It’s the morning of the big race, the biggest raceday of the year.
So much hard work has gone into today and the level of expectation is high on many fronts. Trainers and owners all have a horse that they want to win and they have invested a lot of time, money and energy to get to this point. Arriving at the stables, the first thing you want to do is to make sure that the horse has eaten everything from the night before, had a good drink and that its temperature is normal, legs are ok and is looking happy.
After all those checks have taken place you give the horse its first feed of the day. Most trainers like to keep the routine and feed as normal as possible to keep the horses comfortable and settled. If you change a horse’s routine ever so slightly it can be enough to unsettle them. You allow your horse time to eat their feed and usually the groom will go and have a coffee and then get the tack ready for the morning exercise.
Not all trainers do the same thing on the morning of a race. For example, Aiden O’Brien likes to hand walk his horses for an hour in the morning, whereas Gai Waterhouse quite likes to give some of her horses a quick breeze up.
Others prefer a swim. Each horse will require something different and that’s where the skill of a trainer comes in as they will recognise what preparation will get their horse to the race in the best possible condition.
After the horse has finished their morning work, it is given good wash and shampoo. Grooms take great pride in the presentation of their horses and each groom has their own special technique to get them looking the part. I have even heard of some people putting furniture polish in a horse’s tail to get it looking nice and shiny!
After a good wash the horse will be rugged up and put back in the stable where it will rest before it departs for the races.
For a race like the Melbourne Cup horses must arrive at the racecourse three hours prior to their race. For the internationals out at Werribee that will usually mean leaving the quarantine stables at 11am. During the truck trip you make sure your horse is settled and happy, the last thing you want is your horse to start getting upset and wasting any energy. They will need all of that for the race of their life! It’s at this point that the nerves really start to kick in. As you drive into Flemington you are met by the media and you start to take in the enormity of it all.
When you arrive at the track you look for the tie up area that your horse has been assigned for the day. You get your horse all settled in and then it’s usually just a matter of waiting. Sometimes your horse will be asked by the stewards to give a pre-race blood or urine sample. This is done in a special stable usually a bit away from all the other horses.
A lot of European horses are not used to standing in the tie up lines for so long and some may get a bit unsettled. Usually a walk around the pre-parade ring is enough to help them settle back down and relax.
Most trainers like to start walking their horses about one hour before the race and this is just to start getting the horse warmed up and keep them nice and relaxed. This is all done in the pre-parade ring. The trainer will usually come down to meet you with the jockey’s saddle around 30 minutes before the race, so you take your horse back into the tie up area for them to do this. The saddling is so important, as the last thing a jockey wants is for their saddle to slip or start moving.
Once saddled, the horse will start walking again until you are called into the parade ring. On a big race day you are called into the parade ring 20 minutes before the race. I think it’s at this moment, emerging from the tunnel into the mounting yard greeted by the enormous crowd that you really start to get excited.
Jockeys come out of the weighing room and receive their instructions from the trainer in the 15 minutes before the race. The whole time you are making sure your horse is nice and calm. Sweating and ‘jig jogging’ before the race only wastes energy.
The bell goes and it’s time for the jockeys to get legged up. The jockeys have a quick talk to the handler and always ask if all is well with the horse.
And then out they go onto the track. From this moment on it’s all down to the jockey. The trainer and their staff are left to watch on nervously.