The safest way to tell if a horse is suited by soft going is to inspect its recent form. If a horse has won one or more races, or at least finished close up – inside, or maybe even just outside, the places – on soft or heavy going, it is probably safe to assume that similar underfoot conditions will pose it no problem.
However, if the horse in unraced, or has never run on soft going, the formbook may be of little or no use, but analysing the pedigree of the horse in question may provide some clues regarding its likely going preferences. The progeny, or offspring, of certain sires show definite liking for one type of going or another.
Beyond that, you really need to see the horse, preferably in motion, to assess its conformation, or physique, and its action, or manner of moving. There are no hard and fast rules, but horses with sloping, rather than upright, shoulder joints and longer pasterns – parts of the feet, between the fetlocks and hooves – may be more effective on soft going. They tend to have a higher, more rounded knee action when galloping and their feet hit the ground hard. Similarly, horses with larger ‘dinner plate’ hooves often fare best when the going becomes testing.
Nowadays, the photo-finish is an indispensable part of horse racing but, just over a century ago, the result of horse races was called by a judge who stood at the finish line. Many observers, including pioneering English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, noted the needed for the assistance of photography in horse racing and other sports. Indeed, in 1878, Muybridge had invented and demonstrated a means of photographing a horse in motion, but, according to Scientific American, the first documented use of a photo-finish in a horse race was in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1881. However, the original horizontal shutter often favoured a horse on the outside of the track and that problem was not solved until the invention of the so-called ‘strip camera’ by Lorenzo del Riccio in 1937. In Britain, the photo-finish was introduced by the Race Finish Recording Company, which now trades as RaceTech, in 1947, following a feasibility study by the Jockey Club.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup was inaugurated, in it current guise, in 1924 and the Champion Hurdle in 1927 but, in over nine decades, just one horse has won both races. That horse, or mare, was Dawn Run who, in 1984, won the Champion Hurdle – as part of a unique treble, which also included the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown and the Grande Course de Haies d’Auteil – and, in 1986, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Dawn Run never ran in the Grand National; sadly, she suffered a broken neck during a fall in the Grande Course de Haies d’Auteil later in 1986.
However, two horses have won the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Grand National. In fact, the first of them, Golden Miller won both races in 1934 – the year in he recorded the third of his five consecutive wins in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and broke the course record at Aintree – and remains the only horse to do so in the same season. The second, L’Escargot, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup two years running, in 1970 and 1971, before denying Red Rum his third consecutive win in the Grand National, in 1975.
No horse may have ever won the Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National, but one man who did was the late Fred Winter; in fact, he won all three races as a jockey and as a trainer.
Fences and hurdles or, more correctly, ‘flights’ of hurdles, are obstacles to be negotiated in different types of National Hunt race and, consequently, differ in their construction, height and rigidity. Fences, which are used for steeplechase races, are the more substantial, higher and less yielding of the two. Steeplechase fences typically consist of a rigid steel or wooden frame, filled with artificial or real birch, cut to size and bound together. With the exception of a water jump, all steeplechase fences must be a minimum of 4’ 6” in height. By contrast, hurdles, which are used, unsurprisingly, in hurdle races, consist of individual, lightweight panels of cut brushwood, each at least 3’6” in height. The panels are driven into the ground, side-by-side, at an angle, to create a ‘flight’ of hurdles at least 30’ wide and at least 3’1” high.