Great Thoroughbred racehorses don’t happen by chance. Years of research, careful training and attention to minute detail are part and parcel of what it takes to bring a horse to the top echelons of racing.
By Sarah E. Coleman
A Thoroughbred racehorse is truly a work of art. If you’ve ever been to the track and seen the horses pour on the speed as they turn for home, you can appreciate that these animals are carefully trained athletes at the peak of their careers.
But don’t be fooled: Having a winning racehorse isn’t just about luck; there is a true science behind every step in the process, from careful breeding to regimented exercise and everything in between.
The amount of analysis that goes into determining if a breeding selection between a mare and a stallion will be a lucrative one can put the R&D budgets of many companies to shame. Detailed research goes back multiple generations- not only is the athletic ability of each horse on the family tree analyzed, so is the skeletal structure (called conformation), which can offer clues as to which track surface and what distance race the potential foal might like.
On top of this, top-tier stallion owners have the right to refuse a breeding to any mare they don’t feel would produce a genetically superior foal, showcasing the fact that there are plenty of hurdles to jump through before a colt or filly is ever foaled! Once the breeding has been decided upon (did we mention that the most expensive stallion stud fees can cost in upwards of $300,000?) and the mating complete, the mare carries the foal for the next 11 months … assuming all goes as planned.
Happy Birthday, Baby
All Thoroughbreds are aged based on a calendar year, so they turn a year older every January 1 to make them more easily categorized by age for racing. Whether a foal is born in February or May, it’s helpful to have the foal as close to the January 1 date as possible, this gives a slight advantage as it will have a few months more maturity when it enters training.
Most Thoroughbreds have their babies on their home farms; typically they only go to the equine hospital if there is an indication that there may be a complication during delivery. Once the mare foals (has her baby), the foal gets a once-over within 24 hours to check his vitals and overall health. A healthy foal will stand within one hour and nurse within two.
The foal and his mom are turned out in the pasture as much as possible to run and play. Only truly inclement weather keeps the foals inside; it’s important that they spend time stretching to ensure they don’t encounter limb issues from lack of use.
Over the next six months or so of a foal’s life, he will be taught to lead, be brushed, and stand for the vet and farrier (person who trims his feet). He also may make his first trip off the farm to the breeding shed, where his mom will get bred again. Also during this time he will make the transition from drinking his mother’s milk to solid equine feed and hay.
The journey a Thoroughbred takes on his way to becoming a true racehorse hinges on his development, both physically and mentally. While most animals are still considered “babies” as 2- and 3-year-olds, Thoroughbreds have been exposed to more things in 36 months than some animals ever are. The horses that run in the Derby are 3 years old, meaning they have only been racing for about a year prior to entering one of the biggest races of their lives.
What a Racehorse Learns During His Yearling Year
As the horse turns a year old, he will begin to learn his job: to run with a rider aboard. However, a horse must be taught a few things before he ever is asked to bear weight on his back. This includes getting the horse accustomed to the saddle, the tightening of the girth (the strap that holds the saddle in place) and the feel of a bridle on his head and the bit in his mouth. Once the horse has accepted these things (usually about a week), he is ready to learn how to carry a rider.
Most horses are taught what the weight of a human feels like in the stall. As the space is typically fairly small (think 12-feet by 12-feet), there is not a lot of room for the colt to work up a head of steam, if he is so inclined. Once he accepts a rider in the stall, he will start walking the shedrow, which is the covered walkway that runs near the stalls. From there, the horse graduates to a round pen (literally what it sounds like) or a small pasture to learn how to steer and listen to the rider (either asking him to slow down or move forward).
Once the horse understands these basic cues, he is typically either ridden in an open field or brought to a smaller training track, depending on where the horse is housed. Even now, the horse is not asked to run. The rider works on trotting (jogging) the horse and reinforcing what each rider cue mean (turning, stopping, moving left and right).
At this time, the young racehorse is exposed to the track pony, which will lead him to the gate when he races; though horses are rarely asked to break from the gate at speed before they are 2 years old. The gate can be scary; it can make startling noises as it opens and shuts, so it’s imperative that the young racehorse not be afraid of it.
During this phase of his training, he will learn to stand still while it is shut behind him, and to “break” from the gate when the gate opens, meaning he comes out straight right when the gate opens. This is done slowly and methodically so the horse is not afraid, beginning with simply walking through the gate with both front and rear doors open.
What a Racehorse Learns During His 2-year-old Year
Once the horse turns 2, assuming he has no physical or mental issues from his work thus far, he will begin training in earnest. Horses at this age are asked to pick up the pace of their track workouts, and to run with other horses on the track.
Throughout his tenure on the track, the horse is being fed high-quality hay and grain, allowing his body to build muscle mass instead of fat. For the most part, racehorses in training live in a stall at all times, except when they’re on the track working or being hand-grazed by a groom. Racehorses are brushed daily (if not multiple times a day) and may have his legs bandaged every night. They truly are treated like kings.
Racehorses are brought to the track in the early morning, generally between the hours of 6 and 10 a.m. The horse goes to the track with an exercise rider or a jockey, and runs a pre-determined distance at a set speed, all established by the trainer and based on the horse’s health, training regimen, as well as what type of race he is hoping to enter the horse in next.
When a horse goes to the track and runs at a racing pace, this is called a “work” or a “breeze.” This tests the horse’s speed and fitness; his workout may be timed by the track’s official clocker. These times are allowed to be published in racing magazines (called a “published” or “recorded” work), and they can provide additional information to people who wish to bet on the race.
These works on the track also acclimate the racehorse to running in company, possibly being bumped or having dirt kicked up in their face. They also teach the racehorse to be moved to the rail by their jockey. A horse doesn’t work every day they are on the track; they typically run at a racing pace one day a week and are galloped (not worked) the other five days, with one day off a week.
Throughout their time on the track, the veterinary tools and therapeutic approaches these horses receive, which can include chiropractic, acupuncture and massage care (just to name a few) are designed to help them remain in top athletic condition.
The Stars Align
Sometimes it seems like nothing short of the stars aligning will get a horse to the Kentucky Derby. While a bit of luck doesn’t hurt, what matters more than luck is that the racehorse has a good foundation before entering training and that he also have an attentive, knowledgeable trainer who knows when to push and when to wait for a horse to mature.
A Kentucky transplant, Sarah Coleman got to the Bluegrass as quickly as she could, drawn by the equine industry and all that it entails. She has since become an avid fan of both bourbon and basketball.