You’ve spent time and energy handicapping a race when you see your choice set foot on the racetrack, whether in person on television. To your horror—or puzzlement—your horse sports bandages on his front legs. Does this mean you immediately change your pick? Does it mean proceed with caution? Or does it mean nothing at all? One thing is certain: front bandages mean something, for both Thoroughbred and Standardbred competitors.
It’s not a great problem if you’re looking at rundown bandages. Rundowns are often used on the rear legs of sensitive Thoroughbreds on deep sandy tracks. The surface can irritate the fetlock, the joint that connects the long cannon bone to the shorter, sloped pastern that leads into the hoof. The abrasion that results is called “running down,” hence the name of the bandage. Rundowns, which consist of normal elastic bandaging tape covering a protective pad, with an additional stick-on pad sometimes added as a top layer, are so commonly used on hind legs that you’ll see races in which every horse has rear rundowns.
Much less common are front rundowns. It’s rare for a horse to run down in front and it’s not ideal for a horse to need rundown bandages, since completely free motion in the fetlock is best. But the Vetrap tape that’s used is light and flexible and has negligible effect on the horse’s stride if it’s properly applied. Front rundowns may only indicate sensitive skin or some kind of minor sore on the fetlock, not necessarily unsoundness. This is a “proceed with caution situation,” if indeed the problem is a horse’s tendency to run down in front.
The difficulty comes because front rundown patches are usually covered by full below-the-knee Vetrap, and it’s hard to tell the difference between a racing bandage intended to support questionable ligaments and tendons and a simple rundown covering. There are trainers who use front racing bandages as a precaution on a fully sound, well-conformed horse, but most trainers prefer the freedom and flexibility of an unfettered leg. Front wraps are rarely there unless there is a problem (or a belief that there might be a problem) with two exceptions: a trainer might bandage a sound horse to prevent him from being claimed or to increase his odds. A horse appearing in front bandages may be perfectly healthy, he may be unsound but fast enough to win anyway, or he may be too unsound to compete.
The situation in harness racing is a little different. Rather than wrapped bandages, trainers are more likely to use the brace bandage, a manufactured device made of synthetic or leather that protects the leg bones, usually from interference by other legs. Used in back on trotters, brace bandages can also widen out and improve their gaits. Used on the front legs of either trotters or pacers, they provide tendon support and usually only appear on horses with previous unsoundness. Standardbreds are generally don’t suffer the catastrophic breakdowns that Thoroughbreds do, but a sore Standardbred is no more likely to win than a sore Thoroughbred.
The bottom line on front bandages is this: they may or may not indicate a problem with potential lameness but they usually indicate that somebody is worried about it. Plenty of horses win with them, but as a casual racegoer or bettor you don’t know what’s going on in the trainer’s mind, making a front-bandaged horse a doubtful bet unless everything else seems correct.
You can find out about the equipment the great Dan Patch used in my new book THE BEST THERE EVERWAS: DAN PATCH AND THE DAWN OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY. Check the book's website at danpatchbook.com.