Let's start with the very basics: the breeds of horses that run today on tracks in the United States. While there may be a few races on smaller tracks for Arabians, Paints, Appaloosas, and even mules - most of the Big Races, and the Horse Racing you see on television are for three breeds of registered horses:
Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Standardbreds.
Standardbreds race in Harness Racing. They are not ridden; they pull a sulky and have a driver behind them, and they either trot or pace.
Quarter Horses run over shorter distances, from 220 yards to 870 yards, and they race in a blister of speed, with the races often over in a matter of seconds.
Thoroughbreds are the horses that race over longer distances, usually from 5/8 miles to 1 1/2 miles. The well-known names Seabiscuit, Secretariat, and the undefeated mare Zenyatta are all Thoroughbreds, and the horses that race in the Kentucky Derby (as well as the other two races in the Triple Crown) are all Thoroughbreds, too.
All of these horses are registered in their respective breed organizations (Thoroughbreds being The Jockey Club) so that even though you've read Walter Farley's THE BLACK STALLION series, and dreamed of being shipwrecked with a fantastic horse on a tropical island, and then bringing it back to the states and racing it in a famous race, well, without a set of papers to prove the horse's lineage, it's not gonna happen. (Although I have to say that the movie scenes of Alec and The Black on the island are probably my favorite bits from any movie, anywhere.)
So, how many of you can name all three races in the Triple Crown?
That's right, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. These races are run over a period of five weeks, starting with the first Saturday in May. Entrants must be three-year-old Thoroughbreds, and although they are usually colts, a filly can enter, and in fact, fillies have won the Kentucky Derby three times.
The reason it is so difficult to win the Triple Crown (must win all three races) is that the three races are run in three different states, over a short period of time, and they are over three different distances, with the Belmont, at 1 1/2 miles being the longest and most grueling. It takes a super horse to do it, and we haven't had a winner now since Affirmed in 1978 (32 years.)
What other types of races do Thoroughbreds run in? You might have heard of maiden races, claiming races, allowance races, and stakes races. For a good discussion on the differences in these types of races, click here: http://horseracing.about.com/od/helpfornewfans/a/aaracetypes.htm
Many of the televised races are the Grade 1 Stakes races. At the end of the year, there is a two-day series of races known as the Breeders' Cup, which showcases the best horses of the year, including from Europe, with races at various lengths and on both the dirt and the turf. This year the Breeders' Cup will be held at Churchill Downs on November 5-6, 2010, and will be televised on several channels. For a complete television schedule, click on my post right here at Equestrian Ink about the undefeated mare Zenyatta (who will be running in the Breeder's Cup Classic, against males, trying for her 2oth win.)
If you'd like to become more familiar with horse racing, check to see if you get the television channels TVG or HRTV. Both of these carry not only the big races, but lots of smaller races, lots of live commentary, and after watching for a bit, soon you, too, will feel like an expert.
Or, to see what it's like to go to a real track and experience the races live, check out my post here about a day at Santa Anita Racetrack.
If you have any other questions you'd like answered (like - what's a furlong? one eighth of a mile) please post them in the comments, and I'll try and answer them for you (or find someone who can.)
Between the new movie Secretariat and all the hoopla around the fantastic mare Zenyatta, horse racing suddenly has a lot of new fans. I hope you'll tune in for some great horse racing this weekend, and whatever you do - don't miss the race called the Breeder's Cup Classic this Saturday, November 6th to watch Zenyatta run.
Enjoy those thunderous hooves down the track!!