Steeplechasers: How Do They Stay Sound And Happy?

This is Part 2 of Denise Steffanus’s two-part series on steeplechasers. Find Part 1, which details the departure of Mr. Hot Stuff from flat racing to steeplechasing, here.

Gill Johnston worked her way up through the horse industry from a groom to a trainer and owner. When she arrived in the USA from England in 1964, she became America’s first female polo groom. She eventually owned more than 100 horses and was one of the National Steeplechase Association’s leading owners. Johnston is the owner of Mr. Hot Stuff, the NSA’s leading money earner of 2017 and winner of that year’s richest steeplechase race, the American Grand National.

She explained why some unsuccessful flat runners exceed at steeplechasing.

“These [steeplechase] horses get a whole lot of muscle work, and I think they get fitter than these flat horses that go ’round and ’round on the same lead and are all one-sided, as we find out when we go to race them,” she said. “The steeplechasers are in the country, and most of them get turned out every day. I had quite a few when I was training, and they didn’t stay in at night. Personally, I think they have a nicer life than flat horses.”

Johnston believes one reason unsuccessful flat runners can become superstars as steeplechasers is their change in lifestyle. Flat runners housed at the racetrack stand in stalls for 23 hours a day, and they gallop in the same place day after day, doing the same thing day after day.

“I think they probably hated the grind of being a flat horse,” Johnston said. “Now [as steeplechasers] they’re out galloping up and down hills, seeing different countryside. A lot of these horses, they take them foxhunting, just to give them a variety in life.”

Steeplechase horses race more often than flat horses, about once every three or four weeks. Because steeplechase races are much slower than flat races, the goal of training is simply to keep the horse fit so it can be competitive when racing two to three miles over jumps—not speed. Some trainers enter steeplechasers in flat races on the turf to maintain fitness if there is a long duration between available steeplechase races.

“Horses probably don’t see a fence from one race to the next race,” Johnston said. “This is because a lot of horses tend to get excited when they see fences and start rushing at them, which is not a good option to have. You need a horse that is level-headed and takes it in stride.”

Weight and Distance

To people familiar with flat racing, asking a Thoroughbred to cover long distances and jump obstacles while carrying 140 to 158 pounds seems brutal for their legs and general soundness.

Dr. Reynolds Cowles Jr. is chairman of the National Steeplechase Association’s Safety Committee and the 2017 president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. He also serves on the Virginia Racing Commission’s Racing Safety and Medication Committee.

Cowles attributes the horses’ ability to withstand the rigors of steeplechasing in large part to their age. Steeplechasers don’t begin their careers until they mature, with seven being the average age of a steeplechaser. Most horses begin steeplechasing at four or five years old and continue until they are nine, with the cut-off age at 12. He said the conditioning they had in their flat-racing days results in already-remodeled bones, good bone density, and well-developed soft-tissue (muscles, ligaments, and tendons). Other factors that help them stay sound are ample time off and the variability of the surfaces they traverse.

Snap Decision with Willie McCarthy riding won the 3rd race Maiden Steeplechase at Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport, NJ on Thursday July 4, 2019. Photo By Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO

Steeplechasers train over fields, and they typically race over courses that are used once or twice a year. Those surfaces change with the seasons and weather. The surface could be moist and giving, or it could be hard from lack of rain. And unlike manicured dirt tracks, the turf isn’t even, so each footfall lands a bit differently. This variation causes the horse’s biomechanics to engage different structures of the limb instead of taxing the very same components with every single stride, like flat racers. So the horse’s limbs get overall conditioning.

“They [flat racers] are always going in the same direction, that’s why they always seem to have a problem with the near foreleg, because they’re putting weight on it,” Johnson said. “Whereas, steeplechase horses go in a straight line or they go left to right or right to left, so they’re always changing leads.”

Cowles said soft-tissue problems are the leading type of injury in steeplechasing, both in the U.S. and Europe.

“Certainly tendon and suspensory injuries lead the list,” Cowles said. “A lot of these horses have prior wear-and-tear lesions in their soft tissues, so that even though they are going slower and a longer distance, it sometimes does come out. Bowed tendons are certainly the most high-percentage injury that we see with our injury databases, and mostly followed by suspensories.”

Cowles said many of today’s steeplechase horses return to race after soft-tissue injuries, especially since the introduction of regenerative therapies, or they go on to other careers.

Two other factors add to the longevity of steeplechase horses—their disposition and the jockey’s ability to protect his mount during a race.

“A lot of these horses, being a little bit older and having been through it, their disposition is a little more settled,” Cowles said. “That has some good, protective features to it in that they are a little less stressed … Because safety has been so emphasized over the last four or five years, [our riders] get to ease these horses when something is amiss. Most of our races aren’t under pari-mutuel rules, so they can be eased back more easily because there’s not wagering on them.”

Thoroughbreds that retire from their second career as steeplechasers typically go on to third careers. The National Steeplechase Association put together a large database to track its runners, and they found a large percentage go on to other uses, such as field hunters, eventers, show horses, and pleasure horses.

Back to Mr. Hot Stuff

As the Casners hoped, their favorite horse fulfilled his genetic destiny. He won the Grade 1 A. P. Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase Stakes at Saratoga Racecourse in 2013 and the G3 Temple Gwathmey Hurdle Handicap at Glenwood Park in Middleburg, Va., in 2015; he was second in the G1 Calvin Houghland Iroquois Hurdle Stakes at Percy Warner in Nashville in 2015.

In 2017, Mr. Hot Stuff won the richest steeplechase in America, the $400,000 G1 Grand National at Far Hills, New Jersey. He emerged in second place from a collision at the start and dueled with leader All The Way Jose throughout the grueling 2 5/8 miles over hurdles while carrying Danny Mullins and 156 pounds. In the final stride, Mr. Hot Stuff dug in and won by a flared nostril. The victory earned him the 2017 Lonesome Glory Award as the National Steeplechase Association’s leading earner and a nomination for the 2017 Eclipse Award for outstanding steeplechase horse, which ultimately went to his stablemate Scorpiancer (IRE).

“Mr. Hot Stuff has been a dream horse for me,” said Johnston. “He’s taken me a lot of places I never would have gone, and I’ve met people because of him. He even had his own Facebook page for a while. He’s pretty well known throughout the land, and rightly so, because he’s done a lot for steeplechasing. He has a lot of trainers thinking about flat horses that may have another career steeplechasing.”

At the conclusion of his steeplechase career, Johnston gave the black beauty to his longtime groom and exercise rider, Quinn Scala, who has diligently prepared him for his third career as a show jumper. On October 3, Mr. Hot Stuff will compete in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

“Hot Stuff is such a dude and a quick learner that whatever I decide to do with him, he’ll be wonderful at!” Quinn told the National Steeplechase Association on Facebook this February. “It’s such an exciting time and I’m so glad I’ve acquired him and can give him the best home and a new career!”

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