In sentimental movies about horseracing, such as National Velvet and Seabiscuit, there is a recurring theme. A rough diamond with potential slowly becomes a champion, transforming the lives of all those associated with it. The ending is as predictable as a Mills & Boon novel. The hero horse misses the start but, through its supernatural talent, passes one horse then another and another, until it surges to the winning post with its nose in front. Just occasionally, as with the three-time Melbourne Cup winner Makybe Diva, who went from winning a Wangaratta maiden to becoming a Group One stakes winner in 12 months, life imitates art.
Our racing story began when I purchased a quiet thoroughbred mare with a doleful expression for our daughters to ride. When her papers arrived they carried a surprise; sleepy old Letty had an illustrious racing pedigree. Sired by a champion European miler, she had sold as a yearling for the not inconsiderable sum of $40,000 in the prestigious Select Sales. She had shown great promise as a sprinter, speeding out of the barriers faster than track legend Gunsynd. Like so many ‘coodabeen champions’, however, she was undone by a fatal flaw. As the race progressed, or so the story went, she swallowed her tongue and ran out of wind. She was then sold during a drought, changed hands a few times, before finally arriving at our place.
We began to dream of breeding a racehorse, of a welcome distraction from lives dominated by work, of picnics and fun at the races with friends. Oh and perhaps a Melbourne Cup.
For the sire we decided on a Melbourne Cup winner. Photos showed a magnificent chestnut stallion. When we dropped Letty off, however, our champion sire remained sprawled on his side, baking in the dusty sun, his head flat, lying full length on the ground, as if dead. The only sign of life was a glorious red tail whisking dust over his body in steady rhythmic movements. I looked at him uneasily. Somehow it was hard to reconcile this lazy fellow with the horse that held the Melbourne Cup record. I hoped he would be livelier when he met Letty. The stud master, as if reading my mind, said defensively that the sire usually wakes up when he meets the mares. Perhaps he was as sleepy as I feared, or perhaps Letty preferred stallions of a different colour, but it took many expensive months at the stud, and a couple of visits, before she was indeed in foal. After a further 11 months and many more oats, Letty finally gave birth.
Isabella, as the filly was christened, took our breath away. Perfectly formed, she was about as tall as a large Great Dane only with the light athletic build of a greyhound, tiny ribs poking through, topping legs so long they looked like stilts. Almost black in colour, she had a beautiful, delicate head with a white half-crescent moon on her forehead. One of the stud workers came over and looked at Isabella’s thin condition and frowned at Letty’s ample form. “Took it all for herself,” he said sourly, as if Letty had violated the unwritten law of motherhood. Isabella followed Letty’s wide flanks everywhere, uncertain, half-fearful. My daughters held their hands out very quietly and patiently. Isabella gazed at them curiously and finally came over to sniff them, her small face upturned, observing us with an expression both gentle and amiable. We were enchanted.
Isabella’s early life was idyllic. Her legs were so long at first she had to splay them out very wide in order to eat any grass. She would balance precariously on three spindly legs while a dainty hoof scratched behind an ear. She drank long and deep of Letty’s sweet milk, a fine spray of mare’s milk following the withdrawal of her muzzle. She swam in the dam, ate her oats and in summer lay full length in the dust, flicking her little whisk of a tail, just like her father had. Every evening she cavorted, standing on her hind legs, then bucking and galloping. Watching her easy athleticism we dreamed of our Melbourne Cup. Not once did I feel concerned letting my daughters handle her; they could pat her even when she was lying down. There was not one element of aggression in her nature, and her life with us had taught her that humans were entirely benign. And there was something in Isabella’s expression that always moved me: the indomitable expectation of being treated well.
After three years had passed it was time for Isabella to become a racehorse.
