What is grass sickness in horses?

Grass sickness in horses, technically known as ‘equine dysautonomia’, attracted public attention when, in 2001, it caused the death of the 2000 Dubai World Cup winner, Dubai Millenium, as a five-year-old. In response, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of the Emirate of Dubai and owner of the Godolphin stables, established the Dubai Millennium Research Foundation (DMRF) with a view to identifying the explicitly defined cause of the disease.

The cause of grass sickness remains unknown, but the disease occurs, almost invariably, in young horses, aged between two and seven years, with access to grass. The main symptom of grass sickness is gut paralysis, caused by damage to the involuntary, or ‘autonomic’, nervous system; the nature of the damage suggests the presence of a toxin and Clostridium botulinum, a bacterium that produces lethal botulinum toxins, which block nerve functions, under low-oxygen, or ‘hypoxic’, conditions, has been strongly implicated in cases of grass sickness.

Grass sickness was first identified in Scotland in the early twentieth century, where it was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of horses, predominantly draught horses, annually throughout the Twenties. There is still no dependable, explicit treatment for grass sickness and, in the worst cases, horses die or require euthanasia within 48 hours after contracting the disease. In the United Kingdom, grass sickness is estimated to kill 0.5% of horses, of all breeds, annually.

What factors govern the field size in horse races?

Obviously, the field size of any horse race depends, first and foremost, on the number of horses declared to run. Depending on the nature and timing of the race in question, declarations to run must be made by 10.00am one or two days before the race. However, for safety reasons, the number of runners in any race is limited according to the size and configuration of the racecourse on which the race is run; the Derby at Epsom, for example, has a safety limit of 20, while the Wokingham Stakes at Ascot has a safety limit of 30 and the Grand National has a safety limit of 40.

At the declaration to run stage, if the number of declarations exceeds the safety limit, horses are eliminated to reduce the field size. Horses are eliminated in a specified order, starting with the lowest weighted, in handicap races, or the lowest rated, in Listed or Pattern races, with a ballot if necessary, to restrict the number of runners to the maximum field size. If the number of declarations exceeds the safety limit and is 18 or more, another strategy is to divide the race into two, or possibly more, divisions.

Another consideration is the stabling capacity of the racecourse, which cannot be exceeded if every horse is to have its own stable on arrival. If the declarations for all races at a fixture, including divisions, exceeds the so-called ‘field size limit’, horses are eliminated, race-by-race, as previously described, until those that remain can adequately be accommodated at the racecourse.

How fast are horses?

On average, young, healthy, well-conditioned horses gallop at between 25 and 30 miles per hour. However, according to Guinness World Records, the fastest speed ever recorded by a racehorse was the 43.97 miles per hour achieved by the two-year-old throughbred filly, Winning Brew, at Penn National Racecourse in Grantville, Pennsylvania in May, 2008. Trained by Francis Vitale, covered two furlongs, or a quarter of a mile, in 20.57 seconds.

Of course, despite the American penchant for horse races well short of five furlongs – in some cases as short as a furlong, or even half a furlong – the minimum distance in many racing territories, including Britain, is five furlongs, or five eighths of a mile. Again, according to Guinness World Records, the fastest time recorded over five furlongs was the 53.69 achieved by the four-year-old Stone Of Folca at Epsom Racecourse in Surrey in June, 2012. Trained by John Best and ridden by Luke Morris, Stone Of Folca averaged 41.67 miles per hour en route to the fastest time recorded on a British racecourse since the advent of electronic timing.

Which is the oldest regulated horse race in the world?

It stands to reason that the oldest regulated horse race in the world should have originated in one of the oldest established centres for horse racing in the world. Doncaster Racecourse is not the oldest racecourse in the world – that distinction belongs to Chester Racecourse, established in 1539 – but a racecourse is shown in the vicinity of Doncaster, on Wheatley Moor, on a map dating from 1595.

The oldest regulated horse race is in the world, in fact, the Doncaster Cup, which was established, as the Doncaster Gold Cup, in 1766, a decade before the oldest British Classic, the St. Leger Stakes, also run at Doncaster Racecourse. Nowadays, the Doncaster Cup is a Group Two contest run over two miles and two furlongs and, along with the Gold Cup at Ascot and the Goodwood Cup, constitutes part of the so-called Stayers’ Triple Crown. However, the Doncaster Gold Cup was originally run over four miles, on Cantley Common, before being transferred to its current home, on Town Moor, ten years later.

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