Dark bay-coloured horse in a grassy paddock wearing a waterproof blue rug

The Art of Spelling

Trainer Mark Kavanagh believes there were many factors behind Shocking’s Melbourne Cup success, but not all relate to what took place in the six starts he had in the lead up to the first Tuesday in November in 2009.

The time he spent doing little in a lush Queensland paddock following his second placing in the Queensland Derby early the previous winter were an underestimated, but significant role in the success.

“We spelled him up there, where it was much warmer, and he did much better,” Kavanagh recalled.

“So, that meant he didn’t need to spell for as long as he would down here and he was able to then go through and win the Melbourne Cup.”

It is proof that, when it comes to thoroughbreds, science plays a part even when horses are resting.

A spell is the time a horse spends between the final run of one campaign and when they commence exercise for the preparation ahead. They are important both mentally and physically to ensure longevity in a racing career. 
Kavanagh, who operates his own agistment property in addition to training a team at Flemington, said there are basically three types of spell.

“There’s what we call a freshen up, which goes for a week to 20 days; then there’s a basic spell, which is anywhere from three to six weeks; and then there’s a longer spell, which might be three to six months,” the trainer explained.

“The freshen up is because they’ve been a bit jaded or maybe found a track a little hard or had a cold. The three-to-six-week one is more shin soreness, a slight injury or just trained off, or they’ve had enough and you want them to grow out a bit. The three-to-six-month spell, that’s for an injury or a cracked bone, a sprained tendon. Something more serious.

“In our paddock, if they are doing three weeks or less, they are rugged and boxed at night and just put out in a nice, irrigated paddock during the day. A little bit longer than that – it depends on the weather – but they may stay outside, and the really long ones, they stay out in a paddock all the time.”

Part of the art of training is identifying signs that indicate a horse has come to the end of its preparation and looking for a spell. Early identification can mean less time needed in the paddock.

“Their coat goes dull, they lighten off in condition and they don’t eat as well as they should be,” Kavanagh said when asked to nominate signs to look for.

A horse’s time off is designed to reverse that, and Kavanagh looks for one thing in particular to determine when a horse had embraced its spell.

“The gut drops and they get what we call a ‘grass gut’,” he said. “That means they’ve filled up with green grass and that change is the first thing you’ve got to notice.”

In 2011, Kavanagh purchased Tremon Stud in Gisborne South, which was renamed Marbellesa Park. A 220-acre property that has been divided into 29 paddocks of varying sizes, it boasts an abundance of trees and plenty of water.

Shocking and another of Kavanagh’s former stars, Whobegotyou, had peaked before he bought Marbellesa Park, but Group 1 winners Atlantic Jewel, December Draw, Supercool and Magicool all spelled there during their racing career.

Kavanagh employs a manager and three staff, whose job it is to manage the up to 100 horses onsite. Along with members of the Kavanagh stable, he boasts fellow trainers among his client base, plus breeders with broodmares and sales-bound yearlings.

“Every paddock on my farm is tree-lined, so it’s sheltered from the wind and the warmth. Those were all things we took into consideration when we bought the property. We bought time when we bought the property because it was already established,” he said.

“My optimum paddock is 25 acres. It’s where I let the colts grow out. There are big 100-year-old gum trees in it and a couple of dams.”

As proud as he is of his own place, Kavanagh concedes nature throws up some obstacles when it comes to agistment in Victoria. He has already sung the praises of ‘The Sunshine State’, while another location with contrasting weather conditions also has significant advantages.

“In New Zealand, the grass grows 51 weeks of the year. There is always green grass and the horses can easily fill out,” he said.

“Whereas, over here, unless you’ve got irrigation, you’ve got probably from November to April or May where it’s dry natural feed. The green grass, of course, is always the best grass.

“In Queensland it’s tradition that they race into winter and I think it’s of benefit if you come out of a Queensland campaign to spell up there in the better weather. Otherwise, you come home here, it’s going to be eight degrees and the horses aren’t going to do as well in those conditions.

“The grass is still growing in Queensland at that time, whereas it’s dormant down here.”

It shows the benefits associated with a spell, no matter where they take place, and Kavanagh said the importance of doing it right in the best conditions available cannot be underestimated.

“People think you just chuck them out in a paddock like a sheep or a cow and just make sure they’re fed, but you don’t,” he said.

“Training horses is an art and so is spelling the horses. Some people are better at it than others.”