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Sunday, 20 February 2011

Paddock Watching - reading the signs

Looking good?

An old article By Peter Thomas but worth a read as it details the art of paddock watching with Ken Pitterson.

It's a game of patience; the art of paddock watching It's Peter Thomas's last chance to learn from a professional before flying solo at today's Fontwell fixture - but as the Racing Post Weekender's paddock-side expert tells him, the clues he picks up this afternoon might not pay off for months or even years to come.

AS John Francome explained to us earlier, the best place to be for paddock inspection is at ground level with the sun behind you. Unless, of course, you're at Folkestone on a typical Folkestone winter's afternoon, in which case even the tousle-headed one would surely agree that the best place to be is under the great big tree next to the parade ring.

As Francome also warned us, trying to assess jump horses in the parade ring can be a waste of time, and sure enough, there are more rugs on show than at a Paul Daniels lookalike contest. Everything is wrapped up against the cold, including Ken Pitterson, the man chosen to hone our paddock-watching skills for the big day at Fontwell, when we are set to go into battle with the bookmakers armed only with our eyes, our intuition and the handed-down expertise of some of the best judges.

Ken has the air of a seasoned jumping man who has braved these conditions many times, although it has to be said that he didn't have to change a wheel on the way to Westenhanger after a blowout on the M20. Still, I've more or less recovered my equilibrium by the time he brings to my attention Dave's Dream, who looks the part for the opening maiden hurdle.

Perhaps I've learned a bit over the past few days, as I can tell Ken's right. Sadly, so can everybody else, and the beast is odds-on. But although we may not want to be backing him, we can, at least, learn a lesson from him.

"He's potentially a chaser," says Ken of the five-year-old, "but he looks really ready for today as well. He's well muscled up, despite having been off the track for 261 days since his bumper win, and you can see he's a class above his opponents today.

"He has bags of size and scope and he's so healthy-looking that you could more or less shave in his coat. He looks a million dollars and that's typical of the way Nicky Henderson's horses are in the paddock at the moment. The stable's having winners and it's reflected in the paddock.

"If a stable is out of form, you can often tell by looking at its horses' coats, on their neck or their hind quarters - maybe they're a bit dry and unimpressive. You can also tell from the way they walk around the paddock, if the horse isn't taking much interest or just doesn't look like he's up for the job, although sometimes that's just the way a horse is and he's capable of running well even if he doesn't look bothered one way or the other."

Dave's Dream duly obliges at what, by the time he reaches the third-last, have begun to look like monumentally generous odds.

The sight of Hinton Thunderbolt in the ring before the following novices' hurdle gets our man on to what would probably be his specialist subject on Mastermind. Above the howling of the Kentish gale, I can just hear Magnus Magnusson saying: "Ken, you have two minutes on the stablecraft of Venetia Williams."

"Venetia is one trainer who you can tell, just by looking at her horses in the paddock, is either in form or out of form," explains Ken. "When her horses are in form, they really take the eye and look very, very well. But when they're running poorly, they don't look the same horses. They can look dull in their coats and don't stand out at all. It's that obvious.

"Look at this one. He's turned out the way Venetia turns them out, a strapping type with plenty of size about him, and he'll probably be a chaser in time. He looks fairly fit, but he'll come on again and may just need it today. He just looks so well in himself, though."

'Looking at novices can pay long-term dividends' The lesson is not only that different trainers turn out their horses in different ways, but also, by extension, that certain trainers turn them out in such trademark good nick that any dullness or lack of lustre can be fairly reliably interpreted as a sign that a good run will not be forthcoming. Except there are always exceptions, as we have come to expect.

The horse that looks likely to start favourite is Noel Chance's Aux Le Bahnn, but Ken's on to this one like a rat up a drainpipe. "He's not fit," he says, inviting no contradiction. "He's a nice horse, but he's carrying a lot of condition underneath and he's not 100 per cent straight behind either. You can see his lack of fitness if you look round the girth.

