Racing: Choisir sets a trend in changing face of horse fashions

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The Independent Online

The blinding speed of the dual Royal Ascot hero Choisir is now only a memory but the Australian rocket may have left another legacy. The distinctive headgear that gave him his bug-eyed look will, if trends are anything to go by, become the latest must-have for the hip equine about town. Just as David Beckham can prompt an outbreak of braiding, a top horse has his or her wannabes too.

After Ascot, the first to sport the Choisir style - a set of eyeshields known as a pacifier - was My American Beauty, trained by Tim Easterby. The five-year-old mare, wearing the kit for the first time, scored her first win for 22 months at Hamilton at the end of June and followed up at Sandown eight days later.

"To be honest," said Easterby, "I have no idea whether it was the pacifier that made the difference. It could have been the change of rider, Keith Dalgleish was on her for the first time. But it seemed to help her when we put it on at home. She's generally got a very good temperament, but she does get a bit edgy sometimes. The pacifier maybe helped to keep her mind settled."

Which, as the name implies, is what it is supposed to do. The eyeshield, originally developed in the Far East for protection on dirt tracks and widely used there and in harness racing, consists of a fine mesh, giving a soft-focus, non-threatening look to the world. Feisty horses tend to calm down if they see nothing to startle them. The most obvious application is the blindfold at the starting gate.

Easterby was introduced to pacifiers some time ago by his now-assistant Keith Stone, who has trained in Macau and Singapore. "He swears by them," said Easterby, "and we've used them at home on some of the tricky rides for a couple of years. He rode My American Beauty in them before she ran at Hamilton and said they helped. We put them on Good Girl when she ran at Newbury a couple of weeks ago and she didn't win, but we'll try them again. Who knows?"

Some of the horseman's artificial aids are for prevention, others for cure and the efficacy of an item of tack is not always quantifiable. But such startling results have been achieved that, in the interests of punter-protection, blinkers, visors, tongue-ties, eyeshields and, most recently, sheepskin cheekpieces (a sort of pseudo-blinker) must be declared in advance. The question could be begged that other gear - different styles of nosebands or bits, for example, or net muzzles - should join the list.

Like a pacifier, blinkers play on natural equine instincts, still retained despite 5,000 years of domestication. In the wild, the horse depends on flight for survival and its laterally-set eyes give it 360 degree vision, essential for a grazing prey animal. And if the pacifier can bring on a false sense of security, blinkers can have the opposite effect. A horse whose field of vision is reduced by half can become panicky, able to hear a noise behind it that might be a predator, but not see it. And a frightened horse is one which will put in extra effort and even run through discomfort, the chief cause of apparent jadishness.

For some, though, blinkers merely encourage concentration, by cutting out distractions. Visors and cheekpieces do the same while allowing some lateral and rear vision. But once familiarity sets in, the effect can be minimised. Sheepskin cheekpieces, also known as French blinkers, and another import from the harness racing world, were flying off saddlers' shelves even before they acquired official declaration status last November. The previous month, Storming Home, in the Champion Stakes, had carried them to their highest-profile win.

"With gadgets and devices," said Karl Butcher, of Gibson Saddlers in Newmarket, "it is often a matter of fashion. If a good winner wears something, the feeling is that it must work and even if people don't always know why, they'll latch on. We made a training aid for James Fanshawe that he used on Hors La Loi to encourage muscle development and soon we had orders for many more. Some of Aidan O'Brien's horses appear in Dexter ring bits and cross nosebands, and then everyone wants them."

Some tack, developed for a particular horse, becomes eponymous. The Grakle noseband, a cross noseband that prevents a horse opening his mouth excessively and helps to hold the bit centrally, came to prominence courtesy of the 1931 Grand National winner. The Citation bridle, a combination of two mouthpieces and an elasticated noseband, was designed for the hard-pulling 1948 US Triple Crown winner. The Sonic, a less severe version involving leather bit-rings, was worn by the best specialist miler of 1986, Sonic Lady.

Even allowing for fashion's vagaries, it seems that horsemen are increasingly happy to remove their own blinkers and innovate and investigate for the good of their inmates.