Buying A Yearling

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12th December 2003

Leola Jacobs talks with George Smith

One of Australia's most respected judges of thoroughbred horses, George Smith, believes that the first sight of a young racehorse is the best guide to grasping its quality.

"First impressions are the best," Smith told me at the Melbourne Premier Yearling Sale in February 2002.

I'd gone there to ask him about the things he considers when assessing the potential of a young racehorse. We had a friend in common - Gerald Ryan - who had introduced us the previous year.

My memory of him is very clear; he's smiling and standing with a friend on the grass close to Barn B as I approach. he has a remarkable energy that moves quickly to the point. He says he will point out the qualities he likes and doesn't when judging the likely soundness and ability of a horse by showing me a number of yearlings. He's already made his assessment of the young racehorses for sale.

George describes the first yearling we look at as "a big, strong, good moving Perugino filly that walks straight through."

He goes on. "I see as many faults walking away as I do walking towards me. See how the hind legs are tracking. She is well balanced because the shoulder, rein and hindquarters are in proportion and she has been beautifully reared. She is nearly perfect. I'd give her a score of between eight and eight and a half out of ten.

George told me he liked one particular Keltrice filly because of her quality and temperament.

"This is a quality filly; she is strong, has a good girth and is balanced in the length from the wither to the hop and the hip to the butt of the tail. This is backed up with strong hindquarters, good knees, perfect feet (not box feet) and good sized nostrils for breathing. She has good temperament. You can see that by the way she's resting her hind leg while being shown. I'd score her as an eight and a half out of ten."

I remember one horse very clearly because the comment illuminated certain things about a horse's hocks, knees and feet that George took into account when assessing the animal's ability and soundness to perform on the racetrack.

Your comment on one horse was 'sickle hocks, it's knees are offset and it has box feet'. Let's talk about hocks first. What are the qualities you like in hocks?

"I like a nice even stretch from the tip of the buttock to the hock, which means the horse's hocks will be parallel to its knees."

You mention sickle hocks, it that a problem?

"Definately not, many good horses have sickle hocks. Let's not forget Comic Court and Sir Tristram."

What about knees? The concepts 'good knees', 'average knees', 'bad knees' frequently come up in your sale catalogue notes. What do those terms mean to you?

"Good knees are correct and flat and they have a centre line running through the canon, fetlock and hoof. Average knees are offset, apples knees."

What's an apple knee?

It's when the lower part of the knee is rounded or fleshly."

You say some offset knees can be forgiven and some can't. What do you forgive and what don't you forgive with offset knees?

"I can forgive offset knees provided the tendon behind the knee is vertical to the fetlock joint at the rear.  Bad knees are very open and have a weak structure."

In what ways do you consider bad knees a problem for racehorse performance?

"Back at the knees, a concave rather than convex structure, can be a problem because the strain on the tendons should be vertical with the canon bone."

You mention feet a lot, which suggests they're very important to you.  Can you describe to me perfect feet?

"Perfect feet are strong, wide feet that have great shape, are not too flat and have a good toe."

What does a good toe look like?

"It's nicely rounded at the base and the sole of the hoof has a good width."

Your catalogue notes suggest you don't like box feet.  Can you describe to me what they look like and why they can create problems for racehorse performance?

"Tunnel or box feet have a narrow slope, no hoof development and have not matured in proportion to the animal's growth.  Box feet (tunnel feet) are a problem because they create shoeing complications due to not enough wall on the hoof."

Let's talk about some of the qualities you like in a young hores, such as a loose walker, strong bone, good girth, wide jowl, and temperament.  For example, what is a loose walking horse and what does it tell you?  Does it suggest anything about its ability to perform on the racetrack?

"A loose walking horse has a relaxed gait and nice follow through.  This tells me about the horse's temperament, and termperament is a tremendouse asset.  I love it.  It makes a horse a pleasure to handle in every way and it must help with performance.  I'm sure trainers love horses with good temperaments.  Bone is very important to me.  It shows the animal's maturity and strength.  A good deep girth gives hear room and lung capacity.  How big I'd like to know.  The bigger the jowl the better and the horse with a good heard usually has a wide jowl.  Hopefully this coincides with a deep girth giving a better air intake to the throat and lungs."

What about colour and size?

"Size doesn't matter too much if the individual animal has what I'm looking for.  Colours are great and they must be strong for both bays and chestnuts.  I think good deep colours show quality ans 'washy' or weak colours show the opposite."

Explain the idea of a balanced horse?

" A balanced horse is a quality hores - it's a nicely conformed magnificient type.  The animal will have a deep girth, strong hindquarter, good bone, perfect fee, an intelligent head and eye."

How do you recognise an intelligent head and eye?

"Alertness."

Do all these qualities give a horse presence?

"Basically, yes."

