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Race Horse Training 1908

The below article is from The Outing Magazine of June, 1908, titled: How Race Horses Are Prepared, A Morning at the Track , by Wilf. P. Pond with Photographs by Marx

 

     Every day has its individual excitement for the racing stable, its item of vital importance to the compact world of the turf. Every day one or more important and valuable stakes are decided, and the stable has a representative nominated in most of them. The less important races take care of themselves along lower and less exciting lines. Thus with each day comes its one potent event.

     At four o'clock in the early morning the stable day may be said to dawn. The night watchman gives the horses their first feed, according to directions from the trainer over-night. Three quarts of oats each to all animals not due for hard work that morning, the horses to be tried out only receiving a bare one quart of oats, so that the stomach may be refreshed, but not satiated.

     This food is placed in a "feed-box", which fits into the manger, or stands by itself as desired permitting removal for inspection after the meal, as well as for scrupulous cleansing and airing. No dish or plate in the human house is given more attention, if so much. At half past four the cook and the employees are called, and they come tumbling out of the quarters like so many bears from a den, and without an order start their individual tasks. There are no dullards round a training stable where life is the life of an athlete in perfect trim. Some go to the harness room for brushes, cloths, etc., others for water, etc, gathering the items needed during the morning's work. Each individual knows his task, and sets about it without delay. Saddles, bridles, and all straps are duly inspected for weak spots, and for cleanliness and suppleness; girths are looked at to insure their laying flat and comfortable, for a horse must be comfortably in his trim as a man in his clothes and shoes, if great work is to be accomplished. As a call the help files off to breakfast as the horses are finishing theirs.

     The eating room is a partition from the kitchen, and in most stables there are two tables, one for the white help and one for the colored, this being the only "color line" drawn in the stable democracy. If the owner, or friends, come to breakfast, as is frequently the case, they sit at the "white" table and enjoy a typically good meal, with many novelties, costing from a maximum of six dollars and fifty cents per head per week, to not less than three dollars. The food and the cooking are distinctly good. Open air and plenty of rugged systematic exercise, good hours, sound sleep, and digestion, linked to a practical absence of bad habits and vices, make stupendous amounts of food literally melt away.

     At five o'clock, or even a trifle earlier, breakfast is supposed to be over. Either the trainer arrived for breakfast, or he is now on the scene, and his first proceeding is to walk slowly, with observant eyes, past every stall door, in front of which is its individual feed-box, tilted on edge that at a glance he may see if the horse has "cleaned" it, hungrily, or desultorily, or if, "off his feed", and needs attention without delay. This may be termed taking the pulse of his charges, and is a most important item. The horse that eats well, as a rule works well, and will stand much more racing than the light, finicky feeder. The great Sysonby had an appetite like a school lad, and so soon as he awoke simply shouted for his feed. Mares are usually less eager than horses at their box and one I have known within a comparatively short time, had to be fed almost oat by oat from her trainer's hand for several days before the race. Otherwise she could not be coaxed to eat. Medical attention would have thrown her off form. As a rule, being off feed means first aid remedies, lighter exercise for a day or two, and close attention if the indisposition does not prove transient, in which case expert veterinary aid is at once obtained. Happy the trainer whose feed boxes are emptied, and polished, each day. He knows it is the battle half won.

 

     By this time the first "set" of horses, generally six, have been saddled, bridled, and, with exercise boys in the saddle, led from the stable to the adjacent track, safely placed within its confining railed course before their heads are thrown loose to the exercising bridle. A runaway round stables is much more liable to injure itself than a runaway on the course proper, hence this care. Before ten minutes elapse the set is at work and actual hour varies with the light, which must be good. In May it is about 6:15, in August around 5:00. The horses make the circuit of the track at a sharp trot, with the boys carefully "holding them together", a light, firm tension on the bit which makes the animal "keep his legs under him" in perfect poise to the balancing center beam of the human body in the saddle. There is no easy chair, slouching, seat permitted on a race horse, which must be unintermittingly reminded that race life is real and earnest. There is no larking on the track. The trot extends to a mile, or a mile and a half, according to the elliptic of the individual course. Just sufficient to set the blood circulating, to sweep away the brain cobwebs, and to loosen any slight stiffness from a constrained position in sleeping, etc., just as a human being disperses similar muscular kinks by stretching.

