In the space of 24 hours last week I managed to experience an abbreviated version of a race horse’s full life cycle.
It kicked off when Adam Sangster, Principal of Swettenham Stud, was kind enough to give me, the three female Richos and fellow racing writer Danny Power and his wife Glynis a tour of his stunning property at Nagambie, 90 minutes north of Melbourne.
Sangster has an office just down the hallway from Winning Post headquarters. He offered an invitation a few years back to “come up to the farm” and I finally took him up on it.
The Adam Sangster who wanders around our building is immaculately dressed and groomed. On our arrival at Swettenham we were greeted by a far less formal version, pedalling through the grounds on a pushbike.
STRAIGHT TO BUSINESS
Just after we arrived I noticed a car with a float attached make its way down the driveway.
While Adam gave a brief overview of the property, the vehicle pulled up alongside a very big shed and a mare and her foal were led from it.
We followed soon after.
Our mid-morning arrival coincided with one of Swettenham’s leading stallions, Toronado, being called on to do his stuff.
Adam explained the process.
“This mare (from the float) has come from a farm just outside Shepparton (30 minutes away). The owner phones Jason Robinson (Operations Manager) and says my mare is ready. Jason will look at his schedule and say, right, Toronado is free at 11 o’clock and they lock in that time.
“The owner of the mare has already decided they want to go to Toronado and they work closely with our team so that when the mare is in season and ready to go we can fit them in.
“People come from all over the country with their mares. They all work very closely with the farm so we can get them a slot when the mare is ready.
“Our stallions cover four times a day. They start at six in the morning, back up at 11am, then four in the afternoon and finally nine o’clock at night,”Adam explained.
Prior to my visit Adam had said we could watch a cover but warned it may be a little confronting for my teenage daughters. Given some of the stuff they watch on Netflix the looming intimacy didn’t bother me, but having read a story on the great sire Sir Tristram’s deeds many years back, I was concerned about the potential violence we may witness. Legend has it that Sir Tristram had severely maimed a few handlers, and killed another!
A few of Sir Tristram’s partners (mares) had also copped bumps and bruises along the way.
So, I was a little wary when Toronado was getting ready to do the deed.
As we all looked on, Adam returned to his role of tour leader.
“As you can see the mare has a wrap around her tail which will be pulled aside when the stallion gets up. It is to make sure he doesn’t obstruct her and hurt his …” Adam paused momentarily, remembering the audience he had, and added “… wonka.”
“It’s all very clinical. The mare has a teaser pony who tests her to make sure she is wanting to be covered.”
“If the mare doesn’t want to, she can kick out. We don’t want her lashing out at the expensive stallion, so the poor old teaser gets that gig,”he said.
Our small group fell silent as we continued watching from a safe distance of around 25 metres.
With the pony having performed his background checks, Toronado came in to do his job.
After a few nibbles of the mare’s rump he was up and in. The latter part coming with the help of a human hand.
After reading stories of staff having to wear chest guards, leg protectors and full cover helmets when Sir Tristram was doing his stuff, it was a little surprising to see the Swettenham staff of three with only a helmet as protection.
“It depends a lot on the stallion and a lot on the experience of the staff,” Adam replied when I queried the lack of safety gear. “They all wear helmets. Someone new to the job might wear a vest.”
The deed is all over within 30 seconds. Toronado, with his 11am booking completed, heads back to his barn.
“He (Toronado) will have a wash down and physical check to make sure everything is all right, then head off into the paddock and have a cigar,” explained Adam.
No such post-cover luxuries for the mare. She was out of the barn and back in the float almost immediately.
The prospective dam would only have been at Swettenham for around 30 minutes all up.
The SHORT WAIT …
After a visit to a stallion it takes 15 days to find out if the mare is pregnant.
If not successful first time they will return for another dalliance.
Each mare comes into season five times so there are a few chances.
Swettenham under the care of long time vet Dr John Hurley have an on-farm fertility rate of 93%.
The gestation period for a horse is 11 months.
When running a stud it is all about commerciality so they want the foals to arrive early in the season, preferably in late August or September.
Given we had arrived in late September we were able to witness another step in the life of a racehorse.
As around 90% of mares have their foal at night, the stats ensured we didn’t see one being born, but we were able to enjoy the sight of some youngsters taking their first steps.
Adam invited us to “come and walk amongst the foals” and he led us into one of the pens before returning to tour leader mode.
“This is an Akeed Mofeed-Golden Chapter foal who was born on September 15. All these foals would have been born between the 10th and 20th.
“There is a Highland Reel filly and a Toronado colt … they would all be around two weeks old.
“Horses are herd animals so all the ones that are born within a week or so of each other we group with their dams in the same paddock.”
This was my first close encounter with such a young foal. They are quite a sight. At barely a fortnight old their legs are almost as long as their mother’s legs.
It was all very cute but Adam pointed out nature can be cruel.
“That mare there, Noetic — she lost her foal, then a day later we lost a mare as she was giving birth. The foal survived and we immediately fostered her to the broodmare (Noetic). They usually take to each other pretty quickly.