"In view of the conditions, he may struggle to get home. Sometimes, on decent ground, a horse's class can see it home and it doesn't have to be 100 per cent fit to win, but today I don't think that will happen."

For Ken, a visit to the frozen wastes today is not about now. He's destined not to have a bet all afternoon. While everybody else is punting to keep warm, he's feathering his nest for another day, another season even.

"That's the beauty of paddock inspection," he explains. "You're looking to the future as much as you're looking to now - I'm picking up clues for other days. They might not come to fruition until next year, but looking at these unexposed novice hurdlers and novice chasers can pay real dividends in the long term.

"Looking at the Noel Chance horse, if he gets beat today, we know the reasons for that, so next time he should have come on for the run and we want to be bearing him in mind, whereas today we might lay him."

For the sake of thoroughness, we tick off the rest of the 15. One is close-coupled, as the pros say, which to you and me means he's very short from his head to his tail. In Ken's words: "A small type, not lengthy in the back, probably less scope than some and more likely to be a hurdler than a chaser."

Jonjo's, meanwhile, looks fit, "but his coat hasn't quite come yet. Jonjo's horses haven't been quite right for a little while and some of them have been showing it in their coats".

And they're off. Ken has suggested laying Aux Le Bahnn, and keeping a close eye on Hinton Thunderbolt, who should run well but may run out of puff, or 'blow up', in the closing stages, and Alan King's Starburst Diamond. "I saw him last time and thought he'd need the run, and from the lack of real definition on his quarters he still looks as though he could do with this, but he looks a real nice chasing type. He should be cherry-ripe after this."

'Noland oozes class - he's filled his frame really well' Superior Wisdom did look ready in the paddock, says Ken afterwards, but not ready enough to win quite as well as he does. Hinton Thunderbolt runs well for a long way but runs out of puff. Starburst Diamond doesn't dispel the hopes Ken has for him. And Aux Le Bahnn runs well but gets tired.

Ken's post mortem reveals: "The Chance horse blew up because of his lack of fitness, having travelled quite well, and did very well under the circumstances. Starburst Diamond, too, in second. The winner was fit and this could turn out to be a decent race that's worth following."

It may sound dull and dry to those of us with the patience of mayflies, but to a punter with discipline, it's all part of the lesson to be learned paddock-side. Don't talk yourself into a bet where none exists. You won't see something worth acting on every time you lean on that white rail.

The beginners' chase sees Noland at a 'Shall I, shan't I?' price of 4-7. According to Ken: "He just oozes class. He's done well since I last saw him at Cheltenham two years ago and he's filled his frame well. He's getting a bit warm, but it's a long time since he's been on the track and he's probably starting to think a little bit about it. I wouldn't worry too much."

Noland wins as he pleases. We arrive at the second division of the maiden hurdle, to which Oliver Sherwood's Souriceau seems to hold the key, having four runs under his belt and being the clear pick on form.

Ken's not convinced by what he sees. "Sure, he sets the standard on what he's done so far," he muses, "but there's just the danger that there's not a lot more to him and he could be passed by something with a bit more talent and improvement. Having said that, there don't look to be too many improvers in this field."

We look for dangers. Ken says: "That's Where's The Boss, of Jonjo's. I saw him make his debut and he shaped really well and looked like he'd come on for the run, but you can see from his quarters that he's not really there yet and will probably need this run as well. His quarters aren't that defined.

"How much muscle definition you want to see depends on which yard a horse comes out of. If you're looking at a Nigel Twiston-Davies or a David Pipe, you expect to see something that looks really fit and as though it's done a lot of work. They'll look the fittest horses on the racecourse, whereas a Nicky Henderson or an Alan King will carry a little more condition and won't, on the face of it, look as fit. But it's just a question of appearances and you can be misled. Experience is crucial."

