As the summer ends, Epicenter has firmly established himself as the three-year-old of the year, and the four-year-old Flightline just cemented his status as the latest wonder horse (or, if you prefer, Wunderpferd) with a twenty-length win in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Both horsemen and fans are now looking forward to the final big events of the year, the Breeders’ Cup Championship Races in November, where these two horses should meet for the first time. This year the Cup Championships are at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, KY, an iconic venue and the site of decades of legendary horses and exceptional races.
Now that we find ourselves at the end of another racing summer, I thought it was time to offer an evaluation and appreciation of these fabulous animals in a context other than just their entertainment value. Horses are wonderful, majestic creatures – even something as simple as watching a small herd feed in a field can be thrilling – and, to me, the thoroughbred is the most athletic and marvelous of all the breeds. Horses of all breeds have been evolving for at least five million years, or so I have read, and yet it seems as though many people still don’t truly understand them and their idiosyncratic habits, especially those people who have not been fortunate enough to come in close contact with one.
For example, a human being’s field of vision is approximately 90 degrees. In other words, if you’re looking directly forward, you’re at least vaguely visually aware of things for around 45 degrees on either side of you. Hold your hand at your nose vertically and gradually move it toward your ear – you should start to see your hand getting less distinct about halfway between your nose and your ear. (This of course doesn’t allow you to read things out of the corner of your eyes, but you certainly get a sense of things.) Because their eyes are set so wide apart on their head, a horse’s field of vision is approximately 350 degrees, as illustrated in the diagram at right.
As a result, horses can detect things as far back as their own hind legs while still looking forward. This ability to be aware of their surroundings evolved from a need to avoid predators, and this huge range of vision gives horses a chance to quickly detect and flee from danger. Because of this, some thoroughbreds get spooked while racing: from time to time you’ll see one bolt to the outside, or veer into the rail, or shy away from approaching competitors. Small hoods with protruding plastic cups, called blinkers, that are attached behind the horse’s eyes, can help trainers keep horses from getting spooked by narrowing the horse’s vision and eliminating their tendency to get startled by anything unexpected within their rather incredible field of vision.
Some blinkers are quite small, with just small rectangular pieces that only prevent horses from seeing more than 90 degrees to either side; other, much larger blinkers have cups that restrict their vision to around 45 degrees. Horses do have two blind spots, one directly in front of their nose that extends directly outward for a few feet, and one behind their tail, which is effectively infinite unless they turn to look. Naturally, common sense tells us to avoid walking up directly behind a horse in order to avoid being kicked. Approaching from the front, one be should off to the side of that blind spot directly in front of their nose, and remember, if you feed them a small carrot or mint, the way they perceive the distance between your finger and the treat can lead to an awfully painful bite. Biologically speaking, racehorses are no more evolved than any other breed, but their desire to run and compete have made them the breed most exciting to watch.
Thoroughbreds today still retain that marvelous field of vision, but many still also retain that flight response to things unknown. Thus, one of the most difficult things for trainers to teach young horses is that they are safe when in the care of people. It seems silly to some that these huge creatures would be skittish about, say, a paper cup on the ground, or a windblown plastic bag, or virtually anything that they encounter, no matter the size, that is new to them. Generally, however, this innate skittishness can be overcome through patience and constant, intelligent training, thus allowing them to become comfortable with things that might otherwise be unusual or unnerving.
Picture a young colt, not yet two years old, just beginning his training. One day, sooner or later, he is going to have to be introduced to that huge metal starting gate. Many horses understandably freak out when they see it, afraid to even enter this contraption, much less be confined by it. This process, called schooling, is integral to every horse’s development. Like us, horses have different personalities: some trust the people around them and get it accomplished right away, while others need to take many trips to the gate before they become comfortable with the process. First-time starters cannot enter a contest until they show they can willingly enter the starting gate, stand in it and wait quietly, and, when the bell rings and the gates open, take off running. Every track has personnel at these gates in the mornings to help the horses with this process, and the official starter must give them the ok before they can run in an actual race. Overcoming these natural horse instincts and teaching them to run on command are vital skills that trainers must develop in young horses. Learning to trust care givers and riders are keys to getting horses to relax and become successful racehorses.
The process of even getting a horse to the races is another facet of the game that many don’t see or appreciate. Any horse, no matter its age or lineage, has to be registered with the Jockey Club, the organization that handles the identification and registration of every horse that intends to run in America, before it can even be on the grounds of a track.
