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U3A Writing: It's All In The Breeding

Read these words by Phyllis Thorby and, assuming you are not already an enthusiasist, you will begin to get some understanding of the thrill of the racing game.

‘Why on earth would anyone call a horse Hypotenuse?’ The lady in the loud hat emphasized the last syllable disdainfully, as though something unpleasant had got up her nose. ‘Hypoten-use.’

Why wouldn’t you? I thought. With his dam, Apex and sire, Right Angle, the answer was fairly obvious if she’d bothered to read her race-book. We were in the public stands where I preferred to sit alone, away from the crowded Member’s Stand, and she was sitting in front of me, her voice as loud as her hat. A strident voice, with a querulous, nerve-grating timbre. ‘Don’t you know anything?’ She kept demanding of her companion. But––I pulled myself together–– no minor irritations could ruin this glorious November day. No way.

I raised my binoculars and looked instead, down along the track towards the gates where twenty-four magnificent animals were about to be led in. Fine and muscled, coats glistening, lean as greyhounds, their jockeys balanced above them in their bright silks. I picked out my colours, gold, with blue sash, white sleeves, blue and gold quartered cap, ‘Pots’ was easy to see as well, his burnished chestnut coat and solid white blaze made him stand out from the bays and browns. Only one grey, ‘Star Gazer’ among them and Pots’s trainer, Chip, had warned Kate to watch out for him. Kate was ‘up’ today. I liked her to ride Pots, she had lovely hands and a way of giving a horse confidence, firm, no nonsense, but gentle too. Pots liked her as well, he settled easily when she was ‘up’, responding, listening and when she asked, giving his all. As we waited for the starter to call, I began thinking back five years, to the day of his foaling.

His dam, Apex, already in foal with ‘Pots’, was given to me after my ex disappeared off with an 16 year-old strapper from Chip Martin’s training stables across the valley, leaving me to sell our Stud’s two stallions and twelve brood mares to pay off the cradle-snatching bastard’s debts. Chip, feeling sorry for me and sort of responsible I guess, signed Apex over to me with the excuse he had no room for her in his busy establishment, so who was I to literally look a gift horse in the mouth?

A year later, I went into partnership with Chip and was able to purchase the sire of her foal, a young unproven colt sporting a damaged tendon that prematurely cut short his racing career. Among Right Angle’s pedigree are Hyperno, 1979 winner of the Melbourne Cup and also the highly successful Hyperion, who clocked up both the English Derby and the St. Leger in the early 1930’s.

Now the Stud, Clover Downs, is gradually getting back in business with Right Angle covering some good outside mares and also keeping Apex happy. Chip and I have high hopes for his progeny, with several of the two and three year-olds showing talent in the lower classes and Pots’ full sister, Isosoles, always being ‘in the money’ as she moves on up.

Back to Pots’ foaling; I believe in ‘Imprinting’–– the American vet. Robert Miller’s method of bonding with the mare and foal at birth–– but it was a new experience for Apex. She stood very quickly after birthing, became very protective and in contrast to her normally trusting nature, she snapped and stamped, warning me to stay away from this little bundle with the huge white blaze. I had to regain the mare’s trust before attempting to handle the foal, so worked quietly along her flank, talking softly, watching her ears, waiting for her to accept my hand and for the tension to drain from her. By the time I’d gained her head, she was more relaxed, allowing me to rub her muzzle and fondle her ears. I kept my hand on her as she reached down to lick her offspring, then, running my hand down her head, and on down to the foal to acquire his smell, to then offer my hand to Apex for her acceptance, and back again, to caress the little fellow as his mother cleaned him.

Eventually, about an hour after his arrival, the little ginger bundle attempted to rise shakily to his feet, first the forelegs poked forward like props and then his hindlegs, gangly and sideways, his mother prodding him gently, whinnying softly and I, just caressing, not helping, letting nature take its course.

Gaining some strength in his hindlegs, he wobbled against his mother, nuzzling her, then me, looking, searching, and finding at last her udder, the three of us now, almost as one, a perfect triangle. This was an ideal introduction to the Natural Horsemanship techniques I had used with all our young ones before the Stud almost belly-upped.

The earliest our equine friends learn to trust, respect and accept, rather than fear humans, the less trauma they’ll face in the future and the safer they’ll be for their riders and handlers in any chosen discipline. Chip works along the same lines too, and makes sure his stable-hands, strappers, apprentices, jockeys and anyone else who gets near his horses––although he hasn’t got much control over his owners––regularly attend clinics that teach these methods. He and I have learned much over the years by attending clinics by such well known ‘Horsemen’ as Monty Roberts of ‘Horse Whispering’ fame, Pat Paralle, Ray Hunt, Merv Kildey the now deceased Australian, and luckily, just once before he died of a ripe old age in June, 2003, the original ‘Natural Horseman’ whose philosophies have been adapted around the world, Tom Dorrance.

I came back to the present with a jolt. The Flemington atmosphere buzzed with excitement and anticipation, I tried to remain calm, but I could feel a great ball of adrenaline building up in my stomach, ready to burst and charge around my body.

The Starter called and they were off. 3200 meters to cover and it would all be over in the blink of an eye. Pots where was Pots? Ah, there, three back on the rail inside of Star Gazer’s flank, settling in to a free flowing stride. I put the binoculars down, I couldn’t watch, my heart was pounding almost as quickly as the thundering hooves. The woman in front of me was screaming so loud for Star Gazer I couldn’t hear the commentator, I caught something about Hypotenuse. Dare I look?

OhmyGod! Is that him being squeezed back? It can’t be, he’s almost at the rear of the field. Pots, Pots, what’s happening? His stride is broken, Kate is sitting very still, her hands on his neck, gradually she settles him, but is it too late? Star Gazer has moved up to take the lead from the favourite, In Time. Pots is now six lengths back on the outside of the main bunch. Suddenly on the turn, with 500 metres to run, he surges forward, mowing down the field to race stride for stride with Star Gazer. The roar of the crowd is deafening. The two, neck and neck, leaving the field standing as they near the line. A flash and they are over. It’s a photo. Can I stand the suspense?

I prepare to make my way down to the birdcage, the woman in the loud hat moves too, insisting Star Gazer is a clear winner by at least a nose. The buzz of the crowd dies down to a hush as we await the judge’s call. I look across the track to see Pots, tail up, doing little pig-jumps, like he always does when he knows he’s won. The Clerk of the Course is on his big bay, escorting the grey and the bouncing chestnut towards the birdcage and the winner’s circle.

Loud hat taps me on my arm. ‘I have a share in the winner, Star Gazer, don’t you know. Why’d they need a photo? He’s definitely beaten that horse with the stupid name don’t you know. I mean why’d anyone call a horse that?’

‘Look at his breeding, how could I call him anything else,’ I said proudly, as the winner of the 2010 Melbourne Cup was announced’ ‘Don’t you know––anything?’

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