Kevin Blake

Kevin Blake has high praise for stable staff that kept racing yards operational during Storm Emma, otherwise known as The Beast from the East.

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A tribute to Storm Emma stable staff

In the last week, Storm Emma brought the highest levels of snow seen in Ireland since 1982. It caused havoc for people in all walks of life and in some cases threatened lives. While horse racing may have been billed as “the great triviality” by Phil Bull, it is a very serious industry and is one that is greatly affected by weather conditions such as those that prevailed in the last week.

Thoroughbred horses are fully reliant on stable staff for everything from food and water to bedding and exercise, and extreme weather poses all sorts of problems that the stable staff that look after them have to overcome to meet those most fundamental of needs.

In common with anyone that has to brave the sort of conditions that we witnessed last week to get to work, just getting to one’s workplace is a significant challenge in itself. In many cases, it is particularly challenging for stable staff given that most racing yards are situated in rural settings, often down minor roads which have not been cleared or gritted by County Councils.

In the most part these roads are cleared using farm machinery from the training yard or tractors are used to ferry staff from the main roads into the yard if they can, but in extreme cases racing yards are confined to staff that live on site.

Once the staff have safely arrived, the first priority is to clear walkways for both people and the horses. Some yards will be fortunate to have farm machinery to help with this whilst others will be obliged to use shovels and muscles.

After the snow has been cleared, it is even more important to de-ice the surfaces. As dangerous as icy surfaces are for humans, they are far more treacherous for horses. Walking an excitable thoroughbred across an area with potentially slippy surfaces is fraught with danger, as they only need one foot to land on ice to cause them to slip, panic and suffer potentially catastrophic injuries.

Some yards will spread salt to see off the ice, while others use a more traditional method of taking soiled straw from the muck heap and spreading it on the paths which have been cleared of snow, with the heat generated by the muck melting the ice and ensuring it doesn’t re-freeze. While the latter option is very effective, it is also very dirty and labour intensive, as it has to be cleaned up afterwards.

Once the walkways are cleared, attention is turned to the walkers and gallops. Trainers that invested in covered walkers will be feeling very good about their investment at times like these, but for those with non-covered walkers, the same process of clearing snow and de-icing the surfaces has to be repeated. However, the real trouble tends to come with the gallops.

Willie Mullins revealed to me at his media morning last week that he had multiple 50-metre lengths of tarpaulin custom made for his gallop back in 1996 to cover it in times of snowfall. Reports suggest that while it was a big job that involved all the staff in the yard to get the covers on and off the gallop every day, they ensured that the horses were able to continue working every day without any major interruption.

Unfortunately, most trainers do not have the provision of covers for their gallops and it will have been a serious battle for many of them to keep them operational. In many cases, members of staff will have stayed up quite literally all night driving tractors up and down the gallops working the surface in an effort to keep it clear of snow and ice. Reports suggest that in many cases, even efforts as committed as those were in vain, as the levels of snowfall were just too heavy to keep the gallops clear.

One of the most inconvenient ramifications of freezing temperatures relates to the water supply. The vast majority of trainers will have automatic water troughs in each stable, but many will choose to turn these off in anticipation of freezing temperatures. The reason for this is that leaving them turned on risks the joiners and pipes attached to them bursting as the freezing water expands, resulting in stables being flooded. Even for those that risk leaving them on, the water supply can be lost due to the pipes freezing up.

With the automatic water feeders out of action, it adds a significant new job to the stable staff’s daily tasks, namely bucketing water from a functioning water supply point to each and every horse multiple times a day and in some cases through the night.

Those that aren’t familiar with the intricacies of conditioning thoroughbreds may wonder is it really that big of a deal for a race-fit horse to miss a few days of planned exercise or have their routine interrupted, but it really is a genuine problem that has potentially serious ramifications.

Not only are fit horses that are suddenly confined to much less exercise than they need likely to become dangerously fresh and more likely to do damage to themselves or their riders, bringing a fit horse back to exercise after an enforced break significantly raises the risk of them tying up (also known as set-fast or azoturia).

In the case of some of the more highly-strung examples of the breed that thrive on routine, any sort of a change in timing or activity around the yard is enough to cause them to stress and worry.

Perhaps most significantly of all, horses that are being trained to peak for an imminent target such as the Cheltenham Festival will be on a very specific conditioning programme and having that interrupted so close to the race is far from ideal.

All of these factors are why trainers and their staff go to such lengths to maintain their horse’s routine and training schedule as best they can in such trying weather.

Stable staff deserve praise every day of the week for doing what is a very tough and often thankless job, but it is in times like this that they deserve particular praise. It’s also in times like this that the team ethos of racing yards really shines through. It is a case of all hands-on deck just to get the basics done and as hard as the work is, it undoubtedly brings teams of staff even closer together.

For the staff themselves, while extreme weather conditions result in a lot of very hard work and inconvenience, oddly enough, it is times like these that can often reinforce to them just why they work with thoroughbred horses.

Having to go so many extra miles just to provide basic care for these wonderful animals serves to remind those that do it of how reliant horses are on them and brings them back to why they love them.

To conclude, to all the stable and stud staff as well as everyone else that helped to keep this great industry on the road in the last week, thank you. While you will likely consider the lengths that you went to in that time as being all part of the job, your efforts are greatly appreciated by everyone involved in the racing industry.

Thankfully, the weather has finally relented and with fingers firmly crossed that every intended runner makes it to the Cheltenham Festival in top form, we can now look forward to what promises to be an exceptional four days of racing.

Kevin Blake
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