Why did this filly put the bite on a jockey?
Gets his teeth into theories of equine psychology after a strange event in France this week
n a race at Maisonslaffitte in Paris on Wednesday, a filly, Palomba, was challenging for the lead in the home straight when she tried to take a chunk out of a jockey, Francois-xavier Bertras, who was riding the eventual winner, Lucky Lycra. Three times Palomba grabbed his arm.
Palomba is not the first and will not be the last to resort to biting in a race, but such occasions are rare.
Her trainer, Carlos Laffon Parias, said it was out of character, citing the fact she had not so much as looked at another horse when she was third in a three-way photo-finish on her previous start, or when she won by a head in a driving finish earlier this
Isummer. The most famous case of a horse attacking a rival or – trying to, at least – was when Arcadian Heights lunged at Drum Taps, the
winner, when challenging up the straight in the 1992 Ascot Gold Cup.
Arcadian Heights had form. Earlier that season, he had made the running in a race at Doncaster and bit a horse which came past him. After the Gold Cup, he was made to run in a muzzle and, by the time he won the 1994 Gold Cup, he had also been gelded.
So, what is going on in the above photograph and what is going on in Palomba’s mind? Well, though it is just one frame, her jockey, Maxim Guyon, one of the best in France, can probably take a bow. Just as Joe Root occasionally drops a dolly, so the best jockey can occasionally get in a muddle with the reins and he appears to have dropped them, giving him little or no control of Palomba’s head.
What is for sure is that his whip is in the wrong hand – it should be between your horse and the rival when you are involved in a tight finish – and, although it is impossible to be sure, it certainly appears Palomba’s right eye is fixed on it.
Palomba was not available for interviews yesterday so I turned to the two people I most respect when it comes to equine behaviour; Gary Witheford and Kelly Marks.
Witheford is the man to whom many in the racing fraternity go to when they have a horse with behavioural
Palomba is not the first, and will not be the last, to bite another horse in a race
difficulties, particularly those who dislike starting stalls. Racing harnesses the flight response in horses but, Witheford says, Palomba is demonstrating something much rarer; the flight-and-fight response simultaneously.
Marks, a trainer’s daughter, hooked up with Monty Roberts, the original “horse whisperer”, after a chance meeting in a French petrol station in 1993, and set up Intelligent Horsemanship, specialising in horse psychology. She is doing a UK tour with Roberts, 84, this autumn.
“Thinking with our human brains, it’s natural to assume this filly is angry at the jockey,” she said. “However, research tells us that the frontal cortex in a horse’s brain is – relatively – half the size of ours and not only does this mean they don’t lie or plot but it also means they take in images differently to us.
“Rather than seeing a human on a horse they’ll see one big being. I’ve used this to my advantage in various instances, say with head-shy horses. If a horse has had his ears grabbed by a human on the ground, he’ll become fearful of humans reaching for his head. But if you sit on another horse to touch round his head, you’re like a different being, a centaur if you like, and he’ll give you a fresh chance to approach him.
“There is also something called displacement, which is a psychological defence mechanism. For example, a big kid hits a smaller kid who then takes it out on someone else – so the filly’s transferred her feeling of frustration to another object [which happens to be the jockey].”
It was the bestselling Yorkshire vet James Herriot who titled his most successful book If Only They Could Talk. Though you can have a half-sensible conversation with a computer these days, Dr Dolittle remains a fictional character.
So, we can have a stab at what Palomba was thinking but we will never know for sure and I am inclined to do what trainers have done for centuries; if in doubt, blame the jockey.
Teeth bared: Palomba (left) has a nibble at the arm of jockey Francois-xavier Bertras