Trainer Magazine

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Training yearlings: Schools of thought around the world

TRAININGWeb Master
Consider throwing a thirteen-year-old school child into a university environment straight from prep school.   Sights, sounds and influences that the young mind would struggle to compute; physical rigours on the sports field that would either disappoint the mind or cause physical damage. I cannot think of any parent that would choose this for their young adolescent. Yet we often do this to the young horse, plucking them straight from the sleepy pastures of their nursery into an environment that is measured upon its production of top-level runners. Perhaps we send them via the sales…an entrance examination of sorts.   When put like this it is clear that, as custodians of young bloodstock, we might consider a period of preparation during which the horse would be introduced to saddle and rider, taught the basic lessons that would allow it to fit into the programme of the trainer that its owner chooses, as well as a careful conditioning of the physical stresses that will be tested further upon its graduation to the greater strains that will be required to reach race fitness.   For the sake of this article pre-training will be considered to be the safe development of a young horse towards its first joining a trainer or returning from a break not enforced by injury, as opposed to rehabilitation. The American racing industry has the perfect phrase for this: Legging Up.   While there has been a constant growth in the number commercial pre-training yards in Europe over the last 25 years to satisfy a growing demand for this service, this is something that has been a long standing practice further afield, particularly in countries where there is stabling pressure at the racetrack or in metropolitan stables, not to mention numerous larger owners that have chosen to keep a greater part of the horse’s young career in their control by employing a farm trainer or establishing their own pre-training division.   In the United States (and to a degree Australia) there is considerable pressure on stabling at or near to the racetrack and the priority will of course be given to runners that are earning. Stall allotments at a meeting in North America are on the management’s expectation that stall will house a horse that is likely to run during that meeting which often leave trainers very limited space for either young horses or those coming back from an injury or break.   This historically has created a demand for either farms to undertake ridden work of young stock or specialised pre-training operations at training centres. A glance at Google Earth shows a number of training tracks at farms dotted around central Kentucky and anyone that has flown into Bluegrass Airfield will likely have noticed the famous Calumet training track immediately adjacent to Keeneland. These were borne out of a real need to have youngster developed off the main track due to lack of space.   Horses that graduate to the racetrack in North America are not only facing their toughest physical challenges but also a high-octane environment where other horses will be breezing past them from the very first day, making their preparation of key importance.   Training centres such as Camden, where Shadwell have a barn, and Ocala, home of numerous highly regarded and well supported pre-training operations, have become centres of excellence where young horses can escape the harsh winters of Kentucky and New York and receive both education and physical conditioning with specialist businesses boasting superb facilities. The breeding hub of Kentucky is home to numerous operators that perform the task of legging horses up at training centres near to Lexington. Geoff Mulcahy (coincidentally also breeder of Coventry Stakes hero Rajasinghe) has run his hugely successful stable at the Thoroughbred Training Centre taking advantage of a quieter environment, diverse facilities and no pressure from racetracks to run horses that are still developing. Yearlings start at his Bourbon County farm where a team of full time staff undertake the early work, backing the horses and riding them away until they are ready to be introduced to the training centre where a shared track exposes the young horses to some of what they might expect at a main track later in their career. The success of this detail-oriented and gradual approach has led to the stable attracting a very enviable client list, featuring as a key part of the programme of a who’s who of North American racing. Owners who operate on a large scale have also chosen to build up a pre-training division to match their breeding and sales activities. Taking control of this allows the owner and team of advisors to make more informed management decisions regarding the horse, choice of trainer or whether to even continue with a horse’s career, in many cases saving money. Shadwell operate a sector of their Thetford stud for this as well as a well established pre-training operation in Dubai and barn in Camden, NC. Godolphin have multiple pre-training sites as part of their global operation which have built upon their historic Kildangan base to help give the young stock the best possible start. Not far from Mulcahy’s Paris Pike base is an example which illustrates the importance pre-training can hold in the plans of significant owner-breeders. Keeneland has a line of nine barns, each holding roughly 40 horses. These barns are leased on a long term basis. In recent times, there have been barns associated with Juddmonte, Claiborne, Winstar, Lanes End, Shawnee Farm and Darley that have made the most of proximity to the nurseries, world-class vets and also enjoyed the synthetic training surface that runs alongside the (now reverted to dirt) main track. Born from a commitment to local breeders, Keeneland does not just do this in the sales ring and at the race track. Each barn has a sand-based turn out/lunge pen, there is access to fields at the back of the barns which helps give horses a change and the track team do a brilliant job of defying Kentucky’s climate to keep the track open through the harsh winter. Likewise Winstar Farm in Versailles, KY has developed its own, now state-of-the-art training centre, much of which is focused upon pre-training. Winstar Farm. Up until 2010, the yearlings were broken on site at the old training barn. These were kept turned out in groups full time and ridden daily on the veterinary advice that this would encourage the best skeletal health. Once the weather turned in November the horses would be moved up to Highpointe Training Centre in Northern Kentucky (originally designed and developed by D Wayne Lucas). At Highpointe the horses were able to train through the winter, under the constant evaluation of the senior management team before continuing to the farm’s private barn on Keeneland’s Rice Road in the spring for final evaluation and then shipping to their trainers. This worked brilliantly for Super Saver and Drosselmeyer, who were both in this programme at the same time. Early in 2010 Winstar opened its new and expanded training centre which bought the entire operation back under one roof. A synthetic-surfaced oval and an uphill gallop were added as well as horse walkers, indoor school, swimming pool and a huge barn offering numerous rehabilitation therapies. While a large part of the facility is geared up for rehabilitation the balance is a committed investment in moving, what was a programme producing results, under one roof. A neighbouring farm was subsequently purchased and developed to accommodate the breaking aspect of the fast-growing “Train Winstar” operation, which takes outside-owned horses as well as their own homebreds and sales purchases, and boasts a who’s who of alumni. In many cases the trainer will prefer to have yearlings in a pre-training yard as there is quite a gap from the earliest yearling sales to the end of the season. This is not only a matter of prioritising herd health during the key final weeks of the season, but also of space as the horses in training sales often fall after the yearling sales, meaning that stable space is under pressure. In this respect pre-training yards can be a valued tool for trainers to ensure that they can continue to focus solely on the business of winning races regardless of the pressures applied by the business cycle. Australia’s largest two racing communities are both metropolitan based, in Sydney and Melbourne. Pre-training is a necessity as stabling is limited in the city and with only seven days required for the horse to be at the trainer’s premises before it runs, many horses stay in pre-training longer than in other parts of the world. Young horses often leave the pre-training facility for a number of days to get track experience or to run in barrier trials, then return to do the rest of their training at the pre-trainers. Transport lorries are a common sight at these yards making daily, even twice daily, deliveries and collections between provincial areas and the city tracks such as Randwick. Hundreds of young thoroughbreds head straight from the studs and sales to pre-training where many establishments also offer breaking facilities. Major owners and trainers are slightly weary about these  less exclusive types of pre-training centres as infections are rife with little or no regulations placed on such establishments by racing’s governing bodies. Often based in rural areas these centres are often staffed by inexperienced backpackers and travellers on their “gap year”.  