     The trainer is somewhere near the judge's stand, or seated in the grandstand near that point, watching every move of his charges, how they handle themselves, the vim, or the lack of it. As they pass him at the completion of the round, he sends them off at a slow well-in-hand canter, which eventually breaks into a run through the stretch where the trainer stands, now on the track. The horses are lined in a row facing him, and as saddles and bridles are taken off, he give each animal close examination, noting the heave of the flanks, and the evidences of distress, the obvious desire for more, the way each has been affected by the warming-up exercises. Especially does he note the condition of he horse which has been off its feed, or one which is "rounding to", or approaching top notch condition for a race.

     The horses are now well rubbed down. Their eyes, nostrils, and mouths sponged out with a profuse supply of water with scrupulously clean and sweet sponges. Their feet are inspected for cakes of dirt, etc, and within ten minutes the saddles are replaced, and the more experienced boys placed upon the horses most advanced toward condition, the stables' jockeys are probably placed on the cracks, and they start in pairs, each under special directions from the trainer, as to distance to be covered and speed the various furlong divisions are to be run.

     The means that the individual horses jog to a certain point, are then taken along at a specified rate of speed, and at another specified place are urged to nearly top speed or to actual top speed, as directed, and brought back to the trainer, who is standing watch in hand. For instance, he will say: "Bob, take the colt to the three-quarter pole, break him, and take him four furlongs in about :16, then breeze him home through the stretch." This means the boy is to go jogging to the post marking 6 furlongs from the judge's stand, start as if in a race, cover the 4 furlongs, approximately, in 18 seconds for the first, 16 seconds for the second, 15 seconds for the third, 14 seconds for both the fourth and fifth with the final furlong according to the capacity and condition of the horse. If he labors or falters (unless under specific directions) the "breeze" will be a very mild one. The above is a high class "work".

 

     The boy must be a good judge of pace to do this. Todd Sloan, at his best, was a marvel. He could take a horse any given distance, at any given speed scarcely varying the one-fifth fraction of a second. Not only is this faculty very important in training, but it is of inestimable value in a race, insuring even exertion at a high rate of speed, with the final spurt always s in reserve. Without such knowledge of pace, a boy told by his trainer to "wait until he reached the stretch", might find a much slower pace than the trainer had expected when the directions are given. A good rider would then go out and make his own pace strictly within the limits of his mount, letting others pass him if they cared to do so, but holding the even tenor of way at which his mount would do his best work, and still have the final spurt in reserve when called for. It is by the obvious lack of expert knowledge in this detail, and the equally obvious lack of practical execution by our modern riders—as distinguished from jockeys—that numberless races, which should be won, are thrown away. This frequently causes the "reversals of form" we hear so much about and which so many racegoers do not appear to understand.

     During the period of work the vigilance of the trainer is unceasing. Having given the necessary orders, watch in hand, he stands seeing they are executed to the very letter as he desires. He notes how each horse "breaks", how it moves, how it responds under the continuous calls for increased speed, and what the condition when brought back to him. He notes how the individual rider has handled his mount. With what time and other accuracy he has carried out instructions. That there has been no larking, no racing one horse against the other, for, after all, exercise boys are only children, and will lapse unless under strong and constant supervision. Chumminess between a fast horse and a slower horse must be avoided, otherwise in a race the fast horse is liable to wait for his slower mate, as in practice spins. Horses inclined to "run out" or "go wide" on the turns (thus losing valuable ground in a race), have another horse placed on the outside to keep them in on the rail, and a score of other things which must all be watched and looked after. The small things count in racing, as in life.

     The trainer must know and note which horse runs his best especially where two years are making their first start, or are just developing into real usefulness and value. Those passing the equine Rubicon into the 3 year old division must be watched to see if the w year old measure of excellence is sustained, diminished, or improved , when the corresponding change from youth to manhood takes place I their performances. A good two year old may not live up to form as a 3 year old, or surpass it. All of which the trainer learns by close and ceaseless observation, in these early mornings at the race track. How frequently do we find a horse coming out, winning at long odds, running a brilliant race, with the trainer absolutely astounded at the suddenly displayed quality in an animal which has been under his hands for months past?

