FROM TAB SOUTH AFRICA’s ‘OFF THE RECORD’ COLUMN, BY CHARL PRETORIUS, 23 DECEMBER 2023:
BEHIND THE GATES: Racehorses and mental preparation
In the dramatic arena of Group 1 racing, where fortunes can turn in the blink of an eye, fate often hinges on a single moment. Such a moment arrived at the WSB Cape Fillies Guineas at Hollywoodbets Kenilworth on 2 December 2023, when the talented filly Red Palace (Potala Palace) stood poised to showcase her potential. However, destiny had other plans. As the start beckoned and the crowd held its breath, Red Palace was intractable and had to be withdrawn, leaving her rivals, Beach Bomb and Silver Sanctuary, to vie for victory.
Racing fans were left to ponder an unanswerable question: What if Red Palace had contested the race? The outcome that might have been will forever remain in the realm of conjecture and speculation, even more so after Red Palace came so close to winning last Saturday’s G1 Hollywoodbets Cape Guineas against the colts.
Red Palace’s ordeal started on Tuesday 14 November, when she was entered for a Class 4 Handicap over 1400m at Hollywoodbets Durbanville. Trainer Candice Bass-Robinson had planned this race as a final preparation for the WSB Cape Fillies Guineas, but things went awry at the start. After she was loaded and standing in the pens, Red Palace was disturbed by another runner. She kicked back and her off-hind hoof got stuck in the gap between the top and bottom parts of her stall gate.
The starter’s assistants did well to free Red Palace’s hoof from its awkward position, using a rope. They risked getting kicked themselves by the understandably bewildered filly, who herself was in danger of serious injury the longer she remained trapped.
Red Palace was scratched from the race and, seeing her disorientation and sensing the possibility of starting stall headaches to come, Candice called in the help of equine behaviour therapist, Malan du Toit, whose exceptional record with troublesome and temperamental horses is well documented.
Malan explained: “Horses are flight animals, and Red Palace is a typical example of what can happen if they are frightened and distracted. When her hoof got stuck, she went into frantic mode. She was unable to see behind her, so it would have felt to her like an attack from a predator. That she survived without injury is a credit to the starter and his team.”
Malan went to work on Red Palace alongside his assistant Madoda Lumkwana and jockey Anthony Andrews and he said: “I’ve always applied the principle of grounding. First, the problem is identified, in this case a bad experience at the start. Next, we go back to basics with a process of intensive and extensive ground control exercises. This is also known as foundation training and comprises a series of exercises on the ground by which the horse is trained to respond to its handler in a respectful and orderly manner.
“After this initial ground control process, the horse is exposed and habituated to the stalls to re-establish a good perspective and a smooth loading routine. It is crucial for any racehorse to be well under control. The better he or she is under control on the ground, the better they will behave himself at the start and the better they will race. A well-behaved horse conserves energy behind the stalls and it is kept for the race.”
But with just two weeks to go to the Fillies Guineas, Malan was unable to spend enough time with Red Palace to be reasonably satisfied that her ‘re-programming’ had taken effect. He says: “We had two sessions with her, which was not enough. Candice had to stick to her preparation programme to get her to the race in top physical shape, so we had to work around that.
“Red Palace was passed through the pens again with a hood fitted and her certificate was re-issued, but she was still jittery and using the hood on Fillies Guineas day was perhaps the wrong call. She couldn’t see a thing, heard the commotions around her and it may have triggered bad memories. She refused to enter the gates and of course this was a big disappointment to all of us.”
The application of equine psychology is invariably a slow process for which much patience is needed and it was back to the drawing board. Malan had two more sessions with Red Palace. More intense grounding was needed, the objective was to get her to listen, and a new plan was implemented. To create a scenario as close as possible to the day Red Palace encountered her unfortunate experience, she was taken to a race day at Hollywoodbets Durbanville with a companion from her stable, her handler and jockey Andrews.
Malan said: “It is impossible to recreate the precise circumstances of such incidents, but in going to a race day, Red Palace was able to visually take in the activities at the track, at the pens. She had the presence of a familiar equine friend and her handler, with some other horses around her. When we loaded her, we noticed that she wasn’t standing straight, she was leaning with her quarters to one side of her gate and didn’t appear at ease. We took her out again and fitted her with the Monty Roberts blanket. This gave her a feeling of comfort and security and the next loading attempt was trouble-free. She was relaxed and stood still, inside.
