Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen

England's champion older filly Sariska refused to leave the starting gate today in the Yorkshire Oaks. Despite jockey Jamie Spencer's frantic urging, the magnificently made four-year-old daughter of Pivotal out of Maycocks Bay, by Muhtarram, stood almost motionless in her stall as the rest of the field raced away across the Knavesmire.

Refusal to race has become a rarity since mechanical starting gates became universal virtually the world over in the 1960s. The most recent comparable incident I can think of in a major race is, of course, Quality Road's refusal to enter the starting gate before the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic. Refusal to enter the gate and refusal to leave it are, of course, quite different problems for a trainer. Todd Pletcher has done a wonderful job helping Quality Road get over the panic attacks that caused him to lash out dangerously before the Breeders' Cup and then refuse to get on a plane a few days later.

Sariska's trainer Michael Bell speculated that his filly might have refused at York because the gate to the stable area is right next to the 1 1/2 mile start point, implying that the filly just wanted to go back to her box. She didn't get to immediately. Once Spencer and the gate attendants extricated her from the stalls, he had to canter her down the course to unsaddle and weigh in. A very large horse, though not as big as Quality Road or Zenyatta, Sariska has had issues about going into the stalls--which are notably smaller in Europe than in America--but had never before shown any inclination to stay in them any longer than necessary.

When a horse reveals temperamental quirks, racing folk are always quick to look to the pedigree to find reasons for such behavior, but none are readily apparent in Sariska's case. The only horse close up in her pedigree with any sort of temperament issues that I know of is Alleged, sire of her broodmare sire Muhtarram, and Alleged was a totally honest racehorse who only became a difficult, somewhat dangerous animal after several years at stud.

One cannot help but be reminded, however, of other famously temperamental racehorses of the last century, most notably Nasrullah and some of his sons. Unlike his brilliant sprinting son Grey Sovereign (who appears in Sariska's pedigree) Nasrullah himself never completely refused to race, but Phil Bull's acerbically humorous description of his behavior before his first start at three says all too much about his temperament:

"He refused to leave the paddock; he refused to break into a trot; he refused to respond to the blandishments of the friendly hack sent out on the course to kid him; he refused to do anything except behave like a spoiled child. ....Could the catcalls and cries of derision which greeted this unthoroughbred-like behavior have been heard by [his sire] Nearco across at Beech House might have had a serious effect on his fertility."

That comical description in Bull's Best Horses of 1943 sits adjacent to the accompanying photo of Nasrullah (above) , which includes the best caption I have ever read for a racing photo. A few pages further on, Bull included a photo of Nasrullah lunging sideways with another contender for best caption--"Nasrullah impersonating a mule".

Nasrullah appears three times in Sariska's pedigree, a rather lower dosage than average actually, but it would be worse than foolish to attribute Sariska's behavior to such a distant ancestor. Some behavior traits are certainly heritable, but, even with the rapidly emerging genetic screening techniques now available, it is impossible to attribute them to specific ancestors--at least so far.

The Yorkshire Oaks was only her fouth loss in nine starts in a career that includes victories in the 2009 Epsom and Irish Oaks, and she had beaten today's winner Midday on all three of their previous meetings. Hopefully Bell will be able to convince Sariska that it is still worthwhile to come out of the stalls when they open, and she will be able to pursue her fall objective, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.


  1. Let's start the chant now for the Prix de l'Arc de Trimomphe:

    "Walk Up Start! Walk Up Start! Walk Up Start!"

    Seriously, though, what an amazing happening. I've seen a horse refuse to break before. But I can't remember when, and certainly not (by my recollection) in a race of such import.

  2. Her half-sister, Gull Wing, also refused to race in the Park Hill Stakes. She never ran again.

  3. If Nasrullah wasn't so publicly villified in England he might have never come to America