     The work over, the horses trot to the stable, saddles are removed, and the animals actually shampooed. They are wetted, and then covered with a soap solution, well rubbed in (the way of the hair) then sluiced off, scraped with a curious bent piece of wood, and hand-rubbed until their coats are dry, shining and gleaming in the sunlight, the blood dancing close to the surface, making each animal glad to be alive. Then, in most cases, the horse goes to the sand bath, which is the joy of his existence. Here he rolls, wriggles, hunches along, squirming the sand under every hair on back, sides, and legs, finally getting up to look off, and each animal covered with a light sheet, know as a "Lindsey". To be led around at a walk until thoroughly cool, generally in about an hour, but walked until cool, no matter how long.

     When absolutely cool, the horses are taken to their individual stalls or boxes where they find a clean, cool new bed awaiting them, and, after their coats have been again well smoothed down, they are left to rest as they please. Meanwhile, the second and other sets have been to the track, put through a similar curriculum, and returned to their stalls. Finally, the trainer comes along, makes necessary observations, gives final morning orders, and goes home to a second breakfast, or to rest.

 

     The stable hands are busy cleaning saddles, girths, bridles, bits, and airing blankets, for nothing may be dirty or skimped in a training stable, and the assistant foreman or trainer, moves from place to place with an eye to everything. As a rule, here is where quaint songs and choruses are softly chanted, generally of local composition, the idea being to ease and facilitate the work, to get it over and also to soothe the tired horses to rest; which certainly seems to be the case. Some stand half somnolently at the half door, others doze head at the wall, others lie down.

     Early in the afternoon all work is ended, and the half doors are quietly closed. There is no unnecessary noise around a stable, the horses have a chance to sleep, and these are the hours when not even for the owner will a trainer permit his charges to be disturbed. Regularity of food, water, exercise, and rest are the prime essentials of success. About 5:00, the half doors are again opened; in some stables the horses get walking exercise for half an hour, in others this is not done. The evening feed is given, the boxes again inspected, the stalls cleaned out, beds changed, medicated sawdust smelling of pine buds thrown in, legs and feet closely examined for swelling, or the slightest heat. The hoofs are packed with peat-moss, or with Potomac clay steeped for hours, molded into the foot, and tied in with a cloth, keeping the foot moist and cool, in different stables is very slight.

     After carefully selecting his horses when young or when advanced performers, the trainer's work and trouble are only foreshadowed. Starting in February, according to weather, and location of stable (around New York or in the South), it takes three months' careful development to bring a horse into condition, his individual "flesh" at the start determining the time. Not alone the flesh on his bones, but the fat around the intestines, which cannot be hurried away. Having achieved condition, the object is to keep this equine athlete on "edge" so long as possible—just so much exercise, that he does not weaken or "go stale", and this is the nerve-racking phase of the training life. A horse is headed for a race two months away, the horse comes "to hand" earlier than anticipated—just as a human athlete will—and for one or two weeks it is the toss of a coin dependent on a chill, indigestion, fright, accident, overexertion, a sudden change in weather, or one of the thousand and one things which governs life, equine or human. When in condition some horses can run a couple of races a week, others only one in about three weeks. Fillies are proverbially difficult to handle in training, whimsical as women, with as many moods—and as inexplicable—as those of an operatic diva. She must be humored, petted, worked less than a colt, rested more, not annoyed or teased, and not raced too frequently. Some horses race themselves into condition, others need only jogging and light exercise

 


ANALYSIS AND SUMMARY

 

     Even though this very interesting journalistic account of a typical training day on an American Thoroughbred race track took place some 95 years ago, much truth and perspective may be obtained from a current study with today's racing in mind. I will attempt to discuss my interpretation of its differences and similarities.

     The 4:00 a.m. starting time for the race stable back then seems on the whole to be the same as today. However, the horses seemed to have been fed only twice in one day as opposed to the customary daily 3 rations-sequence followed today. The noon or mid-day feed has been skipped. Personally, when I trained a string, I never fed at noon either and my horses seemed not the least bit challenged nutritionally from that practice. Feed boxes of the past were also of the removable type. It is nice to know that close observation of the feed consumed and the cleanliness of the feed tub has long been a race track tradition and for good reason. Appetite is one of the most obvious indicators of well being in the horse.