She was already much older than the age at which most Australian racehorses start. To get a quick return on money invested, many are raced as two-year-olds. That means they are put under saddle as babies, at around one and a half, which is like sending a six-year-old child down a mine to do an adult’s work. You see them at the races, looking more like foals with saddles on than horses, baby muzzles weighed down with heavy bits, walking uncertainly in the mounting yard. Ironically many racehorses end their gruelling career at the same age that horses destined for much lighter equestrian disciplines begin theirs. If they are lucky, they are too slow and go on to lead reasonable lives as riding horses. One consequence of such early hammering of undeveloped limbs, however, is a high rate of injury. Many of those injured end their short lives at the slaughterhouse.
Isabella is by now fully grown, tall, powerful and very beautiful, with the lean rangy build of a stayer. We send her to Wayne, who is more horse whisperer than horse breaker and promises to be gentle in teaching her how to be ridden. When we arrive, Wayne watches from the paddock gate with a long straw hanging out of one side of his mouth. “Now that is quite a horse,” Wayne drawls, eyeing her. He tells us about all the famous gallopers he has dealt with. He never smacks them, just blows kisses. He has, allegedly, got them to win just by treating them right. Slow in manner, observant and patient, he teaches Isabella to accept a rider, without so much as a hint of any change in her amiable and optimistic outlook. Isabella’s charisma works on Wayne. He becomes enamoured with her as a racing prospect. He wants in on the syndicate I am forming with friends.
We are all jubilant and excited. Only one of the syndicate members, whose father was a country trainer, listens sceptically to my optimism about how relaxing and enjoyable the experience will be. He remembers vomiting behind the stables from anxiety over whether or not a horse would win. He listens to my enchantment with the whole idea, looks at me pityingly and shakes his head, saying, “Anne, the only time you will be relaxed is when she is spelling.”
Each syndicate member pays $1000 per year per share. There are 20 shares so my budget is $20,000. This is more than the fees for most top-notch private schools. Yet it is a bargain basement syndicate. All racehorse business is paid by the day. For Isabella’s training in 2005, it cost around $20 per day for spelling, or around $600 per month while she is just resting. Training fees are much higher. The more successful the trainer, the greater their fees: $45 per day for a country trainer, and $80 per day (at least $2500 per month) for a city trainer. Then there are vet, dentist and farrier bills, as well as numerous other costs. As the winning stake at a country race is usually a few thousand dollars, only a horse that wins good races in the city brings any serious financial return.
My first headache starts when trying to find the right trainer, someone who is competitive but doesn’t use jockeys who flog the horses with whips: someone who will put the animal’s welfare ahead of financial gain. Racing can be a cruel game, and I am determined that Isabella’s experience will be very different. Wayne is helpful but also stubborn and opinionated. His gentle way with horses changes abruptly with humans. He is wily, mistrustful, with an eye for the main chance, always looking to put one over, always avoiding paying his share. Nothing with Wayne is ever straight-forward. Instead of strolling up to a trainer’s stable and asking whether they can take Isabella, Wayne sends spies in to investigate some city trainers. As he prefers meetings with an air of the secret service, we rendezvous in a desolate car park where he relays all his gathered intelligence. There is a sense of high drama, as if we are planning the future of the next Phar Lap.
Still, Wayne’s methods work, getting past the shiny brochures and glowing testimonials. He gets one taciturn track observer to give an almost imperceptible shake or nod of the head to different trainers. One, it is claimed, sends horses onto the track with more dope in their veins than a St Kilda drug addict; a second is cruel; a third is wonderful but unlikely to consider our home-bred mare. Yet another we are considering is ruled out when we find out from a stablehand that when she was sick and unable to work neither the trainer nor his wife bothered to feed or water the horses or clean the stables. Finally the stablehand’s elderly mother couldn’t bear to think of the horses being left like that, so she harnessed her arthritic limbs to the pitchfork and did the backbreaking work of mucking out herself.
At the cheaper end of the market we see some training yards that are Dickensian. We visit the stable where a wealthy owner keeps his horses. He declares, “It’s Club Med for horses down there.” But one of his horses stands in a dank, dark barn with a rug so ill-fitting it has festering sores where it rubs, the bedding so dirty that the stench of urine threatens to knock us out. I find myself asking the trainer a random question – whether he likes horses. He snarls that they’re all bloody mongrels until they win. And if they don’t win? The knackery.
