On horses and training
The master, in his own words: Excerpts from a speech given by Henry Cecil in Hong Kong, 1988
The main drawback in racing today is the fading-out of the old owner-breeders who knew and understood. They’re being replaced by many who do not understand and treat the animal as some kind of object for a social step or a commodity to make money. An animal can be abused by those owners because the trainers aren’t strong enough to stand up to them. The horses are forced to run to suit the owner, maybe because he has a box at Royal Ascot and wants to entertain his girlfriends. So many top, successful businessmen, shrewd and astute in their own fields, are gullible when they go into racing; they think they know everything. A little knowledge is always dangerous; and understandably they lack the rapport between man and beast. There’s a story about a backward and ignorant two-year-old. The trainer approached the owner and said, “I’m afraid he’s still green,” and the owner replied, “He was brown last time I saw him.” Ignorance provides an opening for the sharks and conmen in racing, who unfortunately are more prominent in racing than most other industries.
Happy horses – I think you’ve got to have a very contented staff. Happy horses – contented staff, it’s very important. It doesn’t matter how much ability a horse has, if he's not happy and genuine he’s no good to anybody. To get the best out of a horse you’ve got to give the best. Staff, feed, training and everything. Horses must be relaxed in their work. I think horses that are too free – you get a lot of morning glories – are not really any good. Distance-wise, I feel that a horse either stays or he doesn’t stay. If he’s bred to stay he’ll stay. If he stays, then I think the secret may be to work him the shortest possible distance without souring him up. After all, it’s the horse with a turn of foot that wins the race. I think that is very important. I don’t believe in trial gallops. I like working my horses on the bit. I think you can tell quite a lot by just working a horse on the bit – you don’t have to try a horse. I like an honest, broad head, and I like the eyes to be well apart. After all, do we ever trust humans when their eyes are too close together? A wide muzzle – I’ve never found the horses I’ve been lucky enough to have, have ever been any good with small muzzles and narrow heads. I like a strong head. I think it’s important, I really do. The next point is short necks. I don’t like short necks and don’t like swan necks. I feel that the windpipe is restricted. I think that a dipped back or swayed back leads to trouble with muscles behind the saddle. Legs – over at the knee sign of strength, back of the knee sign of weakness. Back of the knee leads to problems with the tendon. Tendons are obviously the trainer’s nightmare. I know over jumps they seem to be able to patch up tendons and they can still run, but on the Flat, I’ve never, ever had a horse that’s come right with a tendon. To me if I have a horse with a tendon, that is the end. The blood supply of the tendon is so minute, and the heart is so far away from the leg, the repair is very minimal. Short cannon bones – a horse with short pasterns, they don’t seem to break down as much as horses with long pasterns although horses with long pasterns seem to have more spring and they’re better movers, but on the other hand a really good mover doesn’t have that extra gear. I like a deep girth in yearlings but unfortunately it’s something that seems to develop between two and three, so when you’re buying a yearling you’re rather in trouble. When a horse walks away from you it wants to have that lovely swing, getting its hocks underneath it. I think if you’re going to try to detect any error in a horse when you’re buying – look through its back legs when it’s walking away from you. You will see the things that are wrong much more easily than if it’s walking towards you.
If you’re going to try to detect any error in a horse when you’re buying – look through its back legs when it’s walking away from you. You will see the things that are wrong much more easily than if it’s walking towards you
I went home after the Arc thinking, “Well, I’ve made a terrible mistake: Reference Point should never have run, he was over the top.” But in my own heart of hearts I couldn’t believe it
The thing with a top-class horse, you’ve got to try and produce him six or seven times a year at his best, which is always very difficult because you know even with a human athlete it isn’t easy. Some horses you can let them down in the middle of the season and give them a rest, but often they don’t come back. So somehow you’ve got to keep them quietly ticking over. If you let a horse down too much, sometimes he just doesn’t come back. Reference Point was very tough. He never did more than he had to do, he looked after himself. Probably when you asked him for 80 per cent, he always gave about 50 per cent at home. There’s always a little bit in the tank. In every race, really, once he got over his illness, he improved and improved and we thought he was probably as well, if not better, than ever when we went for the Arc than he had been all year. But unfortunately he had an abscess brewing up in his foot. I’m not sure whether it was from a flint or what caused it. It may be because of the time of the year, you get a tiny bit run down, humans get boils on their necks, but when he was in the race, he hit the ground and it triggered it off. Even looking at the film afterwards he was definitely in trouble and very uncomfortable. I went home after the Arc thinking, “Well, I’ve made a terrible mistake: he should never have run, he was over the top.” But in my own heart of hearts I couldn’t believe it. Once I got home, I got a message saying the horse was so lame he couldn’t put his foot on the ground and they thought he’d broken a bone in his leg. And then of course the abscess came out. Once that abscess had burst, about four days later we managed to get him home. Even when he went to stud, another one formed in his hind leg and he was lame. So it may have been something to do with just the time of the year and his condition. But I do think when he went for the Arc he was very well. I would never have dared run him, he’d done enough already, the Arc was going to be a bonus. He’d won the King George, the Leger and the Derby, and the two main trials, and as far as I was concerned that was enough. I had no intention of having him shot at if he wasn’t right. So I think that was definitely the reason.
