How racing's lexicon leaves many lost
“Last time I gave him a bit of a dig and a squeeze coming out of the machine and he got on the “chewy” and then he had nothing left when I asked him to let down – he was empty, the difference was that this time he came back underneath me and relaxed.”
That was Zac Purton talking about Dominant after his upset win in last month’s Longines Hong Kong Vase, who he rode for the first time since his third to California Memory in the Champions and Chater Cup in May.
I sent this quote to a “non racing” friend, with some context. I told him it was a jockey talking about a horse after he won a big race. Despite my friend being an intelligent fellow with reasonable powers of perception, his response was “I have no idea”, before continuing with a hint of sarcasm, “Did the horse stand on chewing gum? What the heck is he trying to do to the horse by squeezing him anyway? Machine? Let down? Came back underneath the jockey? Where did the horse go, was the jockey just left levitating?”
It’s an example of how racing jargon can leave a beginner baffled and prospective fans out in the cold. There is such a divide between the language used in racing, developed over hundreds of years, and the understanding of the vernacular from a mainstream sports fan, that bridging the gap has become seemingly impossible.
Racing is such an insular industry and such a single-minded, obsessional pursuit for its participants that those “in the know” rarely consider, or care, that they are essentially speaking a different dialect to the rest of the world much of the time.
When someone asks me what I do, the answer “racing reporter” prompts questions that show just how far racing is out of the mainstream consciousness.
There are plenty of inane, but entertaining questions from “normies” – that is, normal people – about racing that show just how wide this gaping ravine between race fan and casual sports fan has stretched. Do they race in other countries? How do the horses get there?
But here’s the top three questions asked to Happy Lucky Dragon Win by normal people about racing.
1. Do jockeys have their own horse? To this doozy I have begun answering “yes” just for fun. “Yes, the jockeys have their own horse, just one, they keep it in their apartment. It’s particularly hard for Hong Kong jockeys, given the size of apartments here. It’s also a real bummer for the jockey if the horse gets injured, or isn’t very good.” The one horse per jockey rule also makes Douglas Whyte’s feat of 13 straight titles all the more amazing. Would he have to do it all with the same horse? Or would he pinch another jockey’s horse when it was going better than his? That last fib might not be too far from the truth.
2. Once an English gentlemen said to me, “If Black Caviar is so good, why hasn’t she won the Epsom Derby then, hey?” Oh dear. Okay, first of all, a derby is for three-year-olds (except for here in Hong Kong and Singapore, just to confuse you more). The Epsom Derby, England’s most prestigious race, is for colts and fillies (no geldings), and Black Caviar is a mare (not a “mayor” as a general news reporter colleague reported once when filling in on the racing beat at an Australian paper). A mare is a female, older than four. Before that she is called a filly – get the idea? It’s hard to break things down into little pieces for everybody. (This then sparks myriad other questions – so girl horses can race boy horses?)
3. This one isn’t so much a question, but an observation of how excited a newcomer to the races gets when they’ve had their $10 each way on a front-runner, usually ridden by a clueless apprentice, that has torn away from the field and is clearly about to fall in an exhausted heap with a furlong to go. “I’m in front, go, go, go!” they scream with 1,200m to go in a mile race. At least they get their hopes up before the devastation, and lactic acid, sets in. Perhaps the biggest misconception of all is that horses are forced to run fast, when in fact much of training a horse is teaching it to relax and be under the command of the rider – you can’t teach a horse to run faster than it is physically capable. In essence, you can make them fitter, not faster. Most racing takes place over distances that equate to human running races of 400m and further – tactical ability is required. It’s about stamina as much as speed.
So a quick translation on Purton’s opening quote for those just joining us from the real world. Purton gave Dominant a “squeeze” and “dig”, meaning he applied some pressure to the horse with his legs and gave the horse a dig in the ribs with his heels in order to make it go faster. With Purton then wanting to slow down and pulling back on the reins, because no horse can go flat out for a whole race, Dominant wanted to keep going hard, and became agitated. He began to “chew” on the bit, or “pull” and “overrace” – two other commonly used pieces of racing terminology.
So Dominant “had nothing left” because he had tired himself out fighting with the jockey and getting on the “chewy”. So when it came time to “let down” – meaning to quicken from a normal race speed gallop into a full sprint, by lowering his hindquarters and giving maximum effort for a short burst, the horse had no energy left – he was “empty”.
Oh yeah, “the machine” – that’s the starting gates. “Coming back underneath me” means the horse isn’t trying to run too fast and is staying under the command of the rider and relaxed, saving his energy for what was a race-winning burst of speed at the finish in the Vase.
Of course, a lot of this stuff makes more sense to someone who has had something to do with horses, even in a recreational sense, or someone like myself who was abandoned at a racetrack as a child in lieu of proper daycare facilities.
Or someone who can understand a horse’s nature as a flight animal, whose natural response to danger, and only effective defence mechanism other than kicking, is to run hell for leather for a kilometre or more and then turn around and assess what happened. No wonder they can be hard to handle.
A little over a century ago it was far more likely most people would know something of the nature of horses, at least if they wanted to go anywhere. Today, no one relies on horses so we are already have fertile soil for misconceptions – and then there is the fact racing worldwide has dwindled in popularity with the growth of sports betting and other forms of legal gambling. It only adds to the mystery.
To be able to converse about racing has truly become some sort of dark art, but maybe there’s some sort of middle ground and we can start including the normies from time to time, if they are even interested.