Horse Racing

It’s About the Horses

July 13, 2012

The start of every horse race is determined by the break.

By C. Reid McLellan

Paying attention to how a horse breaks can mean predicting how the race will be run. Journal photo.

Last month, we talked about characters that we might meet in the grandstands when we go to the races. How many of them did you recognize when you went to the races in June? I think we sometimes get so wrapped up with the people of racing that we overlook the stars of the game. After all, the sport’s called horse racing for a reason.

There are some people who only go to a racetrack because it gives them the opportunity to place a wager. But remember the crowds that showed up at railroad stations when Seabiscuit made his trip across country? More recently, Thoroughbreds like Cigar, Skip Away, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta drew crowds of fans everywhere they raced.

In August 1983, I took my wife and three kids to New Mexico for vacation. At that time, in our home track of Louisiana Downs, youngsters had to be 18 to be in the grandstand during races. After attending a convention in New Mexico in 1982 and seeing kids of all ages in the grandstand at Ruidoso Downs, I decided our 1983 vacation was going to be a trip to New Mexico. We visited my older sister’s family in Las Cruces, climbed rocks in the “City of Rocks” and then headed to Ruidoso Downs.

For every race, each of my children picked a horse on which they wanted me to place a $2 show bet. My youngest, who was 9 at the time, picked a good-looking, black Quarter Horse as “the best horse I’ve ever seen.” His brother and sister, in deference to the fact that every horse he had picked so far had finished in the money, told me they wanted to bet on the one he picked.

I hadn’t paid any attention to the fact that we were at Ruidoso on All-American Derby Trial day. The stout, black Quarter Horse my son had picked turned out to be Mr Master Bug. From that day forward, my youngest son paid attention to any Quarter Horse that had Mr Master Bug in its pedigree.

I’m sure you all have a story to tell about your favorite horses, and many of those are horses that have not seen the national limelight. But what goes on behind the scenes to get your favorite horse to the races is a story unto itself.

American Quarter Horses are the muscular sprinters of the racing world. Almost every race features a thrilling stretch run and a heart-stopping photo finish. Next time you head to the races, take AQHA’s FREE downloadable report, The Guide to Wagering on American Quarter Horse Racing, with you!

Every horse’s story begins with the thought process – or lack thereof – that went into the decision to mate that particular stallion to that particular mare, followed by 11 months of gestation and countless anxious hours of foal watch and delivery. Once born, a young racehorse spends its early months like any other horse, until the yearling sales begin.

Our favorite racehorse’s story continues as it arrives at a farm for breaking and early training. Since horses are prey animals, they are instinctively wary of closed quarters, such as trailers, stalls and starting gates, and are given opportunities to learn that those vital parts of their future life are benign, inanimate objects.

Some racehorses are trained to be mounted from the ground. Even those extremely confident about being mounted from the ground can have an explosive moment of apprehension if an exercise rider is legged up and 140 pounds suddenly lands on that young racehorse’s back. (Predators, such as mountain lions, attack horses from above and weigh about the same as an exercise rider.)

Once a racehorse is comfortable with a rider on its back, its trainer designs a regular exercise routine that is important in developing the physical fitness and mental maturity required to handle the racing experience. One of the most important aspects of that early training involves the starting gate.

The Starting Gate

During their initial training regimen, trainers will schedule a horse for several trips to the starting gate so that he can begin to develop confidence in entering the big green monster of every track. Trainers will walk the racehorse in and out of the gate and even allow him to stand and relax.

At one training farm of my acquaintance, the trainer built a “gateway” over the path from his barn to the training track. It reminded me of the entrance to a fairground, with arched top, poles on either side and in the middle and a center divider about 8 feet long. Every day, this trainer’s horses walked through the archway to and from the track. His runners were always easy loaders.

Once a racehorse learns to stand in the starting gate, he must be taught to leave that gate when it opens. Some young racehorses pick up that skill quickly, while others may take six or seven trips to a starting gate to learn how to break fast, clean and straight.

Quarter Horse handicappers know the importance of the break, or the way the field leaves the gate once it is opened. Some horses have a habit of breaking “out,” while others break “in.” The charts for Quarter Horse races contain information about how a horse breaks from a gate, or perhaps what happened at the gate in a previous race that cost that horse the chance to run its best.

When I’m evaluating a Quarter Horse race, I like to look for starting comments in the comment lines. If I find a runner whose previous races indicate that it is competitive in today’s field, and that it was in a “squeezed start” or “bumped hard, break” in races in which did not perform well, I am going to take a good look at that horse in the post parade. I particularly like to see a horse with such comments sandwiched between a horse that “breaks in” and another that “breaks out.” My horse may get a clean break, and I might be able to benefit at the mutuel window.

This week, break away from the routine of your life and take in some racing. Watch the program comments for a horse that appears fit and confident. That runner might get a great break from the starting gate and win. Either way, you are off to a great start in understanding that it’s about the horses.

Next blog: A Racehorse Life Is 24-7.

As executive director of The Elite Program, C. Reid McLellan organizes and teaches Groom, Owner and Trainer Elite classes around the country. Find out about the next available class here.


As owner and agent of Purple Power Equine Services, Reid helps people buy and sell race and show prospects and provides guidance and assistance with training, breeding and other equine services.