     The described communal dining of the help in the shed-row or rooming house is no longer customary among today's stable personnel as it was back then. Today, we have the track kitchen or cafeteria as the common spot for the entire track population to dine, not just one barn's crew. I might add that the common backstretch term of kitchen used on the track's backside for cafeteria comes directly from this tradition of unit kitchens serving each barn's crew. I would guess that few grooms receive a decent sit down breakfast anymore--no time with such early working hours observed. Most modern grooms will fall out of bed and go directly to work. Perhaps, they can get away for a quick coffee, but many never eat a full breakfast as it was observed so long ago. Instead of 5:00 a.m. being the breakfast hour, it is now the starting work hour that will allow the modern groom to prepare a horse to be on the track by 6:00 a.m. As always, modern life seems to have put a higher premium on time and labor.

     Few trainers will make a stall-by-stall inspection of their horses upon arriving at the modern barn. Assistants or in smaller stables, the grooms, are usually the first vanguard to make such an inspection in this modern era. Should anything be amiss, they are the ones to notify the head trainer. Just as in yesteryear, feed consumption on an individual basis is one of the first signs that all is not well with a horse. As noted by the author, mares seem to eat less voraciously when compared to geldings or stallions. Some things never change, eh?

     In this article, a set of six horses were sent out to work together in what is still to this day called a training set. You will only see such large numbers in a set at the larger stables of today. Most of smaller trainers can only work horses in sets of two, if we are lucky enough to be able to schedule two exercise riders at the same time. Mostly that is difficult, if not impossible. Certainly this is one of the prime benefits of training a large stable — the capability of working horses in large sets that more closely simulate actual racing conditions. One can teach a horse to come from behind, to cut the race on top, be brave on the outside, and a host of other things which would be impossible to teach working alone or in smaller sets. Interestingly, horses seem to be prone to just as much unruliness back then as now when being taken to the track. Horses were led by hand back then with no mention of a pony-horse ever being used.

     Now comes the really interesting part of this article, the description of an actual work sequence. Wilfred Pond describes how these six horses were tacked up and led to the track. They enter at a nice sharp collected trot and travel the "circuit of the track" at that gait. Thus, this preliminary warm-up at the trot goes for about a 1-1.5 miles and, apparently, trotted the right-way of the track or counter-clockwise. As this set completes this initial warm-up at the trot, the trainer signals for them to break into a slow canter for about another mile with a final acceleration into a very brisk breeze, probably for the last eighth of a mile. After this very short breeze, the horses are brought back in front of the trainer where they are stripped of tack, sponged, rubbed down, and inspected. Now, the surprising part! Horses are tacked back up and a new set of riders are put on this very same set of horses. These new riders are more skilled horsemen. As the author writes, often the stable jocks were put up on the cracks (the best horses). The least experienced exercise riders were not allowed to go this second time around. Yes, another work for these horses without leaving the track! This all seems to have taken place within about 10 minutes. Next the trainer gives the riders more specific instructions as of distance to be traveled and time desired for that distance. Usually this second work takes the form of the riders jogging the wrong-way at a trot to a certain point on the main track, then turning in the counter-clockwise direction, and breaking into a faster gallop at the specified time instructed by the trainer. Finally at the very end of the work, the horses are often urged to their top speed or something close.

     A typical trainer's instruction as given in this article: "Bob, take the colt to the ¾ pole, break him, and take him 4 furlongs in about :16, then breeze him home through the stretch." This means that the trainer wants the rider to jog his horse at the trot for about 6 furlongs from the finish line or to the ¾ pole of the track. Once at that pole, the boy would turn his horse, break, and cover the 6 furlong work by going the first eighth in 18 seconds, the second eighth (or furlong) in 16 seconds, the third eighth of a mile in :15, the fourth will go ideally in 14 seconds, the fifth furlong in another :14. The final eighth or furlong will be run according to the condition of the horse, hopefully close to top speed, if not top speed. In other words the first 5 furlongs went in 1:17 with the last eighth at top speed, whatever that may be. This initial rate of speed would be very similar to what is called a 2 minute lick in these modern times, just prior to going the last eighth at speed. If this account is accurate and I suspect it is close, then the old timers appreciated how speed can kill a horse. Speed was to be nurtured, never squandered. Horses were never forced. The old time trainers knew as we should know today that forcing a horse seldom comes to good and that moderate work speeds are the best way to develop fitness without injury.