“Foaling is such a challenging thing. You do as much as you can to try and help the foal but it’s nature … they don’t always make it.”
Helping Nature …
After wandering among the foals we head off to another shed. This time we see a dam and her foal in a steel pen.
The foal is being tended to by three people. They are looking at its feet and legs.
Dan Leach, Swettenham’s farrier of 10 years, came out to explain what he was doing.
“We start to look at them at two weeks of age. All these foals have about a dozen growth plates from the foot up to the knee. We work from the foot up and can manipulate the legs for the first three or four months of their life.
“The industry has got a lot more critical. To get to a sale these days, you can’t take something with a crooked leg.
“We can correct faults and make them easier to sell.
“If the foot wants to toe in a little bit, I can lower the inside and turn the foot out so it is more ‘correct’.
“If that doesn’t work we can open the skin up, scrape the growth plate to help the way they develop.
“If more work is required we can put a screw in it,” he explained.
The ticks and crosses in getting a foal on the path to a sale and the races is quite extraordinary, really.
Each sales season we hear about the lofty prices young horses are sold for. It may sound like a licence to print money to breed horses but Adam explains there is a lot of financial risk involved.
“When I get a new stallion, the first 15 covers are usually to my own mares in that initial year. I don’t get paid on those until their foals sell.”
“I also have to breed to them in the second and third years. If the market doesn’t like those horses first time around, then I’ve got two years backed up of foals for an unwanted market.
“Happiness is a positive cash flow. You hope you get a Toronado, one on the way up, but you can’t overstretch yourself.”
Almost on cue, we ended up next to an impressive black stallion peering at us over the fence.
Adam switches to his best salesman mode. “This is Sioux Nation. He is a son of Scat Daddy, a stallion who sadly died after five crops of foals. Remarkably, one in 33 of his progeny is a Group 1 winner, including this one.
“He is a speed horse … has a great hind leg and a great shoulder.
“He got 220 mares in the northern hemisphere. This fella was a Royal Ascot winner. He won the Norfolk Stakes (1000m) at his fifth start, then he won the Group 1 Phoenix Stakes (1200m) at The Curragh.
“He is just speed. If he can’t throw a two-year-old, then I don’t know who can.
“He is standing at $16,000 for his first season here. If he was an Australian horse who had won a 1200m Group 1 at two he’d be $36,000.”
CHANGE OF PACE
Adam invited us to check out the rest of his property and meet him at his house some 500m away.
We wandered between a couple of stallion paddocks, stopping to take a photo of Puissance De Lune.
Around the back of Sioux Nation’s yard, a washed and refreshed Toronado was being led along the path. His handler suggested we move away from the path, well out of kicking distance just in case the stallion lashed out. We didn’t need to be told twice.
After experiencing all this magnificent horse flesh we found ourselves in the back yard of Sangster’s property.
Suddenly the teenage Richos showed excitement that had been previously stored away. Adam’s puppy Molly charged down to greet us.
We lost our host during this time, but he emerged some 10 minutes later, looking a little flustered. The reason soon became apparent.
He had stacked his bike into a fence and badly cut his arm. The lesson there … don’t ride a bike with your phone in one hand and the other on the handle bars.
A BAD MEMORY …
Having seen the formative steps in the path of a racehorse we returned to something more familiar the following day — a trip to the nearby Benalla Cup meeting.
As is customary for passengers in the Richomobile the trip to the track involved a detour or two.
We passed through Tatura and lo and behold there was an empty racecourse to visit! It was almost 27 years since I had last been there.
The only thing that appeared to have changed was that it was 15 degrees cooler. On that hot December 1992 afternoon I was heading to a 21st birthday party in Yarrawonga.
Google Maps wasn’t around in those days so I didn’t realise that a visit to the Tatura races isn’t actually on the way to Yarrawonga if you are travelling from Melbourne.
After moderate success betting on the locals that 20th century afternoon the time arrived for my best bet of the day at Flemington.
It was the Peter Jolly-trained Feeling. He had won comfortably at Cheltenham at his previous run.
He opened at 7/1 ($8.00). I’d assessed him as about a 2/1 chance so quickly snapped up the good price with an unsuspecting bookie.
I was delighted to then see a huge betting plunge bring his price into $4.50.
Feeling jumped well as expected and settled just off the pace. All was going to plan as they straightened. Nothing behind him looked a chance. It just seemed a matter of time before Feeling would run past the leader.
Sadly, the leader was Lovey and she kept rolling. She set a course record of 1:20.6 for the 1400m! It still stands.
Having witnessed the early stages of a race horse from conception, to walking, to getting their legs in shape, it was time to see them race.
The Benalla meeting gave us a good example of the varying talent levels of horses.
It kicked off with the maiden gallopers, progressed to the Benchmark 64s before a horse with potential in Hang Man took out the cup.
Almost three decades on, my on-track punting on north-east Victorian courses hadn’t improved. And this time I had to find additional money to place bets for teenage kids as well.
One thing I noticed during my afternoon at Benalla was that racing is alive and well in the area.
Aside from a few fast-food franchises and supermarket chains, nothing was open in town. Everyone was at the track.
Article courtesy of Winning Post