Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Horse Racing for (Complete) Dummies

Horse racing is one of my passions (obsessions.) A few people recently expressed interest in knowing a bit more about this sport, so I am writing this post from a complete beginner's angle. Bear with me if some of this information seems old hat to you, but if you stick with it, you might learn something of value.

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:

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!!


Sandy Williams said...

Very interesting stuff!

So, has Zenyetta raced against boys before? Or do they have all girl races or something?

Do people who are horse race fans watch all the types of races? Or do they stick with the thoroughbreds or quarterhorses or other breeds?

How do you judge horses? Like, if I were to go to the races, should I just look at a horse's stats? Are their other factors people take into consideration when they bet on winners? Wet track? Wind? Gate position? How long since last race?

Will Zenyetta try for the Triple Crown if she wins in Breeder's cup? Has a filly ever won or come close to winning the Triple Crown?

Okay. I have way too many questions. lol I should probably just go google them myself. :-)

Oh, by the way, so sad the Black wouldn't be allowed to race!

Linda Benson said...

Sandy - great questions. I'll answer them one at a time.

1) Zenyatta has raced against the boys before, one time, last year in the same race - the Breeders' Cup Classic 2009, which she won, coming from dead last. All of her other races have been against females (yes, they do have races for only mares or fillies). In 2008, Zenyatta won the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, against other females.

2) This probably varies for each person. For me, I love the thoroughbreds best. I love their long stretch runs, and love to watch their long legs flying. I do watch quarter horse racing a little bit, and harness racing hardly ever. But that's me.

3) If you are asking how to jduge horses to bet on a winner - oh gosh, I'm guessing scads of books, dvd's, websites, etc. will probably try to tell you how to do that. I'm not much of a bettor, I just love to watch the horses run. My advice is to only bet as much as you feel you can comfortably lose that day, whether it's $2 or $20, and then just try your best and enjoy! Hey - it's horse racing.

4) Zenyatta won't be entered in any Triple Crown races, because she is too old. These races are for 3 year olds, and Zenyatta is now six. Partly because she was such a big, late-developing filly, her connections made the wise decision to bring her along slow, with her first race being late in her 3 year old year. Although fillies have won individual Triple Crown races (including recent wins by Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Preakness and Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont) no filly has ever won the Triple Crown, or even two races of the Triple Crown.

These are great questions, by the way. I don't mind answering, so keep 'em coming!

Sandy Williams said...

Wow. Zenyetta won from coming from dead last? Awesome! I'm going to have to look up that race.

Oh, yeah. I thought I remembered there being an age limit on the Triple Crown (from reading fiction books, lol). I have to admit, if you didn't tweet about Zenyatta, I wouldn't know who she was. Is winning the Triple Crown pretty much the only way a horse can make Big news? I know I'd hear about a Triple Crown winner, but I don't usually hear about any other races at all. So, it's like the Triple Crown is the biggest prize in horse racing and there's not another way to be the best? I'm not sure if I'm making sense.

Anyway, I'm seriously going to try to watch the Breeders' Cup this weekend.

Linda Benson said...

Sandy - Zenyatta almost always comes running at the field from dead last, which is what makes her races so exciting to watch. You think it's impossible for her to get there, but she does, again and again. All of her races are on youtube, and it's well worth checking them out.

It's true that the mainstream media (tv, newspapers) rarely mention horseracing unless it's close to Triple Crown Season. However there are many other big races to get caught up in too, and it's fun to follow a horse's career once you become acquainted with them. One of the reasons Zenyatta is so good for the sport (she was on 60 minutes last Sunday, she's in Oprah magazine, etc.) is that she's become such a phenomenon - not only her long win streak but also her physical presence and her charisma. She is definitely bringing new fans to the sport.

For up-to-date racing info - I generally go to the web. Try,, or (And I follow a lot of twitter racing folks, too, check out my list.)

Zenyatta's race, the Breeders' Cup Classic will be the last race on the card on Saturday, Nov. 6th. Time approximately 6:30 PM or so Eastern Time, so adjust accordingly.