A growing number of owners and trainers are choosing to set up their own centres and pre-train in house, Gai Waterhouse is one such trainer.    Likewise there is the potential to use a pre-trainer during times of growth, the trainer running the core stable at capacity with pre-trainers taking on any horse other than those that are running or building up to a run. This leaves all of the liability with the pre-trainer, while the trainer is allowed to focus on core business and efficiencies. In fact, rules in some countries make pre-trainers almost a necessity. Japan has a very rigid restriction on the number of horses that even a leading trainer can have in their care, at the track, at any given time, which has led to pre-training operations that take horses to within a matter of weeks of a race. The facilities of the leading pre-training farms in Japan have been constantly developed with covered tracks and, at North Farm, even chambers simulating high altitude that are really pushing boundaries of sports science and taking horses really very close to a race, and it is perhaps here that we have seen the boundaries of pre-training pushed the furthest.   So what are the financial benefits of using pre-trainers? It is widely acknowledged that training fees alone do not offer a huge margin, prize money and commission on sales being the cream for trainers, so to sub-contract late-maturing horses to a specialist pre-trainer makes perfect sense. In a recent promotional video for Irish Champions weekend, Ger Lyons described exactly this, explaining that he has more horses than stables with those furthest away from appearing at a racetrack spending time developing locally in a yard operated by the family of Colin Keane, the Glenburnie Stable Jockey or another farm nearby in Kilcock. “If you’re in here you’re ready for hard work, we don’t need next-year horses here.” Patrick Owens has built up, over the course of a few years, a healthy business. “Of course it’s easy to be busy in the winter months but we measure the business in the summer months which has the potential to be a bit of a quiet time.” Having completed an international apprenticeship that took Patrick from Luca Cumani’s Newmarket Yard to Eddie Kenneally’s “academy” of sharp young trainers via Point-to-Pointing in the south east and a stint at Woodbine, Patrick has picked up techniques from the world over but he bases his entire approach to the horses on a hands-on and detail-oriented approach which has led him to become close with his clients too. Matt Coleman, of the Cool Silk partnership, introduced Patrick to a now-significant client. “Working with trainers like Robert Cowell is a pleasure, we speak weekly about each horse, he really understands that growth spurts just come and go with these youngsters and if I need more time with a horse he has always allowed it.” A growing and seemingly loyal client list would tempt many to expand immediately, but Patrick is taking a long term view “Everything here is about detail, spotting when horses are sleeping just a bit more than usual, letting them grow, letting them relax. I might expand a bit, but I do not want it to ever be at the cost of ensuring that every horse has the right workload to balance their physical and mental development.” A novel approach that has more in common with more conventional approaches than initially meets the eye is Mehmet Kurt’s Kingwood Stud. While the cutting edge and beautifully-engineered Kurtsystem is dazzling, it could easily divide opinion and is beyond the reach of many commercial pre-trainers. The idea was born from Mr Kurt’s desire to “reduce the injuries and breakdowns suffered by racehorses in the early stages of their careers” something that every horseman is seeking to achieve in gradually and considerately developing the young horse. In this case it is carried out by taking young horses, very young horses of weaning age, and slowly introducing them to the Kurtsystem. This takes some time especially as farm manager and Classic-winning Italian trainer Daniele Camufo explains: “The horses are not forced into this so it takes us some time for them to learn. They learn to travel along together as a herd. Initially perhaps not every day, and only just to be introduced to it, but this is increased as they become accustomed to it.” Critics of this system might not have been fortunate enough to have seen it first hand, and also not had the opportunity to ask questions. Yearlings are all broken in and ridden just as they would normally be, but by this stage they have already been cantering (without the weight or interference of a rider) since April, learning to balance themselves “Look! They don’t lean on this like a treadmill, they have to carry themselves. All of the gates are open now on these yearlings. They are free” says Camufo, as a group of smartly-bred yearlings (including a very eye-catching Pivotal colt) canter before us while we sit in air-conditioned comfort tracking them. The horses carry rollers and weight cloths of varying sizes on the Kurtsystem 2000 but are also ridden and turned out to supplement this mechanised exercise. The training programme is a part of a bigger picture that is designed to give each horse the best possible chance of a long and successful racing career. The early start to the training programme gives ample opportunity to assess each horse’s potential as well as controlled exercise that can collect data on key physical metrics such as aerobic capacity and efficiency, and stride length and heart rate data will soon be added. Conditioning, safety and specialising are all key elements of pre-training and Mr Kurt has had success with his earlier versions of this system in his native Turkey. This led to the huge undertaking in Lambourn, in which he has such confidence that has supported his structure with some blue-blooded young horses that are developed on the Kurtsystem before heading to Jamie Osborne down the hill to race in the Kingwood Silks. Dennis O’Brien manages Shadwell’s Thetford-based pre-training and rehabilitation establishment and the global powerhouse keeps things simple. “We take in all of the sales yearlings and work with them, in house, until they are mature and sound enough to take training.” At the early stages of each horse’s career they do not alter significant details of the management of each horse and, all going well, they soon graduate to their intended trainers. “Most of our trainers have large numbers of horses so we are aiming to send horses to them that can fit in nicely with that.” Arriving at the Snareshill Estate is a contrast to the busy cut and thrust of nearby Newmarket. Avenues of mature deciduous trees, with hedged paddocks and a calm but deliberate working atmosphere in the yard, all combine to leave, to the human observer at least, with the impression that this would be an idyllic place for a horse to grow up. The relatively flat topography lends itself well for building the sort of gallops that will not over-face the young athlete and within the yard is an enviable roster of facilities. In principle, a conventional pre-training operation can have slightly lower operational costs than a racing yard as there aren’t any runners to think of, a lower administrative burden and a less immediate need for extensive facilities which can in turn offer each horse’s owner a potential saving. This is not to say that pre-trainers have lesser facilities, as is proven by Ed and Tanya Peate’s Penny Farm outside Newmarket. Built in 2006 to meet the demands of a growing business, and well supported by leading trainers, owners and breeders, Ed and Tanya were able to buy and develop Penny Farm on arable land just outside Newmarket. Penny Farm boasts a gallop that, while kind to young horses, would more than suffice to train runners, and allows them to work horses upsides as they develop and get closer to progressing into the yards of their trainers. There are giveaways, however, that Penny Farm has been designed with a very specific purpose; most obviously the number of lunge rings so crucial to breaking in such a number of yearlings each autumn and winter.   In the here and now, pre-training already offers apparent financial and performance incentives for the trainer and owner alike, but with new methods and technologies being employed by pre-trainers, it’s not hard to see this increasingly important sector of the industry developing further and becoming adopted by the wider training fraternity.
 

