Spelling. No, it is not something you do at an English castle, but rather something we do in Australia with our horses to allow them to rest. I am a great advocate of spelling and resting horses, and just as we humans benefit greatly from a change in scenery and a holiday, horses flourish when they are sent for a spell. In Australia it is very hot for most of the year and the Aussie sun does wonders for our horses when they are allowed to relax and rest. They come back in from their spells generally many kilograms heavier and often several centimetres taller.
When I send a horse for a spell it is going to a farm somewhere not too far away and will be looked after as if it were Secretariat. Our spelling properties in Australia are second to none and are located on some of the best horse country to be found anywhere in the world. I have a variety of properties that I use. Some properties suit different horses better than others, and as such I am always focusing on where is best for each individual horse to spell. Some properties have water walkers, although I would never put a 2-year-old on a water walker as it seems to take a lot of their natural speed away. Our hard Aussie soil allows horses that are spelling to develop stronger bones--this is just so crucial for the younger horses that are still growing into themselves. I am very particular in what I want done with each individual horse when it is spelling. Every horse is different.
I am a trainer that races my horses I don't cuddle them. I like to get to the bottom of my horses. But they can't race all year round. I tend to step my horses up in distance into their preparations and although most of my horses are relatively fit when they resume, they always get fitter and fitter into a preparation. The prize money is so good, and races are so hard to win, that it is unfair to owners and the connections to not have horses close to their best as soon as they resume. Once my horses reach absolute peak fitness, which is different for every horse, I can maintain it at that level for an extended period of time using various training tactics, such as regular visits to the beach. If a horse has reached its peak and has won a race that I had pre-determined to be have been its 'grand final,' then it is time for a spell.
Perhaps the greatest example of the benefit of spelling comes courtesy of my champion stayer Fiorente (Ire) (Monsun), who won the 2013 G1 Melbourne Cup. These older horses from England and Europe are generally suffering from exhaustion when they reach Australia. They arrive to Sydney or Melbourne and are thrust into the middle of major metropolitan cities. There is noise and chaos everywhere that European horses that were trained on farms in the country are just not used to. Fiorente came to me after a group of my owners committed to purchase the entire in England not too long before the 2012 Melbourne Cup. Fiorente was then flown to Melbourne, where I had around one month with him to teach him as much as I could about my way of doing things. I change the imports' diets immediately and base their feed more around corn to increase energy intake. I also like my horses to have a short toe, so the European horses need their feet trimmed once they lob Down Under.
History shows that Fiorente ran second in the 2012 Melbourne Cup. He did the best he could with the limited time I had with him. From here, I sent Fiorente straight for a spell. He needed a holiday after being shuttled to hot and sunny Australia from the depths of the English winter. This spell was the first step in the process of winning the Melbourne Cup the following year.
Fiorente, during his first spelling stint Down Under, stacked on the weight, exactly as I wanted him too. After an extended spell during our summer, I brought Fiorente back in during the Sydney autumn and I brought him in for just one run. This race, together with his two lead up trials, did nothing more than break up his routine. Had I have left him in the paddock from Melbourne Cup time 2012 until Melbourne Cup time 2013 or 'put him in cotton wool,' if you will, it would have been like leaving him in work for the whole time. Had he been given a much longer spell, eventually he would have grown bored of standing in his paddock, not racing and not being at stud. This boredom leads to a horse becoming lethargic. It can happen either in the stable or during a spell, hence the need for a spelling-racing-spelling pattern during the year.
Therefore Fiorente had to come back in, despite the fact that he was going to be going almost straight back out because his grand final was not until the Melbourne Cup in November. The timeline at this stage reads: raced in Australia in November 2012; spelled until late March 2013; arrived back in the stables, trialled twice, raced once and was back in the paddock by late April. By doing this I managed to keep him fresh and his mind on the job. Remarkably during this first spell in Australia, the grinding stayer had developed a turn of speed and plenty of dash. Another great benefit of spelling is that even the good horses can come back in and surprise you with the skills they have developed while spelling.
Fiorente then came back to the stable in late July 2013, as fat as a house, and as we say in Australia 'as happy as Larry.' I don't know who Larry is or was, but Fiorente was definitely one happy boy when he came back in from this second Australian spell. From here he followed a traditional path towards Melbourne Cup glory in November 2013. When the Australian horse is in work, it is in work; There is no in-between. I keep my horses really busy with gallops, swimming, trotting and cantering, beach visits and even occasional jumping.
A spell does wonders to revitalize a horse's energy; energy it needs to keep up with my training regimen. The lighter-framed horses can't keep up with the Australian way of training. I often say that if a horse comes back from its spell showing rib, then the spell has not done its job. It is a long, hard grind to a big Group 1 target, and both horse and trainer are exhausted when it is accomplished. I am very pedantic about the condition my horses carry, and this condition is crucial to a horse being aimed at a long term goal. It has been said in some parts that we spell our horses so regularly in Australia as to free up boxes for newer or better horses. This is simply a falsehood. Think about it for yourself: how much happier and healthier do you feel when you have been on vacation, eating good food and spending plenty of hours in the warmth and sunlight? Horses feel exactly the same. If you don't believe me, come and spend a season in my Randwick or Flemington stable, and see for yourself. We all need a break from time to time and we all take great benefit from a spell or a holiday.
Personally, I can tell you that whether I visit Sicily, Dallas or Switzerland (where I went to a race meeting conducted on snow), I come back fresh as a daisy. By the time the holiday is up, I am eager to get straight back to work. Horses act the same way. When they get to their spelling farm, they kick up their heels and have a jolly good time. By the time they come back in, they are ready to work.
Extract from Thoroughbred Daily News / AFR (p)