Friday, June 8, 2012

What role does white on the leg play in racing?

There’s no such thing as a bad color on a good horse. That’s a favorite saying of horsemen and horseplayers alike, and it’s true. Years ago, before the advent of DNA testing, color only mattered if two chestnut parents produced a gray offspring. You’d then wonder about hanky panky in the breeding shed.

But how about white markings? Do white socks or stockings affect a horse’s ability on the racetrack? The answer is not so simple. Centuries ago, most people thought it was pretty straightforward, paying attention to some version of this rhyme:

One white foot, buy it.
Two white feet, try it.
Three white feet, sell it to your foes.
Four white feet, cut off its head and feed it to the crows.

Never mind that this rule would have made your foes pretty rich, having given them Secretariat, one of the greatest Thoroughbreds ever to race, and Northern Dancer, one of the new foundation sires of the breed. The two horses had wins in five Triple Crown races between them, in spite of their three white legs each.

And Commander Crowe, the winner of trotting’s 2012 Elitlop in Sweden is the best trotting racehorse in the world right now. The crows (is the name a coincidence?) would have been feasting on him long since if the old rhyme had been believed. He sports four legs adorned with substantial white.

White on the leg and its connected hoof obviously doesn’t affect speed, but a lot of horsemen believe that it does affect soundness and hoof health, which certainly play a role in a horse’s success at the racetrack. White on the leg that reaches all the way to the hoof, as it almost always does, usually means that the hoof itself is white or at least lighter in color than the normal near-black hoof on a non-white leg. The belief among many highly experienced horse people is that the white hoof is softer than the black one and requires extra care, particularly in wet conditions.

While there is anecdotal evidence on each side (the great Cigar, for example, had problems with a white hoof) there is no proof yet of any structural difference between light and dark equine hooves, all else being equal. It’s possible that light-colored hooves show more bruising, chips, cracking, or spreading and look worse that a dark hoof in similar condition. This visibility may have led to the belief that white hooves are softer than dark ones and cause more problems to a horse in training.

Hoof soundness appears to be no problem to Commander Crowe, who first raced at three and is better than ever at the age of nine. In terms of picking winners, feel free to accept whatever kind of hoof that shows up on the horse of your choice.

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