Tuesday, April 26, 2011
By Stephen Dwyer
The weather in 1974 was truly woeful. 200 km/h winds were recorded in Co. Down and there was a sparse harvest later in the year. The agricultural industry was on its knees, the cattle market had collapsed and buyers for livestock could not be found. There were stories that farmers would have to lock their trailer at the mart or they might come out and find that someone had dumped a few calves in your trailer while you were inside.
This is an example of a real problem facing an industry. The much-maligned question over the use of the whip in horse racing is not. The issue of the whip in racing has surfaced following this year’s Aintree Grand National which won by Ballabriggs. The horse’s jockey, Jason Maguire was banned for five days after the race for “excessive use” of the whip. Acres of column inches and hundreds hours of interviews have been dedicated to this debate over the past month. At this stage, it must be said that there really is no room for argument, the whip stays.
Only last week a prominent animal rights campaigner wrote in a national newspaper that the whip used in horse racing is a “medieval-style flogging instrument”. At best, this statement is downright disinformation, at worst; it is shallow sensationalism. If you examine a modern day whip, it is not a cat o' nine tails; you will understand that is merely a “persuader” as Ted Walsh rightly describes it.
Visit any tack shop and you will find that a riding whip costs about €50. The “flogging instrument” weighs less than 160 grams, the same as a wheel pump attached to a mountain bike. It certainly does not resemble any type of torture implement. It has a leather handle and the rules of racing state the whip must not exceed 70cm in length. The whip is heavily padded and features throughout a shock-absorbing material which helps to protect horses from injury or discomfort. The notion that jockeys relentlessly beat a horse with an Indiana-Jones style bullwhip is nonsensical and untrue. The specification of modern-day whips has been set in place following on-going consultation with animal welfare groups, including the RSPCA.
These featherweight instruments are used for safety, correction and encouragement, nothing more. And they don’t work all of the time. When Denman ran in the Punchestown Gold Cup last year, he simply didn’t want to know about it. Punchestown is a right-handed track, Denman prefers left. The greatest jockey of all time tried to cajole him around Punchestown but not even Tony McCoy or his whip could encourage Denman. He just said no.
A horse’s skin is a quarter of an inch thick in places, over twice that of a human. Horses are hardy animals; yes they have delicate areas, weak points, like any animal. Even the mighty elephant has a weak neck joint, their Achilles heel. But horses cannot be reasoned with; the very rules of racing dictate that a jockey is required to carry a whip. Sometimes a young colt will need to be kept up to his work to run straight and there are very distinct rules in place about using the whip, designed to protect horse and rider.
Jockeys cannot hit horses with their whip above shoulder height, they cannot use excessive force and they cannot whip horses who are either clearly winning or out of contention. There are a plethora of terms and conditions in place when a jockey attaches a whip to their wrist with a thick rubber band.
In an era where media coverage is so prevalent, slow motion TV shots of jockeys using their whips on horses looks worse than it is. The reality is that jockeys have trouble using their whips in high winds and will gladly demonstrate to you how little discomfort the whip emits. This fact has not stopped some quarters from taking excessive measures and in England, Towcester racecourse had planned to ban jockeys from using the whip in races at the track. This decision was overruled by the British Horseracing Authority.
It is said in racing circles that proper use of the whip is an art form; Lester Piggott spent countless hours practicing on a wooden saddle horse with a pair of reins and a whip. As much as a golfer practises a shot over and over, so too does a jockey, refining the hold on the whip until it becomes subconscious.
There are bigger fish to fry in the world of horse racing than the whip rule.
It’s time to move on.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
By Stephen Dwyer
It was Winston Churchill who famously said that continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential. Champion-jockey-elect, Paul Townend is a young man who knows the former and is gifted with the latter.
Townend, a Cork native, will celebrate his 21st birthday this September and despite his fresh faced appearance, he has been around horses more than most. When Townend was a boy, his father Timmy trained point-to-pointers. Keeping it in the family, his uncle Bob Townend was a prominent jockey in the 1970’s and 1980’s and his uncle Gerry Townend was another top amateur. Paul’s first cousin is Davy Condon, former stable jockey to Nicky Richards and now closely affiliated with Noel Meade. Little wonder then since Paul left school at 15, the die was cast for his life as a jockey.
A precocious talent on the Pony Racing circuit, where he gained invaluable riding experience, Townend quickly progressed through the pony ranks. He then began riding as an apprentice on the flat; his debut was in the summer of 2007 in Ballinrobe on a nondescript Wednesday evening. Claiming a full 10lb allowance, Townend finished third on the Willie Mullins-trained Temlett. From that humble starting point, Townend quickly showed his ability as a horseman and started to win races. The most notable of these was when steering the heavily gambled favourite and top-weighted Emily Blake to a valuable handicap at the Galway Festival in 2007. Following this win, he closed a successful first season by winning on the last day of the flat.
Townend, even for a jockey, is not small. Like many of his former colleagues on the flat who battled in vain against their weight, he switched codes to the National Hunt arena. In doing so he followed the example set by Tony McCoy and Paul Carberry who can now manage their weight more easily than on the flat.
