Brough Scott: In praise of the hood [H&H VIP]

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  • Noble Mission (pictured) did so many things in his dramatic and emotional victory at the climax of QIPCO British Champions’ Day at Ascot that it is easy to forget the most visually obvious of all. He gave the ultimate endorsement of the hood. Here’s a chance to take it further.

    In British racing we have been reluctant to the point of prejudice in the use all forms of headgear.

    Blinkers were referred to as “the rogue’s badge”, visors only came in during the last 30 years, cheekpieces in the last 15 and hoods, as worn by Noble Mission, only since 2011.

    Of course hoods, in the form of nightcaps, have been worn over here for travelling and winter exercise for centuries, as many famous paintings will confirm.

    Trotters here and all over the world have long used them. When I first visited Japan in the late 1970s, not only did most horses sport them but — to my shame — I wrote a report mocking them for treating horses like tigers and that top performers never wore them.

    Cut right through to the winter of 2010-11 when James Fanshawe had a talented but jazzy Motivator filly called Captivator who had promised but not quite delivered in four races as a three-year-old.

    The girl who looked after Captivator had previously worked in Milan, where hoods — lightweight nightcaps with rubberised earpieces to shut out sound — were being used to calm and focus horses distracted by noise and clamour. A set of headgear was duly dispatched, Captivator winged up at Wolverhampton, winning three of her next four races and Henry Cecil took notice.

    In May 2011 his four-year-old filly Chachamaidee wore a hood to win at York and get her career so back on track that she was to win five more races over the next two seasons. 2011, of course, has become famous as Frankel’s sensational, all-conquering three-year-old season. But it was also the first training summer of Frankel’s younger brother Noble Mission.

    He did finally get on a racecourse, without a hood, although not until October. Before that there had been moments when nobody knew quite where he was going. Frankel had his moments as a two-year-old but Noble Mission was really more frightening. He was the sort of horse who might take off at anything — even at the rustle of the trees. Then they put a hood on him.

    Like all the best ideas, it is obvious afterwards. For ages we have been putting things in horses’ ears to stop them boiling over.

    At Cheltenham in recent seasons, Long Run has won the Gold Cup and Hurricane Fly the Champion Hurdle wearing earplugs. Noble Mission wore a hood for his successful return as a three-year-old in 2012 and has worn it in each of his subsequent 19 races with the unhappy exception of that summer’s Voltigeur Stakes when he nearly pulled his jockey’s arms out in the early stages.

    A final flourish

    So there is no doubting the effectiveness of the hood and other ear blockers in racing’s early stages, but one has to wonder whether not hearing anything might be a disadvantage in the final frantic moments.

    In French trotting they have solved this neatly by using earplugs and pulling them out in the last furlong, but there was a furore when two Wildenstein horses came over and did it at Ascot in 2004. The first was successful, the second was runner-up in the Gold Cup. Everyone said it was a disgraceful flouting of our rules, which state that any attachments have to be worn throughout a race.

    But what’s wrong provided you keep everything on board as part of your weight? It’s highly possible that if Noble Mission had heard the noise of the Ascot crowd he would have not required the goading which got James Doyle a seven-day suspension and £10,000 fine for breaking the whip rules.

    How much better if he could have just reached forward, flipped the earpieces off the hood and let the horse react to the full Ascot roar?

    At the very least it would add a whole new and whip-free meaning to the phrase “final flourish.”

    This column was originally published in H&H magazine on Thursday 23 October 2014