Racing: Healthy habit of a run in the oven

Sue Montgomery considers the benefits of running mares when in foal
Click to follow
TWO mums-to-be will bring a whole new meaning to the phrase "nursery stakes" at Newmarket on Saturday. Royal Figurine, in foal to Most Welcome, and My Branch, carrying to Polar Falcon, are set to clash in the Van Geest Criterion Stakes.

Pregnancy has long been recognised as a cure for flightiness in the female, human or equine, and is also a condition that can promote physical well- being. An improvement in either sphere - mental or physiological - can bring about better performance, be it with a vacuum cleaner, in the boardroom or on the race-track.

And running an older mare in-foal can be a sensible time-and-motion practice, particularly for an owner-breeder, who can save a year if he or she does not mind missing the second half of the season.

Such is the case with six-year-old Royal Figurine, who was bred by her owner, Craig Pearman. The admirable chestnut has won nine of her 42 races, and had some near-misses at the top level, but her trainer, Martin Fetherston- Godley, said: "I think we've probably seen the best of her now, and this seemed a sensible way to proceed. She is pretty bombproof anyway, so there was no question of having to be pregnant to settle her temperament. But if anything, she seems more motherly."

Saturday's Group Three race will be Royal Figurine's last chance to win a Pattern race. She will be making her final appearance, as the Jockey Club's recent introduction of a 120-day pregnancy limit runs out next week in her case. My Branch, however, has until August before she can start thinking seriously about motherhood at Wafic Said's stud, and those closest to her are sure she will regain winning form before then.

Kevin Moony, assistant to her trainer Barry Hills, said: "She's thriving on it. She's got a real deep glow to her coat and has definitely improved physically."

The answer is in the hormones. Pregnancy causes changes in the female system, particularly in progesterone levels, a sort of natural doping, in fact. There have been rumours in the past about women athletes from the eastern bloc being made pregnant specifically to help performance in a big event.

Deidre Carson, of the Rossdale veterinary practice in Newmarket, said: "Being pregnant will not make a slow animal into a flying machine, nor will it have an effect on every individual. But some are definitely helped. Apart from the calming effect pregnancy can have on a filly or mare who would otherwise be contantly in season, there are proven physiological benefits. You can generally tell just by looking if a mare is pregnant - her coat is shining and she will have an air of well-being. The bloom of the pregnant mother is not a myth."

There is no objection on veterinary grounds to an in-foal mare racing in her early days; pregnancy is, after all, a perfectly natural condition and even at 120 days the foetus will be half the size of a small Jack Russell. The days when the mother-to-be retired to the chaise-longue for the duration have long since gone and exercise is now regarded in a positive light. A few years ago, Liz McColgan, the leading distance runner, stayed in training - albeit increasingly gently - up to the seventh month of her pregnancy, and there is no reason why a fit, healthy mare or filly should not race for the early part of her 11-month gestation.

Pregnant mares have a long and honourable history of success. The most recent at the top level was Indian Queen, who was carrying to Night Shift when she won the Ascot Gold Cup six years ago. She was the second in-foal mare to win the stayers' crown, the great La Fleche having done so in 1894, a day before running second in the Hardwicke Stakes. She later ran fourth in a Manchester handicap under 9st 7lb, finished her racecourse career by winning the Champion Stakes, and the folowing year was safely delivered of a healthy filly foal.

English Spring carried a Teenoso colt to victory in the Prince of Wales's Stakes in 1986 and Granny's Bank was in foal to Forzando when she ran Vague Shot to half a length in the Hunt Cup the following year. And at Leopardstown a few years ago Cipriani, pregnant to Glow, and Golden Temple, carrying to Law Society, provided a 1-2 in the Ballycorus Stakes.