Success over jumps did not elude him for long and at the 2008 Galway Festival; Townend won the Galway Hurdle on the John Kiely-trained Indian Pace. Aside from the Galway win, it was at Closutton and through the opportunities presented by Willie Mullins, a man who knows a thing or two about talent that Townend’s career began to reach unprecedented heights.
In 2008, Willie Mullins was giving a pre-season interview when a boyish-faced stable lad walked past. The lad, replete with body protector and riding hat was carrying a brush and bucket. "See him," said Mullins when he was out of earshot of the lad, "Mention that young fella in your article. Paul Townend is his name. I think he is going to be good. He's bred to be anyway”
Since that day, Mikael D'Haguenet, Hurricane Fly, Golden Silver, Quevega and Zaidpour have all enjoyed Grade 1 success for Mullins and Townend, if you are old enough, you are good enough.
For a 20 year old, Townend riding style is very seasoned. In races, he settles horses early and has a quietness, an assurance about his business. There is an inner confidence which is matched by his work rate. To date, Townend has ridden 487 times this season; Andrew McNamara on 550 is the only National Hunt jockey to have ridden more.
Three weeks ago, a fall in a Handicap Chase at Navan resulted in a broken collarbone for Townend. This fall was on his sixth ride of the day, less than 18 hours previously he had ridden a winner on the flat at Dundalk. Townend is expected to be back riding this weekend at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival, with 76 winners this season, Davy Russell with 67 is his closest rival for the jockey’s title. With a top class book of rides ahead of him and Fairyhouse and Punchestown, Townend is likely to take the champion jockey title.
Incidentally, do you remember Temlett, the horse that Paul had his first ride? Now trained by Arthur Moore’s son, JD, he was the subject of a massive gamble last month in a handicap hurdle at Cork. Backed from 25/1 into 11/2, he overcame a 1061 day absence to make all and win comfortably.
His jockey? Paul Townend of course.
Funny how the wheel turns full circle.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
The Irish Cheltenham
13 is considered to be an unlucky number for many reasons. For instance there are 13 steps on a gallows and some people are so superstitious they will not leave their house on Friday the 13th. For the Irish at Cheltenham this year, 13 was the luckiest possible number. It was the total amount of Irish winners at the festival, a new record. Irish horses won almost half of all the races at Cheltenham and many of these superstars will be on show for their season finale at Punchestown in a little over two weeks time.
Unquestionably the Punchestown Festival is the highlight of the racing calendar. Considered by many to be “The Irish Cheltenham” Punchestown is certainly not a poor relation to its English counterpart. There are no less than 11 Grade One races over the five days and the quality of racing is unrivalled in Ireland. When Hurricane Fly pipped Solwhit by a neck in the Champion Hurdle last year, it galvanised his status as a Cheltenham champion-in-waiting. Hurricane Fly makes a reappearance at the track this year, preferring it to Aintree and the break will suit him will. We are likely to see Quevega too, she stepped up to 3m to win the World Series Hurdle in 2010 and taking on the boys will be no problem this year again for this wonder mare.
Baby Run will return to the track too, he won a Champion Hunters Chase there in 2009 and has no fear of the big fences on a track that features the only cross country banks course in Ireland. One horse that will draw the crowds more than any other though will be the mighty Kauto Star. The best chaser in a generation will line up for the Guinness Gold Cup on May 4th, a race his stable mate Denman could only finish fourth in last year. It is possible that Kauto will finish his career at Punchestown. Clive Smith, Kauto Star’s owner is on record to have said "It would be a great way to round off the season if he could win in Ireland. Any decisions on his future will be made after that.” If Kauto Star wins the Guinness Gold Cup, the racecourse owners will need a new roof because the crowd will have lifted it off.
The Punchestown Festival is welcomed too with open arms by the locals around Naas. Since it was extended to five days in 2008, attendance is steadily in the region of 100,000 with 20% of this originating from overseas. The local economy benefits to the region of €50 million and the extension of the race week to include a Saturday was a very shrewd and welcome move.
Cheltenham is a left-handed track, Punchestown is right-handed. This difference though is not unique. The culture around the Punchestown festival in Ireland is on a more local, grass-roots level than in Cheltenham. 14 racecourses including Cheltenham, Aintree and Newmarket are owned by a conglomerate called the Jockey Club, the 466 acres at Punchestown are owned by The Kildare Hunt Club and not HRI. Credit must go to The Kildare Hunt Club for their flexibility and innovation in running the meeting.
As it is a mid-week meeting, the race times at Punchestown are scheduled around work times, the first race starts at 3.40pm, the last around 7.15pm which lends the opportunity for race-goers to attend without taking the full day off work. Many local schools close for racing and numerous organisations in the area adopt a laissez-faire approach to the week, including the well-documented case of Kildare County Manager receiving one privilege day to attend the Punchestown races.
The meeting receives huge local support and the interest of owners and trainers is due to the prestige and €2.2 million prize fund. This year’s Punchestown Festival has been moved back one week and will take place from Tuesday May 3rd to Saturday May 7th. Due to a late Easter, this is the first time in ten years that the meeting will be held in May.
Racing was first held in Punchestown in 1868, which was also the year of a British Royal Visit. The Queen will not be in attendance this time around but Kauto Star, Hurricane Fly and Quevega will be. Isn’t that enough royalty for anybody?