“It is customary for a horse to stand, and then jump, to the satisfaction of the starter and the stipendiary steward on duty, but Anthony Andrews recommended that Red Palace only did the standing bit, as this was where our concerns were. He was not worried about her jumping when she was prompted. We received special permission from the stipes and this was a good decision. For the Hollywoodbets Cape Guineas last Saturday she was loaded into the gates early. She stood still and relaxed, started perfectly and ran a great race!”
Malan said that Red Palace will be given a ‘refresher course’ to re-affirm her progress ahead of her next mission, the G1 Cartier Paddock Stakes on King’s Plate Day, 3 January 2024.
Mike Louw, assistant General Manager and Secretary for the Cape Turf Club in 1992, recalled a Cape Guineas story of somewhat similar nature. This was a year with an incredible crop of three-year-olds. The prestigious race was promoted on national media channels, branded, the ‘Topsport Bloodline Guineas’ and scheduled for Milnerton on 8 February.
The leading filly at the time was rising superstar and Highveld raider Empress Club (Farnesio), but from the old Natal Province came Unaware (Northern Guest) and Secret Hoard (Secret Prospector), with Transvaal’s formidable Fast Gun (Mexico II) and The Decorator (Wicked Will) also travelling to Cape Town to challenge Tony Millard’s runner.
Unaware was a horse pundits believed was good enough to give Empress Club a run for her money. Trainer Willie Pieters had already won five races with him ahead of the Guineas, including the Grade 2 Administrators on New Years Day. Unaware was a volatile customer with a mind all of his own. A big, flashy chestnut, he was a true leader of the pack and a ‘man’s man’ with a history of disruptive behaviour. At times, he became so fractious and hard to control that he was considered to be a danger to horse and human.
Before the Administrators, Unaware had reared up in the parade ring, landed on his feet again and then kicked out wildly with both hind legs up in the air. Owners and trainers in the ring had to scramble to get out of his way. Later, he loaded with a great degree of difficulty. Louw said: “A photographer snapped an excellent shot of Unaware with his front legs on the ground and his hind legs six feet up in air. They used it on the front cover of the SA Racehorse, it’s a photo you can’t forget once you’ve seen it.”
Unaware’s antics caught the roving eye of Chief Stipendiary Steward Mike Tillett, who was concerned that Unaware would put himself and others in danger at the well-attended Guineas. In those days, the field had to load in two minutes to accommodate betting elsewhere in the country. Any horse who violated the two-minute rule was penalised heavily. It wasn’t a simple matter of re-schooling and getting a new pass – horses had to serve a set suspension and Unaware looked set to miss the Guineas.
Louw said: “The stipes withdrew his starting stall certificate and considered scratching him. Unaware’s connections, my colleagues at Cape Turf Club and I had to plead for leniency. After some heated deliberations we reached a compromise and special provision was made for Unaware to prove his eligibility.”
Pieters commented: “We had our hands in our hair. This was such an important race with lots at stake. I spent some more time with Unaware at the starting stalls applying some of the methods I’d studied from Monty Roberts.”
Tillett attended ‘pens practice’ himself a week before the Guineas and, with Unaware perhaps aware that he was about to lose his place in the race, he arrived in an uncharacteristically calm mood to the delight of Pieters and his connections. He passed through the stalls in a satisfactory manner and Tillett signed the re-issued certificate. He was priced up 17-10 favourite for the race, was lifted in prayer all the way to the pens and into the contest, but found Millard’s freaky filly too good, beaten 2.30-lengths into third.
Many years later, Louw said, he’d left the Cape Turf Club and was caretaking at Kildara Stud in Kwazulu-Natal when, one morning, he was requested to go to Summerveld to collect a horse destined for his retirement home, a game farm near Richards Bay.
He told: “I drove the float to Summerveld and was told that we had a problem, because the old guy that was about to travel was full of nonsense. I went to his paddock and he was a scary beast, a big chestnut. He kicked out, shook his head wildly and made aggressive gestures. He was impossible to load. I recommended that he be sedated so we could get him on the float. A veterinarian came out and gave him a shot to settle him down, but even after that we had to be careful. He was grunting and blowing so we put bales of hay all around the horse box in case of a fall.
“With some nudging and pushing the old gelding stepped on and we were all relieved, because he was standing quietly so we were able to leave. But he was only calm until the sedative started wearing off. There was an almighty ruckus from the back and I stepped on the accelerator. It was a long journey!”
Horse, driver and float arrived in Richards Bay in one piece and, curious to as to who his difficult passenger had been, Louw idly flipped through the horse’s passport before handing it over. “It showed that this was none other than Unaware, my old acquaintance from Cape Town. If I’d known it was him, I may not have accepted the job! But it gave me a lot of satisfaction knowing that having reached his forever home, he would never need to be loaded again.”