The owner went on, “Don’t give me that, any old fool can train racehorses.” To which the trainer replied, “Quite so, Sir, but two wise men can’t.”
There were two horses walking around the paddock which to me were definitely over the top. They were worried, they were gone. Not only were they sweating between their back legs, which I always hate, but they were very nervous and tense and as they were walking around they were boring, pulling on the rope. It’s always a sure sign, you know, when the head is nodding, nodding, nodding, that he’s gone. Those horses ran and I thought, considering that they’d gone, they ran very well. I think one was last, but the other one beat one. I don’t think those horses could have benefited from that. And I expect that now they’d need to be left alone and rested, and have quite a lot of confidence put back into them. Working them with very, very bad horses to let them go past and win a gallop so they think they are the bee’s knees, otherwise I can’t see much future for them. I think a horse has also got to be reasonably fit. A lot of people think you can train a horse on the racecourse. “Run him, he needs the race, doesn’t matter, he’ll win next time.” I don’t think that works. If he’s genuine, the horse is doing his best but he gets tired and he’s got two furlongs still to go, and his lungs are hurting him and he’s beginning to hate it, although he wants to do it. I don’t see how the next time he can be in the right frame of mind.
I think it’s very important that when a horse is right, that’s when you run him, not when it’s wrong, just because the race is available. I mean that to me doesn’t really seem to make sense. It would be rather nice if the programme could allow for a little more leeway. They’re not machines. It’s like people. It’s like Sebastian Coe, he probably only really comes right once in every two years. It would be awful if he’s at his best and he can’t run, wouldn’t it?
In England we can’t use any form of Lasix which stops bleeding. In America you can. If we’re competing in a state where it’s permitted, then we can use it too and we’re not at so much of a disadvantage. They say bleeding all goes back in England to Hermit, and all that strain are prone to bleeding.
Vets don’t agree with me at all but I think bleeding is through nervousness. Often you get a very good two-year-old who wins six or seven races, and you train him on as a three-year-old and he’s doing his best or her best, but basically the body won’t go with them and I find it’s a form of a nervous breakdown.
I definitely think it’s a nervous breakdown. If a horse bleeds it means he’s had enough.
We do periodically take blood counts for horses. We don’t blood-test just before a race. A lot of people weigh their horses, they do every sort of thing. But I like to think we can tell whether the horse is well or not right just by looking at him, really. If he’s healthy, working very well, and he’s bright, well, he’s ready. A lot of people say he’s lost weight, this that and the other, but I think if you know your horses you can tell by just watching them. I hate all these other things. I’m very old-fashioned, really. I’ve been brought up in a very old-fashioned way. I use very, very few additives in feed, the old methods, and I just dread change.
The old exercise saddle I find tremendous. But they’re all changing now to the non-tree saddle. You have to change a bit. But I hate change. I’m very traditional. Apart from feeding some kind of supplement, probably because nowadays the hay or the oats are lacking in something, you might get it out of a supplement you use. Or if you’ve got a horse that’s very nervous, it might help the nervous system. Apart from that I don’t use anything at all. I do believe in dehydration. In England there are an awful lot of people who’ve never heard of electrolytes and dehydration. I do believe in that.
Many stables in England are getting larger and larger. It’s not uncommon to find a stable of 200 horses. I must say I’m one of the culprits. I always say it’s easier to win a war with an army rather than a battalion. Every year gets harder and you’re only as good as your last season or race. Some time ago at Newmarket an owner suggested to his trainer that it would be better to do this and that, and the trainer replied irritably that he didn’t think so. The owner went on, “Don’t give me that, any old fool can train racehorses.” To which the trainer replied, “Quite so, Sir, but two wise men can’t.” Jack Jarvis was Lord Rosebery’s trainer. Once in the evening, when Lord Rosebery was introducing him to the dukes and duchesses and aristocracy and royalty, he was heard saying, “This is my trainer, Jack Jarvis; he’s trained me hundreds of winners but none lately.” Training’s rather like a game of bagatelle I find. You have twelve silver balls and you have a spring. You pull the spring and the balls go into holes, and at the end of the game you add them all up and you have a score. Then all the balls go down to the bottom again and you start all over again.
From The Faber Book of the Turf (edited by John Hislop and David Swannell), 1990. Reproduced here with permission.