Assessing Two-year-olds in the paddock.
For some racegoers paddock observation possesses some mystical aura that they feel is beyond their ability to penetrate. It is as if to be a paddock judge it is necessary to possess some almost supernatural skill in order to understand the mysteries that assessing thoroughbred confirmation presents. It does not; all that is required is the time and patience to look at enough horses until the differences become apparent.
Like many paddock judges I learnt by simply looking at horses. In my case I bought Raceform and Timeform in the late seventies and taking note of their observations. Both publications use roughly the same descriptions and in a relatively short time found myself looking at horses and thinking “That’s a nice big sort” or “he looks like he should progress”, or conversely “That one lacks size and may not change much”.
Paddock judges who work for Timeform, Raceform or such as Ken Pitterson who writes for the Weekender or me who write only for private clients, describe horses using generally accepted terminology. However, unless they wish to do so, it is not important for a racegoer to get mired in the minutia of confirmation in order to benefit from paddock study.
Paddock observation has changed considerably in the forty years since I began. At that time almost all horses were trained on turf and the flat season started at the end of March and finished in early November. I recall visiting the yard of a leading trainer in the early eighties and his assistant saying “The boss likes to get all the two-year-olds onto the course if possible even if they finish last; just the day out changes their outlook completely: it brings them on a ton, gives them something to think about over the winter and makes then easier to train next spring”.
Since the introduction of all-weather training facilities and racing at Lingfield in 1989, everything has changed. Since that time if a juvenile was still too “backward” to race it did not need to be put away for the winter as there will be many opportunities to get a race into them on the all-weather during the winter. This means that there are few chances of seeing a really backward juvenile in the paddock these days.
“Backward” is a universal term that used to indicate that a horse is not ready to race because of either mental or physical immaturity.
So how can paddock observation help a racegoer to enjoy racing more and hopefully make it more profitable? Firstly always go to the pre-parade ring when the runners first appear. Often, particularly in the spring or autumn when the weather is cold, most of the runners will be covered by a rug. However, there is still plenty to observe. The horses head and quarters will usually be visible and these should be studied for clues. There is an old expression about what an ideal horse should possess: “The head of a prince and the arse of a cook”. A colt will usually have a different head to a filly. A filly often has a very feminine head, sometimes quite delicate and pretty, something that will become apparent the more fillies’ one sees. A colt with such a head is a bad sign to some who prefer a strong wide masculine one. Many observers like to see a pair of long ears as these are supposed to indicate honesty. The quarters are where the power comes from, the area between the quarters and the hock is called the gaskins or second thigh. These areas are not always well developed in juveniles, so look for weakness or strength in this area.
Look for what are called signs of “greenness”. This term is used to cover almost any behaviour that signifies inexperience. Horses will call to one another, sometimes very vociferously, or they will start to jig-jog and show signs of “edginess” or agitation. A horse being “on its toes” is not always a bad sign; in my early days I was watching some two-year-olds with an experienced observer and I noted that one horse was edgy and on its toes. “No” said my companion: “He is active and not in any way agitated. He is well under control and simply wants to get on with it”. With repeated observation the difference between the two will become clear. Others just walk about calmly as if they have been doing this all their life. Note these characteristics for future reference. When the horses have been saddled they are led to the paddock where a closer inspection can begin.
Once the rug is off take an overall view; what you see will differ according to the time of year. Two-year-olds mature at different rates and understanding what certain physical characteristics mean will enhance an understanding of what can be expected. During the early part of the season and up to Royal Ascot most juveniles, but not all, will be bred for speed. Many will be purely sprint-bred or have a sire or dam with speed in their pedigree. Expect to see plenty of “compact” sorts that will develop over time into strong sprinter types: strong-bodied, often “close-coupled” sorts. Others however, may be moderately-bred types that lack the scope to progress. These are often “leggy; light-framed or sparely-made sorts”, lacking substance and quality. It soon becomes apparent which is which.
At this point look for signs of fitness: a well-muscled frame, with a tight girth and fitness dimples in the quarters; a line which will be sharper the fitter the horse is. With time and experience it will be possible to take all of this in quickly together with behaviour: is the horse settled or is it green and noisy or agitated. Look for signs of well-being: an attractive sheen to a horses coat is a good sign; conversely a dull coat might suggest it has not fully come to hand. Sweating is not usually a good sign, particularly between the legs. Watch as the jockey is legged up into the saddle for signs of greenness: does the horse become very edgy and start walking sideways or simply take it all in his stride. Try to find time to watch the horses go to post. A horse virtually stampeding to post is not going to be in any condition to race effectively. Look at its action; does it travel easily over the surface or does it display excessive “knee action”. As a rough guide the former will probably prefer good or faster going and the latter good to soft or softer.
During the race watch for signs that the horse is not concentrating: changing legs, wandering about off a true line and looking around him. Some horses display these traits then suddenly grab hold of the bridle and make rapid progress. This is an indication that the “penny has dropped”. Such a horse will improve considerably.
Finally I find it useful to observe horses as the come in after the race. A horse that was in need of the race may be blowing quite hard. Conversely a horse that was fully fit will be breathing more easily with many variants in between. Sometimes a horse’s demeanour after a race, taken in conjunction with how it seemed before, can be quite enlightening. Some debutants definitely show that they have enjoyed the experience and found it very stimulating. These sorts usually improve considerably next time they race.
As the year progresses a different type of juvenile appears: the well-bred sorts that will in future contest races at above a mile, also the middle distance sorts and the stayers. These will often be much more imposing sorts; bigger, often lengthy or rangy sorts. “Lengthy” is self-explanatory and “rangy” types are said to “stand over plenty of ground” or “have plenty of daylight underneath them”. Others are described as “unfurnished” sorts. These are horses that have not filled their frame but will do so with time. These may be higher at the hip than the withers or simply look slightly weak to the eye. Make a note of such animals and be prepared for a surprise when you next see them because they can change and mature relatively quickly.
During the autumn plenty of juveniles will start to “go in their coats”. This means that the summer bloom will fade as they start to grow the winter coat that will see them through until spring. This can be an indication that the horse concerned has “gone over the top” and will underperform. One trainer told me he never worried if a colt went in his coat as long as he was working well but if a filly did he was always prepared for her to lose form and not run her race.
There is so much to paddock watching and a racegoer can get as little or as much out of it as they wish. I have found it a most interesting and rewarding pastime which, allied to a study of pedigrees, make thoroughbred racehorses a lifetime’s fascination. If these notes have helped in any way to engender such interest then that will be a reward in itself.
Peter Corbett is the author of Bayardo; the Life, Times & Legacy of an Edwardian Champion an acclaimed biography of a racehorse from the time just before the Great War.