The term 'jointly' appears quite freqently in your sale notes.  You say this is 'enlarged bone development that's not settled and coud the the signs of sesamoiditis'.  Where do you see the signs of sesamoiditis?

"Sesamoiditis occurs mainly at the rear of the front fetlock joints and is a result of yearlings being upright in bone structure.  You're more likely to detect it from angular ovservation.  It's a condition I can forgive becasue there can be various reasons for unusual develpment of the sesamoid bones, like rearing or immaturity.  Basically what is needed is tender loving care and time."

Explain splayed legs at the front and/or at the rear.  Do you consider it a problem?  Would you forgive this fault in a horse?

"Mainly so, because splayed legs don't stop the ability of the horse, providing it's not too prominent.  Think of Showdown, he was splayed in front but was a good walker and runner and a great sire."

You say, 'I see as many faults walking away as I do walking towards me.  See how the hind legs are tracking?'  What does that tell you?

"It tells me there aren't many faults and the less faults the better."

What else can you see when a horse is walking away from you?

"Weak hocks, cow-hocked, sickle hocks, splayed legs, back of knee, tendons as well as the general walking action, though back of the knee is more noticeable side on."

What do you look for when a horse is walking towards you?

"I look to see if it walks close to the ground with a straight walking through action, whether it has a fluent and relaxed body and whether it doesn't hold its head too high.  In other words I'm looking to see that it's walking true and correct."

What are some faults you're willing to forgive?

"Offset knees and immaturity.  Young horses generally grow into early faults with time.  There are too many horses broken in with faults and not given time to mature and so breakdowns will happen."

What are some faults you're not willing to forgive?

"Wide chest, small eye, back at knees, narrow feet and slped pasterns."

In your catalogue notes you've written that a horse has improved at the sale.  In what ways does a horse improve?"

"'Improved' means that the horse has gotten better - it has had proper exercise and feeding for the yearling preparation - since I first inspected it.  Horses will improve through sheer hard work and sensible management."

What aspects of rearing are important to you when assessing the potential of a young racehores?

"I think the general upbringing is of great importance is assessing the quality of yearlings.  I consider where and howe well they've been nurtured."

What are the big things you consider when assessing yearlings?

"Balance (conformation, quality and presence), temperament and bone."

You've used the terms 'good sort' and 'plain type' to describe your view of a horse.  What does each term mean to you?

"A good sort has quality plus.  It's hard to find fault.  A plain type lacks quality and has no appeal."

Would you buy a plain type?

"I would certainly buy a plain type providing its structure was sound and it fulfilled my requirements.  There have been very good plain racehorses."

What's a typical Northern Dancer type?

"A typical Northern Dancer type has quality, is not overly big and has a goode eye, nice forearm and strong hindquarter, muscle and bone.  Overall, it has an attractive appearance.

"Magic Flute I assessed as a 9; she was quality plus and I rated Lady Jakeo a 9.  She nearly scored a 10, as she was a lovely athletic filly with a nice relaxed attitude.  I have Lochrae a 9.  He had a good conformation, good head and eye and was a loose relaxed walker.  Snowland I scored at 9.  He was a quality neat yearling who walked straight through.  Overall, he was a very good-looking individual.

"Assertive Lad was a tall and rangy yearling with a relaxed walk. He was alert with a nice shoulder and I marked him at 8.5.  I rated Brawny Spirit an 8 and would have rated him 9 only for his small size.  He had a lovely nature and was a quality type.  Jolly Old Mac I marked at 8.5.  He was a shade immature when I inspected him but had improved greatly by sale time.  The ill-fated Our Cashel took the eye at once and I marked her a 9.  She was an average size with a lovely temperament and good hindquarter, head and eye."

What's the nature of your current work in the industry?

"From 1984 up until now I've undertaken yearling inspections for various clients.  In 1984 I commenced yearling assesments for ABCOS (Australian Breeders Co-operative Society Ltd.) in South Australia, which is now Magic Millions Adelaide.

In 1997 I started assessing yearling entries for the Magic Millions on the Gold Coast and the Australian Easter and Classice Yearling Sales in Sydney, plus New Zealand sales exclusively for Gai (Waterhouse).  The job involves inspecting yearling entries for subsequent sales.  My role is to assess only on type and brand number while the final selection is done by bloodstock agencies.  I have no problem working for other companies and clients when Gai is not interested.

Prior to undertaking yearling inspections for Gai my clients have included Barry Griffiths, for whom I recommended the purchase of Northwood Plume and Our Cashel among others, Ron Cook, whom I advises about Lady Jakeo and Jolly Old Mac, and Danny Toye with Brawny Spirit."

What are the things you enjoy about assessing yearlings?

I enjoy the horses' performances on the racetracks backing my early assessment for yearling sale inspections on brands alone without pedigrees."

With Thanks to Leola Jacobs