A day at the races becomes even sweeter if you walk away a richer person than when you arrived. Knowing how to choose the best horse will get you one step closer to nabbing a winning ticket. With that in mind, we talked to three experts in the field to give you the insider scoop. Our takeaways? You still need to do your homework, but with the helpful tips and insights from these local experts, you’ll at least know where to start!

Even the shape of a horse's neck can determine its racing prowess.

Even the shape of a horse’s neck can determine its racing prowess.

Key Horse-Racing Qualities & the Signs of a Winning Horse

Showmanship

Oftentimes, as spectators of a race, we don’t get to know the little qualities about a horse that make it unique and special to its owners and trainers. Marty McGee, the Kentucky correspondent for Daily Racing Form, has seen his fair share of horses and studied their mannerisms. He has written about horse racing for 33 years and has attended the last 44 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, dating to the 100th running in 1974.

He loves getting to see the personalities of each horse as they take on a race. “I’d say most horses enjoy the showmanship of a race. The most famous example is the great Zenyatta, the 2010 Horse of the Year in North America,” says Marty. “She would dance and prance and paw at the ground during the post-parade as something of an acknowledgement that she was about to put on a show.”

This poster of Zenyatta names her “The Queen’s Dance” because of her high-stepping dance routine she loves to perform after winning a race. Image: Zenyatta Shop

Alex Riddle, sales and marketing director of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital agrees, saying, “It is impossible to overstate how much American Pharoah loves the show and posing for a crowd. Rachel Alexandra was the same way — relaxed and professional, able to sleep lying down, but when it came time for the big race, she was always up.”

Competitive Spirit

When it comes to horses being competitive, Alex points to their natural environment. “If you ever see them in a field, even as foals, they are constantly racing and competing. There is a natural competitive spirit in a horse, one always trying to outdo the other,” says Alex. “I think that’s one of the reasons that they are so relatable and horse racing is such a fun sport. We have just professionalized what they are doing in the field anyway.”

The competitive nature of a horse starts at a young age when they are able to race and compete with other foals in the fields. Image: Sasscer Hill

“If you ever see them in a field, even as foals, they are constantly racing and competing. There is a natural competitive spirit in a horse, one always trying to outdo the other," says Alex.

“If you ever see them in a field, even as foals, they are constantly racing and competing. There is a natural competitive spirit in a horse, one always trying to outdo the other,” says Alex Riddle of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital.

Emotional Well-Being

The experts would not go as far as calling the horses emotional, but all agree that the horses show a level of emotion, whether it be happy, sad, nervous or confident.

Alex feels one particular emotion is important to watch with horses: loneliness. He says, “Horses are herd animals. You can tell when they are out in a field with a big group of other horses that their happy place is amongst others. As a prey animal in the wild, their best means of survival are incredible speed and large numbers. Some horses can handle the relative isolation of training and stalling better than others. We see things from companion goats to donkeys at tracks across the country — all of this is to fill that natural longing for a herd.”

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Many will remember the companion horses that travel alongside the horses as they make their way to the starting gates. This companion pony keeps the race horse calm pre- and post-race. You will always see them in high-stakes races, but in the lower class races, if you ever don’t see a companion horse, it is often due to the cost of having one.

American Pharoah is led to the starting gates by companion horse, Smokey. Image: Bloodhorse

How It All Adds Up to a Winning Horse

Now that you’ve had an inside glimpse into the personality of the horse, I’m sure you are wondering, “How do all of these traits manifest into how you should be placing your bet?”

“Horses who are calm, composed and smart are much more likely to control their energy and exert it at the most important time in the race, when the rider asks. Horses who are agitated and/or high-strung are more likely to exert unnecessary energy before the race, thus limiting their ability to perform up to their capabilities,” says Joe Kristufek, Churchill Downs lead racing analyst.

Marty of Daily Racing Form agrees, noting some physical signs to looks for. “A horse in control of its own emotions generally is one who knows to conserve its energy for when it will be optimally utilized, like on training hours and race days. A well-managed horse will exude signs that it is doing its best to maximize performance,” he says. “And there are overt signs such as dapples, bowed neck, bright eyes, a confident strut, etc., that generally translate to a top, albeit not necessarily a winning, performance in a race.”

This illustration shows the ideal neck you should look for on a race horse. Image: Horse Hippology

Alex of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital agrees that there are qualities you can watch for as you wait for the race to begin. “Look for a horse that is calm in the chaotic moments before a race, a flashy horse that likes to show off for the crowd or even a horse that lightens his own load in the paddock immediately leading into the race.”

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If you are just looking at the stats in the program, there are dozens of factors you can look for. Churchill Downs lead racing analyst Joe Kristufek says the main ones you should focus on are:

  • Talent
  • Pace
  • Class
  • Distance
  • Surface
  • Jockey
  • Trainer
  • Pedigree

Alex concludes that some horses are born to be great. “A true showman like American Pharoah is rare, but the great trainers — and gamblers — can tell when a horse is special,” says Alex. “Many times we hear our clients talk about a horse that they knew was special, because they could go out and perform admirably in an incredibly taxing workout or stressful shipping situation and then go back to the barn and take a nap directly after. Like the great human athletes, an ability to handle the pressure of the big moment is a key factor.”

Happy Derby and good luck!

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