Robin Oakley

Essential racing books for Christmas

Horses’ souls, betting coups and SOE heroes: Robin Oakley’s selection of anecdotal treasure troves

Do horses have souls or a ‘spirit’? When form expert Marten Julian was looking to buy a horse, he asked Declan Murphy to assess it. The former jockey watched it walk then studied its face closely before giving the thumbs-down. ‘That horse,’ he said, ‘has had its spirit broken.’ Murphy’s response led Marten to roam the world of those who work with horses to ask how they try to assess a horse’s individual personality and seek to maximise its potential. In Strictly Classified (Racing Post, £20), the experts debate whether racehorses are still flight animals driven by fear, expecting the slowest to fall to a predator, or whether they have been converted by centuries of human contact, selective breeding and stable disciplines to react more to routine. The result is an anecdotal treasury which confirms that many trainers act as much on sheer instinct as on any structure of historical knowledge. The great Vincent O’Brien paid as much attention to heads and faces as he did to pedigrees. Oliver Sherwood, who trained Many Clouds to win last season’s Grand National, echoes that. ‘The first thing I look at in any horse is the eye, then the limbs and the backside — it’s like looking at a girl.’ Veterinarian and trainer Dermot Weld says, ‘The eyes and the head tell me a lot.’ But is that soul or spirit that they see?

Heartening for those of us who love the sport — and bad news for those who would ban it— is the emphasis so many trainers place on kindness. John Gosden agrees that in the old days ‘breaking’ a horse meant almost precisely that. But now, he insists, ‘The more gently you break them the better. If a horse is frightened by what it is being asked to do then it may become cautious to the point of really wanting to withdraw itself.’

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