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Thu 23 Mar 2017 09:45 AM

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Dubai World Cup: The life of a racehorse trainer

There are elements of racehorse training that seem almost universal, says Princess Haya

Dubai World Cup: The life of a racehorse trainer

On the 25th of March, we will celebrate the running of the Dubai World Cup, a horse race that hosts some of the best horses in the world running in a country with a great heritage tradition in this sport. Many people love to attend and follow this race, but many also want to know more, simple things that would make their day at the races more exciting and informed. Often there are questions that may seem too basic to ask, and the books and accounts on horse racing are too specific and purist based to explain to a newcomer what this incredible sport is all about. In a countdown of articles that will run the week up to the Dubai World Cup I hope that my words will help share the sport with a greater audience.

Horses possess at their core an essential honesty.

They will never fake an injury or illness to avoid work. This disarming quality is what draws so many people to horses. Emotionally, they have no hesitation in revealing their fears and insecurities.

It could be said that a horse is an open book, but that means little unless we can understand the language.

The finest horsemen and women have what seems to be an intuitive ability to read a horse. We might call it a gift, but for most it has come from a lifetime working with, and observing, horses.

The racing success of a Thoroughbred horse requires that its mental, physical and nutritional needs are met.

The men and women who undertake this role are called trainers - a rather simple term for a complex job that requires them to be an athletics coach, nutritionist, manager, and equine psychologist all rolled into one.

They need to be good communicators, too, because racehorse owners will be keen to get regular updates on the training of their animal.

The best trainers have a love of the Thoroughbred and are dedicated to the racing industry. They employ a raft of people to ride and care for the horses. Horses are the largest employers of the animal world, they employ per one head between 3-5 people.

Even for a small farmer in a developing country, the minimum employment for a horse is 1 vet, 1 blacksmith, and one person to feed and care. In the larger racing stables, the average is 5 people.

Trainers need track riders, who will exercise the horse most days under the trainer's direction, as well as people who clean up after the horses and provide the regular meals, which will be carefully formulated to provide balanced nutrition.

And let's not forget a constant stream of visitors - the veterinarians, farriers and assorted therapists tasked with keeping the horses in top condition.

Horses may be remarkable athletes, but the strains of running at speeds of more than 60kmh can take a toll on their muscles, ligaments and tendons.

There are literally dozens of practitioners who may be called upon to help these horses perform, including massage therapists, equine chiropractors, acupuncturists, magnetic therapists, laser therapists, equine osteopaths and physiotherapists.

There are elements of racehorse training that seem almost universal. The track work - the daily exercise routine - invariably unfolds first thing in the morning, often around dawn.

The rest of the day revolves around the wider care of the horses.

However, it will ultimately be the ability of each trainer to "read" a horse - how best to feed it , train it, and cater to its mental health, that will determine race day success.

Horses are awe-inspiring athletes but they are not machines. Trainers who ignore their mental wellbeing will struggle to succeed.

It might be as simple as spotting when a horse might need an extra day off. In some parts of the world, it might be a gentle gallop away from the track on a heath, or even a walk along a beach. Like most athletes humans included beach work, helps the horse’s state of mind, but also heals tendon injuries and tightens up their delicate legs.

Preparations for a horse are fine-tuned as a race nears. Again, the ability of trainers to get their horses to peak at the right time will determine success. There is nowhere to hide once a horse lines up in the starting gates. The success or failure of that preparation will be judged in a matter of minutes as the long-striding Thoroughbreds spring around the track.

Training and care comes at a cost. Owners receive bills and they can be quite substantial, even more so when health problems arise. The caregivers, therapists and track riders need to be paid. Feed needs to be bought. Jockeys on race day will be paid, regardless of whether they ride to success.

The talent to bring out the best in Thoroughbreds is to be admired, but trainers can never afford to ignore the fact that racing is a business-driven model.

Those who struggle to deliver results on the track - which in turn delivers prize money for the owner – (and a percentage for themselves) are unlikely to stay in business long.

Those who enjoy track success will attract better horses and better resourced owners, with the cash to buy well-bred horses who arguably have a better chance of success. The effect can quickly snowball. Some trainers build successful multimillion-dollar businesses that employ dozens of people.

The trainers in charge of the world-leading horses who will race in the Dubai World Cup meeting have additional challenges. Horses tend to thrive in routines, and flying them in for a high-stakes race requires careful planning, right down to ensuring they continue to receive their familiar diet.

Some horses can be relocated months before a big race to ensure they are settled and ready for race day. Others prefer to ship them in the shortest possible time before the race and avoid acclimatization, this entirely depends on the financial situation of the trainer and indeed the well-being of the horse and its ability to perform best.

So, you will see why the term "trainer" fails to adequately explain the broad nature of the role. They not only need to have the innate skills and intuition of a horseman, but face the daily challenges of running a business and employing staff, and a fair understanding of transport and logistics.

However, above all else, it is the special ability to understand a horse, using all their experience to assess whether it is perhaps a little sore or in need of some special attention, that separates the good trainers from the great trainers.

Trainers live for racing, and get the same thrill from winning as their owners. They receive a share of the prize money, too, which provides added incentive to do well.

The job is awash with challenges and it takes a special kind of person to succeed. It comes with immense frustrations. There are the soaring highs that come with success, and the harrowing lows when plans come unstuck. Trainers the world over wouldn’t change a thing. For, without all of that, it wouldn’t be racing.

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