Training hours begin earlySaddling in the paddockJockey John McKee gets a leg up

Horse Racing: From Paddock to Winner's Circle


Thoroughbred horses are athletes born to run, and those who race are trained to fulfill their athletic potential.

Basic Training | Advanced Training | Ready to Race | Race Day | And They're Off! | After the Race | Next Time

Basic Training
Horses begin training at a training center or farm. The youngsters learn to accept handling, wear racing equipment, and carry a rider. They also learn to stand quietly in a starting gate and then to break from one.

As horses learn, so does their trainer. Like people, horses respond to different incentives. One might need a gentle approach. Another might need firmer handling and more challenge. The trainer learns what works for each one, and the lessons are crucial; once a horse learns a habit or response, changing that behavior is hard if not impossible.

Advanced Training: At the Track
Sometime after their second or third birthday, most horses come to live at the track. (All Thoroughbreds are considered a year older every January 1 regardless of their actual date of birth.) The horses live in the stable area, also called the backside because it's traditionally located along the backstretch.

The trainer who began the horse's education may continue it, but often the owner will select a new trainer for the horse's racing career. During training hours, horses are ridden by exercise riders and sometimes by jockeys.

A horse in training routinely jogs or gallops every day. The trainer tells the rider how far and how fast to go. Fast gallops that test speed and advance fitness are called workouts. Workouts may be timed by the track's official clocker and published in industry papers and track programs to help bettors gauge a horse's potential. In that case the rider is said to work or breeze the horse.

Ready to Race
When the trainer decides a horse is ready, he or she will check the track's condition book for a suitable race. The racing secretary sets conditions for each race to ensure fair competition for horses of similar ability and fair contests for bettors.

Maiden races are for horses that have never won a race. Other races draw horses that have not won a certain number of races in a certain length of time or who have not won a race other than a maiden or claiming race. Races without restrictions on a horse's number of wins are open races.

Most races are claiming races, in which every horse is for sale for a predetermined price. Allowance races set conditions but the runners are not for sale. Stakes races require entry fees and carry the most prestige.

Race Day
On race day, grooms lead the horses to the saddling paddock, where the identifier checks the tattoo inside each horse's upper lip to confirm its identity. Trainers saddle their horses and give instructions to the jockeys. Jockeys wear the colors, or silks, that identify the owners of the horses. Together, the owner, trainer, and jockey are a horse's connections. About 10 minutes before post time, the paddock judge calls, "Riders up!" and the trainer gives the jockey a "leg up" into the saddle.

After one or two circuits of the walking ring, the horses head to the track for the parade to the post. Like all athletes, horses must warm up. They walk or trot alongside escort ponies (so-called regardless of size or breed) in the post parade and then jog to the starting gate.

Players can pick up clues by watching horses in the paddock and post parade. Is a horse alert and eager? sluggish? nervous? As bets are made, each horse's odds appear on the tote board in the infield and on monitors in the grandstand. Odds are a proportional measure of how much money has been bet on each horse and a guide to the payoffs. The lower the odds, the more money has been bet on a horse, and the lower the payoff will be. Wagering stops the instant the gate opens.

Pulled into place by a tractor, the gate lines up the horses in narrow stalls, each with a door held closed by magnets. The gate crew leads the horses into the gate and helps keep them calm as they wait for the start. The starter stands nearby, and when all horses are still and ready to run, he hits a button that cuts the electric circuit controlling the magnets. The doors spring open . . .

And they’re off!
Horses have different running styles. Some like to lead right away and are called frontrunners or pacesetters. Others do best if they wait, or rate, just behind the leader and then try to take the lead in the homestretch, the last furlong of the race. Still others are closers; they like to come from far back and make one big run at the end.

Races are run at many different distances and are measured in furlongs. A furlong is 1/8 mile, so a six-furlong race is 3/4 of a mile. Races under a mile (8 furlongs) are sprints. Races at a mile or more are called routes.

White poles painted with different colors mark the course: black-and-white at each 16th-mile, green-and-white at each eighth-mile, and red-and-white at each quarter-mile. Poles are named from the finish line backward; thus the eighth pole is one furlong from the finish line, the quarter pole is two furlongs from the finish line, and so on. As the leader passes a quarter-mile marker, an automatic timer records the time. These fractional times are considered fast or slow compared to a standard of 12 seconds per furlong.

The most important pole stands at the finish line, or wire. The first horse to the wire makes the best trip of all--to the winner's circle.

The runner-up is said to place, while the third horse is said to show. Horses finishing first, second, or third finish "in the money." Sometimes the phrase "hit the board" is used this way as well, but technically the term means the horses whose numbers appear on the tote board in order from first to fourth.

Every race is videotaped, and stewards watch from high above the track. If a jockey believes another horse interfered with his own horse, he may raise an objection. Sometimes stewards raise their own objection, or inquiry. In either case the stewards review the tape and decide whether the incident occurred and whether it affected the outcome of the race. If so, the horse that interfered can be disqualified. Stewards uphold the rules of racing and declare races official.

After the race
After posing for pictures in the winner's circle, the winning horse goes to the detention, or test, barn for blood and urine testing. Non-winners also may be tested either at random or if they unexpectedly finish far better or far worse than their odds would indicate. The others return to their barns. Stablehands called hotwalkers walk the horses after the race to cool them down.

Next time
Before the horse's next race, the trainer may change equipment or training. If the horse was distracted, he may wear blinkers next time to focus his attention. If she was reluctant to load in the gate or nervous in the paddock, she will practice those steps again. The trainer also will consider whether the horse needs to move down in class, either to be more competitive or to build confidence with a win, or is ready to step up.

And the bettors will be watching every move!