Trainer Sean Woods received a slap on the wrist for slapping a horse on the face prior to the Classic Cup – an act hardly entering the realms of extreme animal cruelty, but nonetheless it wasn’t a good look.
Wire To Wire was heading out for his first start in Hong Kong and you can’t blame him for being a little hesitant. He was 68-1 and hopelessly overmatched by a couple of stars in Designs On Rome and Able Friend. He didn’t need to do any form to know he was going to get his butt kicked. But when he dug his heels in and didn’t want to head onto the track, Woods resorted to his drastic measures.
Some trainers are admired for their “hands on” approach, but a face slap is not acceptable. It was hardly the work of Monty “Horse Whisperer” Roberts, but nor was it Mongo knocking out a horse in Blazing Saddles. It clearly came from a place of frustration. Had the unruly action been caught on camera would the fine handed out by stewards have been more than HK$3,000? Modern society doesn’t accept this sort of thing – at least, when it is on the nightly news they don’t. However hypocritical and politically correct racing’s critics may be, it could have been a PR nightmare.
In 2006, English jockey Paul O’Neill made headlines when he head-butted his horse, City Affair, before a race at Stratford after the horse had thrown him off. He received a one-day ban – much to the disgust of animal liberationists who felt the punishment should have been far more severe.
Wire To Wire may have also been hesitant to give his best in the Group One after speaking to fellow Woods-trained charge Autumn Gold back at the stables. Autumn Gold has his own tale of woe after being thrown in the deep end last season.
Autumn Gold looked a promising import, rated 90 after an impressive runner-up performance on debut in a Class Two handicap. Woods entered the 2013 Derby-eligible gelding in the 2012 Jockey Club Cup at his second local start where a 1-3/4 length fifth to the 126-rated California Memory forced handicappers to raise the horse’s rating 10 points to 100.
Since then Autumn Gold has been forced to carry weight against horses equal or superior in ability and has struggled through a dozen unplaced starts. The 85-rated Wire To Wire avoided such an ignominious fate, in the long term at least, by suffering some short-term embarrassment. He was beaten nearly 12 lengths on Sunday – but better to be thrashed now than facing the same fate continuously for the next two seasons.
That’s not to be critical of Woods or the owners of Wire To Wire or Autumn Gold – those horses were purchased for the Hong Kong Derby, the siren that has called many an owner to wreck their horse on its shores. It is the owner’s prerogative – they buy the horse for one reason and here’s their chance to see how he stacks up against the best.
And before you do-gooders start emailing me on how disgraceful it is that Woods slapped his horse, it’s not all one-way traffic around here. Jockey Tim Clark left Hong Kong last season after a series of savage attacks by horses. Okay, that’s misleading – he didn’t leave because horses liked the taste of his forearms.
First, the misleadingly-named Intellectualstride – he is actually a menace to mankind – launched himself at Clark as he raced beside him at Happy Valley. The incident wasn’t entirely unprovoked, though – Clark had accidently struck Intellectualstride across the nose with his whip.
Later in the season Affluence Of Rain, who should be fitted with a Hannibal Lecter face mask, was another to have a nibble of Clark’s arm. We are just being facetious – horses may weigh up to five times more than a human but they are flight animals hard-wired to run from a physical threat.
It’s not a fair fight when humans start using violence. Hands-on isn’t striking a horse in anger, hands-on is John Size saddling every single one of his runners himself – a picture of meticulous concentration, wearing leather gloves to ensure his hands don’t slip when he carefully tightens a girth, observing his horse from close range before it enters the parade ring.
Hands-on is John Moore tending to five runners in the tie-up stalls before a big race, rinsing each of their mouths and ensuring their gear is secure.
And what about the small-time trainer with no staff, getting out of bed at 1.30am to spend an hour manually stretching his horse’s legs to help with the day of work ahead.
When it comes to trainers face-slapping horses, however frustrating they might be at times, it should be most definitely hands-off.