in Californian racing, hit upon exactly this subject on Friday, the day after the incident at Wolverhampton.

Last Friday’s bulletin saw her father recalling the life and death of the great Mexican jockey Alvaro Pineda, leading rider at Del Mar in 1968 and partner of the Argentinian-bred Figonero both when the horse won the Hollywood Gold Cup in 1969 and when he broke the world record for 9f when winning that year’s Del Mar Handicap. In 1974 Pineda was the recipient of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, given to a jockey who, in the opinion of his colleagues, demonstrates the highest standards of personal and professional conduct, on and off the racetrack. Shortly afterwards, on 18 January 1975, Pineda was fatally injured in a stalls accident at the start of a race at Santa Anita. Realistically, starting stalls are here to stay. But I wouldn’t rue their loss if we were to revert to starting Flat races as we do under National Hunt rules. I am sure that I am not alone in that opinion.

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27 Sep 2018
Issue Number: Issue 648
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Dubai playing a key role in British racing, says Jockey Club boss
Busybody Tadhg looks to scale mountains after climbing Hills
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