The Punting Confessional - Wednesday, July 3rd 2013
With Royal Ascot just gone and on a lesser scale in Ireland the Derby last weekend and Galway to come, headgear seems a topical issue at the moment.
Now there is nothing surer than punters will be up in arms at the very mention of fashion on mainstream television coverage of the big meetings – coverage I might add that is watched by a far wider array of viewers than just the betting public – but perhaps we should become more aware of a fashion that is becoming much more widespread on the actual turf at our racetracks, namely the much increased use of headgear.
Already this year we have had a Derby winner in cheekpieces – the first horse to do so – and his trainer Aidan O’Brien is at the vanguard of this trend which may ultimately become a culture.
In these islands, a number of different types of headgear can be used. Blinkers are the most obvious and most severe; they aim to reduce visual distraction by focusing a horse’s attention only on that which is in front of them and tend to be used on lazy horses.
The visor is a slightly modified version of blinkers with a slit in the side, they are less severe with cheekpieces even less so. Made of sheepskin, they are more of a concentration aid, used to sharpen an animal up.
The hood is a different piece of kit entirely as it aims at reducing noise rather than vision; in the main it is used on keen horses that tend to get geed up and struggle to settle.
For years, the culture in Europe, including Britain and Ireland, was against headgear. The general perception was that blinkers were a rogue’s badge, an admission from the trainer that the horse was less than genuine, perhaps even a last resort in order to get it to reveal its ability. While it was one thing to use them on a lowly handicapper to extract a few pounds of improvement, it was quite another to opt for them on a group horse or stallion prospect.
Even the idea that the progeny of a sire, much less the sire himself, would be in need of an aid was seen as a sign of weakness and breeders would be reluctant to support such a stallion with their mares. In the US however, the culture is totally different. Even a cursory glance at attheraces’ coverage of American racing reveals that half the field often wear some form of aid and Animal Kingdom, the most high-profile American runner in the UK in many a year at Royal Ascot, and Kentucky Derby winner, wore blinkers on every start of his career.
This is changing, however and Aidan O’Brien has been the main catalyst. He has won a Derby with a cheekpieced runner and raced numerous classy types in headgear; over the three days of Derby weekend in Ireland he had 27 runners and 14 of them wore some form of headgear.
He has, with the help of his stable jockey son Joseph, offered numerous public pronouncements on the benefits of headgear, particularly cheekpieces, with barely a mention of the issue of temperament, to such a degree that it could almost be called a PR campaign.
O’Brien is just about the only trainer with the power to change the culture of headgear and while perhaps his whole increased use of aids could be seen as him seeking the next edge it is worth remembering who his paymasters are; if he does not satisfy the greater needs of the Coolmore operation, i.e. profits from the breeding sheds, then he will soon be out of a job.
All of this begs the question: does headgear work? At the risk of copping out totally from an answer, yes and no. We must judge each horse on an individual basis and see how they respond though some overall precepts about trainers are worth developing. Often, a piece of headgear will work just once, and on the second start in them a horse will regress back to its previous form.
When they do work a second time however, you may be onto something as it’s worth considering the animal a new horse, much like one that has changed yards and improved, and often this horse will continue to be priced up on its old form for the next few starts.
This doesn’t however mean that headgear will work forever. The horse may get used to it and become wise to what is going on; what was once a concentration tool is now old hat.
With horses like this however, there is still an edge as one needs to watch out for the reapplication of headgear. In this case, the trainer will note that horse has stopped reacting to the blinkers or cheekpieces and remove them only to reapply them at a later date, likely a race that has been a target or after the horse has dropped in the weights or showed a glimmer of promise. In this situation, a punter can expect improved form.
One such horse I’m waiting for with this angle at the minute is Ucanchoose, an Irish 5f handicapper whose last three wins have come in blinkers but hasn’t worn them since September last year.
On the whole, I don’t think headgear can change a horse’s temperament, particularly those are really recalcitrant. In some cases, blinkers can even exacerbate a horse’s reluctance as was seen at Naas last week when Dermot Weld applied them on a horse called Resolute Response who rivals Charles Byrnes’ Courage for the least-aptly named horse in training.
With a horse with a slight temperament issue or a mere lazy streak, headgear can be the key but some are beyond saving.
It is worth mentioning how the bigger Irish trainers use headgear. With Aidan O’Brien, cheekpieces are a positive and so too, the hood; I still think blinkers are a negative with him and while a trendsetter in this area it will take a while to break this mode of thinking.
With Dermot Weld, blinkers are a plus as he has campaigned even his best horses in them, notably Vinnie Roe, which is something to bear in mind ahead of his annual Galway jamboree. John Oxx on the other hand is an arch-traditionalist; any sort of aid from him is a negative, perhaps even an admission of defeat.