Friday, June 22, 2012

Racehorses and front bandages

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

Monday, June 18, 2012

Does Foaling Date Matter to Race Horses?

An increasing number of racetrack programs and past performance charts now add the month and even the specific day a horse was born to the information you can use to handicap a race. In the early days of organized horse racing, both Thoroughbred and Standardbred, the exact foaling date of the participants didn’t much matter, if such information was even available. Owners and trainers picked races according to the racing quality of the competition, not the age or sex of the participants.  The better the quality, the higher the possible reward in the form of purse size or reputation enhancement. But if you picked too ambitiously, your horse would be unlikely to win. As racing matured, organizers began to add events with age and sex restrictions. Picking the correct level of competition was still paramount, but in the case of age-restricted races, foaling date began to make a difference.

Today, almost all races on both the flat and under harness in which two-year-olds participate are restricted to that age group for the entire season. Races exclusively for three-year-olds are sometimes scheduled throughout the season, although often the sophomores are moved into three-and-up races after mid-summer. It’s only with two-year olds and early-season three-year-olds that exact foaling date is thought to matter at all. To be fair, age does matter with older three-year-olds (they are generally, although not always, not quite as good as older horses at the end of the racing season), but the exact day and month is not so significant.

Exactly how much the foaling date matters depends on the race, the time of the year, and the kind of horses involved. Horses of all racing breeds officially become one year old on January 1 following the year they’re foaled. This means, of course, that a horse foaled early in the calendar year will be older than one foaled later in the year even though they are officially the same age. Horses mature and change very rapidly at two and three, so even a few months can make a lot of difference in size and development.

An early birth date matters most:

  • In two-year-old races early in the calendar year, the earlier the foaling the better.
  • In two-year-old races later in the Thoroughbred season when races stretch out beyond six furlongs, the earlier foals may still have an advantage, although not as great.
  • In two-year-old races, long-bodied rangy young horses may be at a disadvantage to shorter-bodied muscular horses unless they have a noticeably earlier birth date.
  • In three-year-old races early in the year, late foals usually remain at a slight disadvantage, especially at sprint distances.
  • In three-year-old races in which the young horses race a distance for the first time (i.e. Triple Crown races) the early foaling dates don’t help as much, especially if the later-foaled horse has distance conformation, with a longer neck and body and, consequently, a longer stride.

But here’s another point to consider. Mother Nature designed horse reproduction in a way to assure that new foals arrive at the most opportune time in terms of food supply and safe climate conditions. In temperate North America and Europe that usually means May, with its fresh new grass and cool days and nights. Left to their own devices, horses will often mate in June for a May foaling the next year. In commercial operations, the breeding season is pretty much done by June, because most owners want their foals to arrive as early as possible while avoiding the disastrous mistake of a December foal. So is it possible that a May foal, who seems to have a disadvantage as a two-year-old and early three-year-old, might actually be a stronger animal even if he’s a little less mature than a foal born a couple of months earlier? It is possible, and that may also be taken into consideration as you check foaling dates.

Check my website www. for the exact foaling date for one of racin's most famous horses, the great pacer Dan Patch!

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.