To be able to run, a horse must have foaling papers, examples of which can be seen to the right. These certificates indicate the thoroughbred’s pedigree, date of foaling, name, and color. Thoroughbred coloring is not terribly varied: if the horse’s mane, tail, and body match, they are chestnuts; if the mane and tail are different, usually darker, than the horse’s body color, they are bay. If the mane and tail appear to be darker than the rest of the body, they are officially called dark bay, even though they might look black to the untrained eye (for the record, there are no black thoroughbreds in the Official Registry). If the horse, no matter his color – although in this case the coat is generally gray – has a single red hair anywhere on his body, it is officially a roan. Some newer classifications now call this gray/roan. A young gray horse, one without any red hairs and which might in time turn completely white – something that happens to many older horses (and older men as well) – is still classified as gray. Or a foal might be all white, with no gray or red hairs at all, and thus, conveniently, officially classified white. White foals are very rare, however; only a very few have ever officially been given that moniker. I did, however, see a white horse named White Hot raced at Saratoga this past August, which was pretty cool.
In order to obtain foaling papers, the owner of a young foal must submit to the Jockey Club proof of the foal’s pedigree (which is confirmed by the owner of stallion with a different certificate); his date and place of birth (confirmed by a veterinarian’s certificate); and then photos of the foal from two sides with a sign next to the animal indicating gender, date, and name of the broodmare (see photo at left). On the paper registration form that the Jockey Club sends, there is also a diagram of a horse, and on this diagram the owner must show the location of any color markings, usually on the face or feet, and also the location of any and all swirls (think of cowlicks on a human head) that can be seen on any part of the foal’s body. And, since DNA is now available to identify horses, each foal application must also now include hair samples, a minimum of two batches of at least sixteen hairs pulled from either the horse’s mane or tail. All of this is to ensure that this horse is the horse who will be racing or used in breeding and can never confused with any other animal.
The final stage of this process is for the foal to be chipped. This involves a microchip, registered with the Jockey Club, that is implanted at the base of the horse’s mane, formally known as the withers. Whenever any horse enters a race, a track worker called an identifier checks every entrant as they approach the saddling area. The identifier scans the chip to ensure that this is indeed the horse who is scheduled to race. Before 2017 and the introduction of chipping, horses were identified by a number tattooed under the upper lip. Horses who are still racing and current stallions or mares who are still being bred and whose foal papers were obtained before 2017 still have their identity confirmed by identifiers who lift the horse’s lip and read the tattoo number as it enters the paddock before each race. Foaling papers must be in the hands of the track officials before any horse can race, so if the owner ships to another track, those papers must go with the horse and be given to the racing officials at that track. Steps are currently being taken to finally digitize these records, so that the process of moving a horse from track to track is less of a headache.
Once the registration is completed, it’s time to pick a name for your baby. This is where the fun really begins. You decide on a name and submit it to the Jockey Club, which determines if that name is already in use by a current horse, or is reserved, meaning a name that will never be used again, like Secretariat. If the submission has a unique name – in other words, one like the legendary ARRRRR, inspiration for one of Tom Durkin’s greatest ever calls – it must come with an explanation for the Jockey Club. Names cannot be outlandish or deemed inappropriate by the Jockey Club, so it was a wonder how the filly named Bodacious Tatas got past the Jockey Club censors in 1986. She went on to win 11 races and over $439,000 and is remembered today as much for her infamous name as for her record. When I submitted the name of the second foal that I bred, Umpus and Marge, it was rejected. The Jockey Club asked me to submit it again, this time with an explanation. I wrote back explaining that Marge was my mother’s name and that Umpus was my late father’s nickname, garnered when he was a bombardier on B-17s in World War II, and to this day no one knows what it meant. A week later, I received her foal papers in the mail.
To make duplicates less likely, the Jockey Club maintains an online database of names currently in use. If you’re in the mood, you can see if the name you’ve chosen for your fictitious racehorse is available. Simply go to thejockeyclub.com. At the top of the page, under Resources, there is a dropdown to Registration Services. Click that and then Online Names Book and enter your selection, and if it’s. No sign up or login is necessary. Names are protected for roughly 10 years after approval; after that, unless it’s been reserved or retired, the name may be used again. In December 2021, the Jockey Club released 29,459 names that are now available for new foals.
My hope is that one’s appreciation for horse racing is never blind to the time, energy, patience, and love it takes to allow a thoroughbred to reach its full potential. A thrilling stretch run, or a photo finish, are elements that make this sport a joy to watch, but the majesty of the horse itself is what, in my opinion, sets it apart from all other forms of entertainment. It has been so for decades, and if people today demand safety and fairness for horses, riders, and spectators alike, it will last forever.