Organic – up and racing
I first met Bill Gray more than ten years ago when he was growing organic strawberries and cocktail tomatoes. His jolly face and happy greetings were always welcoming. He could grow very intense quickly though, spoke very directly about his concerns and issues, and obviously thought a great deal about all his activities. In one of our first conversations, he asked me if I knew anyone who could sell 30,000 punnets of organic cocktail tomatoes per week “I’m producing 36,000 per week and can only sell 6,000 per week on the organic market” he said.
After a long break, I recently ran into Bill again, at the Stirling Organic Market. I was surprised to learn that he was buying organic vegetables – for a racehorse. I have known organic racehorse breeders before, but is rare, and too good an opportunity to miss. Before long, I was winding my way through the Adelaide Hills to picturesque Springton, where stables, a racetrack and organic horse pasture had replaced the strawberry patch.
Standing at the bar in the pub at Springton, where I met Bill, told me “I’ve never lost the faith in organics, I’ve never lost my organisy”.
Bill also told me that the horse racing industry places a lot of credence on racing two year olds. “But many race horses are late maturing, we think that a healthy mare and an organic diet can really make a difference in the early growth of the animal.”
Soon afterwards we were sitting at the big wooden table in the stone farmhouse, with most of his team – Bill’s wife Shirley, trainer Bob Sexton and William Cormack, a nutrition consultant who calls his business ‘E-naturally”. Bill’s partner Steve Adday was away in New Zealand. William told me “we are developing a total package for a healthy horse, with a strong heart and good muscle tone. We deal with diet, stress reduction and recovery from injury.”
“He continued “for injury, we have our own interferential, ultrasound, niagra and heart monitors. Basically we are fitted out as well as any physiotherapist. We also do heart score tests. We use a blend of science and nutrition to get the healthiest animal we can, and we combine that with a good trainer.”
William told me that soft tissue injury is treated with rest, a high amino acid diet which favours repair, interferential, ultra sound and massage, to break up scar tissue. “We can improve blood circulation 160% with niagra, but we can’t use that on a fresh injury. Any bleeding is stopped with ice.
William is self taught, although he says he was into physical fitness and has spent a lot of time around competitive athletes. He said “my own training was cut short by an accident, and I became hooked up with Bill who is very serious about organic horses.”
“We have never had a serious injury, because we are very conscious of safety, we have accessed and grown the feed the right way, and we never use spray materials.”
Bob Sexton learnt his skills from Tommy Smith and Apple George Mully.
Bob has done all the fencing and the place has been designed and built by Bob, Steve and Bill working together. Bob says he has a long history in the racing industry, having taken many horses to the post, after having given them a full education. He stopped about five years ago, because he was “sick of always finishing a head away from one of Colin Hayes’s horses.”
“What we are doing here may give us that little extra we need.”
“One length difference will beat Colin’s horses.”
“We are trying to produce a two year old with good tendon structure, muscle and bone, suitable to race as a two year old and to continue racing. We also need to have the horse mentally right, with staying power, length and stamina.”
Bill continued “I’m an old softy and I don’t like what I see happening to many horses.”
“In 35 years of involvement with the industry I have seen it all, good and bad, as in any industry. With my method of training we will only get two horses in 100 that buck. The secret is to get the horse in the right mental condition.”
“Horses are really very obliging animals. Take the fear away and they will not buck.”
Bill described the training management as a “mixture of old school and new school”.
“We are always on the look out for the small advantage which will give us ‘the edge’.“
The centre piece of the program is a diet based on minerals and nutrients from organic material. Bill and William are very enthusiastic about “constructing a complete diet” although they wish to maintain some secrecy too. They tell me that they “analyse each item in the diet, for it’s particular content and the way it enters the body and its digestability”. William says “we use chaff, grain, hay, nuts, vegetables and organic eggs from our own chooks.”
“The horses don’t get given anything that I would not eat myself.”
“We do a lot of testing, for contamination and for nutrients, even the water.”
“We use an ECG machine to learn about response to exercise and to tell the fitness of an animal. We don’t have put the horse under too much stress, because we already know how hard it can work.”
“We have not had to use a vet, from a general health point of view.”
“We believe that superior nutrition can really help.”
“The fruit and veg is given as juice, because the grain provides enough fibre”. (Fibre from the vegetables helps to feed the chickens).
“We do have normal problems such as worms and we do use worming pastes. We vary the treatment and we do not use them unless needed – which is less often on our diet. The mares are sent out for servicing, and we have to worm them when they return, but they should not pick up worms in the paddock.”
Use of these worm treatments would not conform to organic standards, but the vermifuge is the only non-organic component of the current management program. Bill says he is working on a worming strategy to make the program completely organic.
The horses are thoroughbreds. The first mare on the program, called “Brave Kappy” by Kaapstad, was an import from New Zealand. She was put to a premier stallion called “Dane Win”.
The mare was retired from racing, due to a leg injury, according to William because she was raced too hard as a two year old, before reaching maturity.
Bill says “too much credence is put on racing as a two year old. Most stock are from English and Irish blood and they do not mature until three years old. Too many horses break down as two year olds and too many suffer unnecessary injury and pain because of physical immaturity.”
“There is just too much prize money for two year olds in Australian racing.”
“If they don’t make a showing at two, they are just not able to go on as three, four and five year olds.”
“This has led us to the view that we have to start the program in the womb.”
“The diet contains seven or eight different grains, which don’t cost too much. The problem is the fruit and veg, which have a very high cost. For instance we feed broccoli, but it must be strictly organic, as is all the foodstuff.”
Bill now has his first foal, from the mare’s organic diet, and he is looking very well. When I saw him at three weeks of age, he had excellent definition. Bill says “he came out looking like a racehorse, not like a kid.”
The muscle structure, length of bone and the way he stands shows development well beyond what we could expect from a ‘normal’ program.”
Bill says he did not know too much about horses, but was looking for a retirement income. He found his two experts and is very happy with the program. A previous horse, Dowd’s Kali, was bought for only $1400, and had eight wins.
While the diet is expensive, Bill says he has not had to use a vet since starting the regime “and that can cost $150 before he even sees the horse.” The diet costs about $200 per week for a pregnant mare. Bill defends the cost, saying that apart from prize money, he expects the horses to have a long racing life and be still useful for stud work or breeding when retired.