'We missed them go down - a vital piece of the jigsaw' There are a few here with more leg than body, "a bit weak, need to fill their frames, chasing types for next year", but Quizzene, making his first appearance since a decent career on the Flat, is different. He is carrying a lot of condition, and is nominated as the lay of the race. When he runs a belter to finish second, Ken's not displeased to have been wide of the mark, he's delighted that he's unearthed an unfit horse capable of chasing home Souriceau. Where's The Boss also goes in the notebook, with the proviso that he needs, like my first flat, to be "better furnished". He needs to add muscle to his frame.

By now, Ken has received news from a colleague that the eventual favourite for Superior Wisdom's race, Jonjo's Another Brother, was a handful on the way to the start and a definite negative. He also pulled hard through the race and gave himself little chance of winning.

Ken castigates himself, and probably me: "You have to look at their demeanour in the paddock, but you also have to see them go down to post, to make sure their attitude and their state of mind are still okay and they're not going to lose their race before the start. We didn't watch them this time and we missed a piece of the jigsaw. It can pay to look out for cross-nosebands, which may be a sign that a horse is a bit headstrong.

"In a race for inexperienced horses, you'll mainly be looking for positives, but you have to note the negatives as well. Take Binocular, who ran last Saturday at Ascot. He got warm before the race and it kind of put you off, but it didn't stop him performing, so if he turns up next time in the same condition, you can say that's just the way the horse is. But if you've got a horse that always sweats up and still runs his race, and he turns up and stays completely dry, doesn't get on his toes or get warmed up, then it's a slight concern because he's showing a side of his character that he hasn't shown before.

"We also don't really want to see them stargazing in the paddock, looking around at anything and everything that moves. It tends to mean they're still green and immature, paying very little attention to what's shortly going to be asked of them. They'll usually improve for the experience. We want a horse to be alert and notice things but not to the exclusion of its job.

"Jig-jogging around is fine but not to excess, very much like sweating - we don't want to see a horse sweating excessively, especially on a day that's not too hot. If they sweat up in the pre-parade, they'll usually only get worse as the preliminaries go on."

'Be sure to see what you see, not what you want to see' In the depths of winter, though, sweat is the least of our worries. Ken says: "On ground like today's, we're looking for horses with a high knee action that will indicate they'll handle the mud. A horse with a daisy-cutting action will be in a lot of trouble today but will come into its element on the firmer going in the summer."

Having absorbed all this information, along with the several gallons of rainwater that have taken up residency in my raincoat, I'm about ready to head for the car park, so I ask Ken for his parting shots to the interested backer.

He obliges: "Fitness is the key. There are so many fit horses around these days that if yours isn't fit, it hasn't got a chance. That's changed over the years, along with the fact that the type of horse you see jumping is a very different animal from the strapping chasing-bred type that used to be the norm.

"And you have to remember that a lot of the information you need is in the form book. The only time paddock-watching can find you a winner on its own is in a maiden two-year-old race when there's no form to go on. If you look at them in the paddock and watch them going down, you have a big advantage over the armchair and betting shop punter.

"I always listen to whispers but I don't always use them. There may be talk of a two-year-old that's been burning up the gallops, but if I can look in the paddock and see it's not race-fit, I can ignore all the talk, decide I can't have him at any price."

In conclusion: "Don't form opinions before you see horses. Look at them objectively, trust your own judgement and be sure to see what you see, not what you want to see.

Lessons of the day

Hot and cold trainers

The paddock is often a place where a stable's overall well-being can be assessed. Sometimes, a yard's horses will all be blooming with health, while at others, they may all look dull - suggestive that the string as a whole is under the weather.

Fitness grounds

Horses who are not fully wound up can sometimes get by on class on good ground, but in soft or heavy, they will be found out.

Play the waiting game

There's no need to bet if everything is not in place - make copious notes, and wait for the day when they give you an edge.

Get quickly to the stands

Don't delay your move from the pre-parade and parade rings to a spot where you can watch the horses go down to the start - what happens on the way to post is a crucial part of the jigsaw. If the ground is soft, look for a horse with a high knee action.

Trust your own judgement

By all means take the gossip on board, but the old adage of trusting everything you see and none of what you hear is a sound one.