All horrible, and too horrible for Isabella.
One of the hardest challenges is finding a trainer that paddocks horses together, rather than locks them up in stables. In the wild, a horse will move over about 20 kilometres a day. From a human point of view, stabling means ease of access. For the naturally ambulatory horse, a prey animal who depends instinctively on flight for its safety, it means a prison cell. Lack of natural grazing leads to stomach ulcers. Studies show that horses in racing stables can have too much of the stress hormone cortisol in their system. The toll can be severe. Horses that are locked up and let out for only 30 minutes a day to do track work become so bored and distressed that they weave back and forth, crib bite (chew the stable door to bits) or windsuck, where they grab the door with their teeth and suck in enough air to get a high from the release of endorphins. Like amphetamines, windsucking is addictive. Few think about the conditions that make a horse develop such a habit.
Finally, finally, we find Trent, a jockey-turned-trainer, who has a few wins under his belt, and keeps his horses paddocked in a beautiful grassy hilled property. It is a small family operation. We hope Isabella will get the same care and attention she grew up with. Trent looks Isabella over and gets excited about her as a staying prospect. His fees are reasonable and I breathe a sigh of relief. Isabella can live a decent life at least. The syndicate won’t go bankrupt while we work out whether she has any talent. Wayne miraculously approves. “A horse makes a trainer,” he says sagely, “as much as a trainer makes a horse.”
We are all excited and optimistic, dreaming of Flemington, and its roses and winner’s enclosure. One friend is already thinking of an Armani suit, another of the glamorous hat she will toss in the air as our champion streaks past the winning post. I joke it’s more likely to be gumboots and Driza-bones at the Balnarring Picnic Racing Club. But I don’t really believe it. Neither does anyone else.
At 5 am I drag myself out of bed and drive down to the track to watch Isabella work. I also want to observe her state of mind. I am reassured. Isabella spots me among the pedestrians and calls out. Relaxed, she waits patiently for her gallop, no sign of stress. She rests her head between my hands, letting me caress her forehead and long ears. Every now and then she raises her head and breathes in my breath as I breathe in hers. A horsy kiss.
Track work is a long way from the glamour of a city race-day. The stalls are dark and spare, separated by thin metal rails, a concrete roadway between them. As the horses are taken out for their gallop, their mates call out plaintively after them. Some have thin blankets over their loins while others shiver with none. Some have garish injuries; incredibly they are there to gallop. It is winter and the horses look freezing as they are washed clean after their work.
Then it is Isabella’s turn and a rider, all wizened and gnarled, steps from the shadows and swings on board in one easy sideways leap. She trots out to the warm-up track and just for a minute I can fantasise. She looks like a fine English thoroughbred. A few people come over to look. Wayne whispers: “Aren’t you glad you have come to see her and not the others?” “Yes,” I reply, “but the scrubby ones might be faster!” Wayne eyes me disdainfully. He’s still thinking of Phar Lap. We train our binoculars. Suddenly there she is, galloping out of a cloud of mist, all energy, taut muscles and power as the urgent sound of hooves on turf rolls over us. Bridadoom bridadoom! I am spinning with the thought of it for days afterwards.
After the horses have finished their work we all go to the diner at the track. Trent hungrily eats a burger while his wife Kylie warms her frozen hands around a steaming mug of coffee. It is a hard, lean life for them. They have been on the road and working horses since 4 am. They can’t be making much money. They tell me of their dreams and I realise that only a good horse, a very good horse, will ever let them be realised. On the way out I comment blithely on the new swimming pool for the horses. They take me to see it. The horses are paddling furiously, loudly blowing huge bubbles from their nostrils. A look passes between Trent and Kylie. One trainer was ordered by the owner to make his horse swim every day for two weeks. After about a week it just gave up, rolled over on its side, and sank – a kind of watery equine suicide. It took half the track people to drag him out. They promise me they will never make Isabella swim.