     Next the author talks how important it is for a rider or jock to have a "clock in his head". Unfortunately, I suspect this skill is becoming more and more a thing of the past. Modern emphasis is lost on the importance of clocked time to most young riders currently coming up. It was mentioned that the famous jockey, Todd Sloan was a marvel at this innate ability to measure time while on top of a horse. I would venture here to suggest that Todd Sloan's real claim to fame of the past was not in his adaptation of the monkey seat that has now become the norm among race riders and often penned on him as the originator, but to the contrary, his success racing abroad, was more due to his ability to gauge pace at which the Europeans were very poorly developed that led to his great fame as a race rider.

    Now with the work over for our set of horses, they are taken back to the barn, striped, bathed with soap, and scrapped--all just as typical today as back then. The mention of the sand bath in this article is still adhered to, to some extent, in modern times. However, you will find this luxurious practice more a function of a training farm rather than those stabled at most metropolitan race courses. Horses seem to have been cooled out very similarly back then as today. Mechanical hot walkers are often the norm at most modern race tracks around the country, simply due to the lack of appropriate help. Once the horses are brushed and presumably done-up in bandages, if needed, they were allowed to rest the remainder of the day. I found it interesting that both Dutch-doors were intentionally closed during the latter part of day to insure a quiet time for each horse. The quiet atmosphere of the resting afternoon shed-row was closely guarded by the trainer. One will note that back then the grooms provided their own music via chants and ditties. Today, we have the often blaring radios hanging from the barn walls, broadcasting out rap or salsa. I doubt if this change is much for the better.

     At 5:00 in the afternoon, the half-doors are opened letting the horses again view the outside world. Some are taken out to walk, some were not. This is the approximate time that evening chores are still scheduled in the modern race world as well. Most of the time, afternoon races will be long over by 5:00 pm. Horses are fed, watered, hayed, and stalls picked out at this time. Hooves were packed with peat-moss or clay. This seems to be a practice largely lost to most modern thoroughbred racing barns. It seems that only horses with obvious hoof problems are packed anymore. Back 100 years ago, all horses seemed to have had their hooves packed routinely. I have always done that with my own string, though I did not wait till 5:00 in the afternoon. My horses were packed just before they were turned loose in the stall for the day. Also, it is probably unnecessary to go to all the trouble of wrapping the packed hoof with cloth as described. I have found that Bentonite clay will in most cases stay within the sole of the hoof without anything other than the naturally stuck stall straw capping it. Packing the hoof with clay and using hoof oil is not to be underestimated in maintaining a healthy hoof and prolonging a racing career.

     Lastly, the author mentions that it takes 3 months to bring a thoroughbred into flesh for racing. I find this estimate to be a bit optimistic, even under today's speedy standards and this is particularly true when developing first-time starters. One thing that Pond does write which will be controversial in today's climate: "When in condition some horses can run a couple of races a week, others only one in about three weeks." I think this is basically true. Certainly the fit race thoroughbred, if given a proper foundation can race weekly without corrupting his form. Certainly such close racing was a common practice during the first half of the last century and reflects solidly on the careful preparatory conditioning that those horses underwent prior to racing. Few modern race horses are given the conditioning of the past which allows this type of racing form to occur. Most are lucky to be able to stand a race every 2-4 weeks. Wilfred Pond also says with great insight that some horses race themselves into condition, some need only light exercise, and still others need hard work. Each horse is an individual and must be trained as such for best results—as true today as 100 years ago!

 

A rare cabinet photograph of a racehorse from 1900s era taken within the town view of Hamilton, Missouri.  T.H. Hare was the first photographer to open up a studio in Hamilton around 1870 and this was an example of his work. "Mr. Hare was one of the town's peculiar characters. He was a photographer here since 1868 and finally had his gallery on south Main. He was quite a deep reader and was said to be an agnostic; at any rate he could argue for Ingersoll."

 


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