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Gallery

Consider throwing a thirteen-year-old school child into a university environment straight from prep school.

Sights, sounds and influences that the young mind would struggle to compute; physical rigours on the sports field that would either disappoint the mind or cause physical damage. I cannot think of any parent that would choose this for their young adolescent. Yet we often do this to the young horse, plucking them straight from the sleepy pastures of their nursery into an environment that is measured upon its production of top-level runners. Perhaps we send them via the sales…an entrance examination of sorts.

When put like this it is clear that, as custodians of young bloodstock, we might consider a period of preparation during which the horse would be introduced to saddle and rider, taught the basic lessons that would allow it to fit into the programme of the trainer that its owner chooses, as well as a careful conditioning of the physical stresses that will be tested further upon its graduation to the greater strains that will be required to reach race fitness.

For the sake of this article pre-training will be considered to be the safe development of a young horse towards its first joining a trainer or returning from a break not enforced by injury, as opposed to rehabilitation. The American racing industry has the perfect phrase for this: Legging Up.

While there has been a constant growth in the number commercial pre-training yards in Europe over the last 25 years to satisfy a growing demand for this service, this is something that has been a long standing practice further afield, particularly in countries where there is stabling pressure at the racetrack or in metropolitan stables, not to mention numerous larger owners that have chosen to keep a greater part of the horse’s young career in their control by employing a farm trainer or establishing their own pre-training division.

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