Trent is uneasy with me. Maybe with most women, or perhaps just those whose horse brings a glint to their eye. His manner is deflating, defensive, that of someone who is used to disappointing people. He seems weary of owners and all their little hopes that he is under pressure to realise. He praises me patronisingly with his best kindergarten-teacher manner if I grasp something he has explained, as if owners are in general such nitwits, as indeed we are. He often rings Wayne, rather than me, to convey news of Isabella. This is irritating. I think it is that glint in my eye.
One day in the diner, Trent admits gloomily that it is a major feat just getting a horse to a race, let alone winning it. This is true. Only around 30% of horses born each year ever make it to a race. In the 2008–09 season, almost 40% of racehorses earned nothing at all. Of the horses that did win, almost 90% did not even win enough to cover training costs. Out of close to 32,000 racehorses, only 674 won over $100,000; more than 22,000 earned less than $2000; almost 20,000 earned nothing. Racing is, for most people, about quietly haemorrhaging money, as I am discovering.
Trent keeps telling me of the stages Isabella must reach before training. As soon as we have reached one milestone, I inquire, on the syndicate’s ever-hopeful behalf, when she will be racing. But he announces yet another stage must be reached. It drags on. For months. Soon she will need a spell. We have not even got to a trial. I am anxiously looking at the syndicate’s bank balance. I have not calculated for all these delays. I am thankful we are not paying a posh city trainer. There are numerous setbacks. She develops shin soreness. Then a cold. Then a skin infection. She stops licking up all her oats after fast work. I send Panglossian emails to keep up the morale of the patient syndicate members. The weather grows colder and wetter. Our girl is not a mud-runner. Trent sounds gloomier and gloomier.
Then it all changes. Isabella begins zinging at track work. She turns in competitive times. Finally, finally she has a trial and Trent changes his tone. He is excited. She has jumped out of the barriers so fast she “knocks several pins [horses] out of the way”, fought for the lead and finished second.
It means she might just be competitive. I guess he has been worrying that our adored filly with her idyllic childhood does not have what it takes for the argy-bargy of a race. Yes, he admits, he thought she might be too ladylike.
The syndicate’s hopes are up, way up. A race?
No, now it is time for a spell.
She needs time to think, says Trent.
A syndicate member asks, just a smidge plaintively, do horses really need time to think? All horse people operate from a theory of mind, and in fact horses often do come back improved from a spell, as if they have been cogitating on what they have just been taught.
Mainly however, I am sighing with relief at the thought of Isabella relaxing and the bills going from $1500 a month to $600. We send her to Linda, who is a rare creature in the racing world: a sort of hippie-eccentric with a great mountain of hair, in strawberry-blonde plaited dreadlocks, that strongly resembles half a bale of hay on her head. Isabella buries her nose in Linda’s hair, trying to eat it while following her around the paddock. Linda observes that Isabella is almost human. I ask her what she means. She says that in her experience we are all on a continuum; some animals have more human in them and some humans have more animal in them. Pondering this insight, I notice Isabella has some warts on her pretty nose. Gasping over my untried maiden with an STD (stable transmitted disease), Linda shows me a million-dollar yearling that was brought down from the Sydney Sales with an enormous crop of warts so big on one side of her face she looks hideous. The wealthy owner of this grotesque, lopsided gargoyle almost fainted with horror when he came to see what his squillions had bought him. He limped from the paddock and had to be revived with a stiff shot of whiskey.
When I bemoan Isabella’s slow progress, Linda says sharply, “Just be grateful yours is still standing.” She had in the last year spent half a million dollars on four horses, all of whom had come to a sticky end. After Linda’s bracing remarks, I send a “things could be worse” email to the syndicate.
Isabella comes back into track work, all bouncy and shining with more dapples than a trout. But the next season of training drags out longer than the first. The ever-patient syndicate continues to wait for a return on its investment. Why is it taking so long? Trent seems to be in financial difficulty. I get an unexplained vet bill for all kinds of undeclared ailments. When I next visit Isabella she looks more emaciated stick insect than thoroughbred. I’m done. I pull the pin.
Wayne is a natural salesman with more chutzpah than Paris Hilton. He rings Sheila Laxon, whose mare Ethereal had brilliantly streaked home to win the Melbourne Cup. He manages to interest her in Isabella. Sheila has a terrific reputation not only as a trainer but also as a humane horsewoman. She keeps them in twos, together running free in a paddock. Wayne arrives with Isabella and she flounces and prances. Sheila looks her over and loves her type, “Now that is a horse worth waiting for”, she says, alluding to the ever-patient syndicate. She agrees to take Isabella on.
Sheila is very likeable, horse-wise and unpretentious. She seems unafraid of a woman whose horse brings a glint to her eye. She is like that herself. She is also very tough-minded and competitive. Strappers give hilarious descriptions of her wild fury with jockeys who disobey instructions. Sheila promises to put her heart and soul into making a racehorse out of Isabella. I know that if Isabella doesn’t show talent she won’t last long in Sheila’s stable. Too many other contenders are vying for a place. I start watching our money fly out of the account with frightening speed; for a top trainer like Sheila we are now paying a couple of thousand per month.
When we join Sheila, she is at Macedon Lodge. At the foot of Mount Macedon, the place has a dramatic beauty: brilliantly appointed, with stables twice the usual size, swimming pools, roomy paddocks and a maze of rubberised tracks winding up every distant hill. It offers superb conditioning. It is also bitterly cold. We walk along at a 45-degree angle to the ground, our frozen noses needling into the wind. But it is exhilarating to watch Isabella streaking up a long, long hill, flanked by white running rails before disappearing into the ominous dark clouds hanging over the mountain top, as if she were galloping straight up into the heavens. I think of the girls who disappeared at Hanging Rock all those years ago and shiver, feeling relieved when, some minutes later, Isabella reappears in the mist. Her rider is enthusiastic about her power and staying ability – “like a hovercraft!”
Under Sheila’s guidance we begin to get a sense of our horse. Isabella is a dour stayer, the type that’s still plugging on when all the others have toppled off the track. She is also very fast out of the barrier. But the final element necessary to be really competitive is a fast sprint home. On this Sheila is dubious. Isabella might just be a one-pace wonder.
Sheila invites me to watch her work; I think this is so I can see for myself that Izzy has no finishing sprint. I attend with an obedient, dutiful pessimism. Weirdly, the gallop turns out the other way. They are to do an entire lap, start really galloping at the 1000 mark, and both go for broke up the straight, hands and heels to the line, as in a race. Sheila says: “I want the pressure on. I want to see what they’ve got.”
Watching through my binoculars, I see Isabella pulling very hard, flinging her head around and racing very greenly. Then all of a sudden, not far from the post, Isabella’s head goes down and with her ears pinned flat to her head, her body lengthens like a long stringy shadow, and she streaks away to win the gallop by several lengths. I gasp and Sheila instantly decides to enter her in a race somewhere. She looks at the horse Isabella has beaten and says coolly, “I’ll get rid of it.” I’ve seen quite a few such sackings by now. I think of another poor syndicate somewhere and all their hopeless little hopes. Then I think, that could be us after the next race day.
Isabella is entered for a sprint, but the idea is to build up to a staying distance, 2500 metres and upward. Down the coast on holiday, we watch the race at the Apollo Bay pub. I am so anxious I almost throw up. Isabella is sleek and shiny, so shiny that even on a fuzzy TV screen I know she has been nervous and sweated up before the race. There are streaks of white foam on her dark coat. She jumps out very fast and lopes along easily just behind the leaders. I see her beautiful black face upturned, with the white half-crescent moon perfectly visible. Then just on the turn Isabella is galloped on. The jockey abruptly pulls her up. She looks like she is flying backwards. We know she is hurt.
I make many worried phone calls from the hills behind Apollo Bay, on a tiny, narrow white gravel road, the only place I can get reception. The rain weeps down as I figure out what to do. The wound is only skin-deep, but she has an infection. She is sent off to a nearby veterinary hospital. One vet asks if we want to do without an expensive cast. Although resulting scar tissue would mean she would be in pain for the rest of her life, “you could still use her for breeding”. Apparently she could still carry foals every year while hobbling about in pain. It is just another encounter with the Gradgrind outlook that has so amazed me all the way through this racing venture, the astonishing amounts of money flying around, compared with the miserliness when it comes to animal welfare. But then, those two things – the money and the indifference – are utterly intertwined.
Fortunately, however, Isabella heals over completely, with no long-term damage. She has another long spell with her nose buried in Linda’s dreadlocks.
We decide after much anguish, for the sake of the syndicate, to try just once more, this time with Brian Schrapel, an equestrian legend, former Olympian, and now trainer of racehorses. Isabella has already done her pre-training fittening work for Sheila with Brian. I have come to deeply respect this quietly spoken, decent man with sober judgement, whose attentiveness to the horses in his care is unrivalled. He understands my feelings for Isabella, and I trust him to nurse Isabella through her preparation.
Brian’s place is in Ned Kelly terrain, with steep granite hills looming sharply upwards behind his training area. I feel at home here, where there is no trace of a running rail in sight. I sit on a log in the middle of a huge field of lush grass, surrounded by a herd of his horses that keep nudging me and fighting over the apple pieces in my pocket, while watching Isabella train up and down over those hills, surge through a creek of water, then flatten out for a final burst of speed.
Brian’s conditioning is superb, but Isabella now has a new set of problems. She seems much more anxious and difficult than before. Is it the injury? Or the race? What has happened in her mind? Brian nurses her with lavender aromatherapy, gives her baths and lets her graze daily on grass. It is lovely to watch Brian bathe Isabella. She gives her head a little cross shake and then lowers it trustingly and closes her eyes, letting him run the water all over her face. His methods work. Isabella starts delivering very good times in track work and keeps eating happily. Brian is hopeful she will make a good provincial stayer. Everything is finally coming together. She races twice in sprints for one last and a penultimate. Dr Pangloss is sounding just a little strained these days; but I try to sound optimistic. The plan is to work her up to at least 2500 metres.
Then just before the next race, Brian rings me. She has come in from her paddock with a puffiness in one foreleg. Isabella has a small tear in a tendon.
Her racing days – and all the syndicate’s hopes – have just come to an end. There is no rhyme or reason – nothing untoward happened at the track and Brian, as always, does everything carefully, the warming up and down, while her gallops have been on the softest of sand. Maybe it happened when she cavorted in the paddock. The thoroughbred horse is a freak of nature, beautiful, powerful and fast, but also astonishingly fragile: 600 kilograms of weight and muscle pounding on 10 centimetre hooves and thin tendons only a little wider than a strand of wool.
I write my final email. No more Dr Pangloss. I have tried valiantly to keep Isabella safe and give the syndicate a very different outcome. In truth, however, I might as well have tried to redirect a tsunami.
And Isabella? A neighbour tries her for breeding but she fails to have a foal. Someone else tries her as a riding horse but racing has made her unrideable. So finally, after six years away, Isabella comes home. She recognises me before she is even unloaded from the horse float. She looks around and gives a gigantic neigh, which echoes around the hills. Here she will stay to the end of her days. She will eat grass and oats, swim in the dam, and sleep in the dust. She will make us poorer – actually a lot poorer – but happier. It is the least we can do. My friend who said I would only relax when she was spelling was almost right. Now that the saga that we call Our Folly is over, I am finally breathing easily. When Isabella comes up to eat her feed every morning I utter a guilty whisper in her long ear: “You are home safe now, Izzy, you are home.”
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