You are intimately familiar with your off-track Thoroughbred’s daily routine. You know when he eats, plays, and sleeps—it’s part of the fun of ownership.
But what was his routine like at the racetrack? In particular, what regimen did he follow on competition day?
Racing is highly regulated to ensure the participants’ safety and to protect those who bet on the horses. The established safeguards mean your horse had to undergo several steps before and after he raced.
Everyday training begins well before dawn, and on normal training days a racehorse gets breakfast and then heads to the track for whatever exercise his trainer deems necessary.
But if he is going to compete, he won’t need as much exercise in the morning and he must be available for a pre-race exam.
Sean McCarthy, a trainer on the Southern California circuit, says a horse’s race-day routine is to some extent determined by what time of day he’s racing. Most Thoroughbreds race in the afternoon, but with the first race listed as anywhere from noon to 2 p.m. and a slate of eight to 12 races in a day approximately a half-hour apart, a horse might not compete until 7 p.m. At some tracks Thoroughbreds even compete at night, perhaps not until 10 or 11 p.m.
“I usually will give a horse a light breakfast on race day and send him to the track for a little jog in the morning,” says McCarthy.
Old-time racing trainers often “drew” horses, keeping all feed from them that day until they raced. Because horses are natural grazers, McCarthy feels it’s healthier to keep some forage in front of the horse, typically free-choice timothy hay. If a horse races late in the day, McCarthy says he might give him a little grain at around 2 p.m.
Official veterinarians, employed by the racetrack or the state racing commission, determine much of a horse’s race-day routine. These veterinarians are in charge of confirming that all horses are sound to race, and to do that they examine horses several times on race day.
They begin in the morning, walking the stabling area and inspecting every horse that will compete that day.
Most mornings you can find Dana Stead, DVM, at one of several Southern California racetracks—Santa Anita, Del Mar, or Los Alamitos, depending on which one is currently racing. He shares the duties with another veterinarian, usually one employed by the California Horse Racing Board.
“We’ll see (the horses) between 7 and 11 a.m.,” says Stead. “We’ll bring the horse out of the stall and identify them by checking their lip tattoo. I typically have them jog about 50 to 75 feet, both away and toward me. Then I bend down and palpate their legs, feeling for any heat or swelling of the joint, tendon, or soft-tissue structures. I look for any pain when they flex the leg or pulses in the feet. Those are the main indicators of inflammation.”
In many ways, these veterinarians perform assessments akin to prepurchase exams. But unlike those exams, where vets often are looking at horses for the first time, Stead is usually somewhat familiar with these horses. He keeps notes on every horse he examines and enters that information into a database. The next time a horse races, Stead can compare what he sees on the morning inspection to his previous notes.
These notes can be helpful to veterinarians at other tracks, too. If a horse, for example, ships from California to New York for a race, the California notes can be sent for the New York vet to use as a reference.
“Any regulatory veterinarian across the country can look at our pre-race examinations, and we can look at theirs to note any changes,” says Stead. “That’s a big part of it—noting changes over time.”
Stead cited a hypothetical example of a horse whose tendons look perfectly fine at one pre-race exam, and then three months later one tendon has thickened. Such a change would warrant a closer look and might result in the veterinarian recommending the horse not race.
In both the morning pre-race exam and later in the day, when Stead examines the horse again, he can recommend to the stewards (the judges in charge of seeing that the races are run fairly) that the horse be scratched and not race. This is done for the safety of everyone involved.
After the morning pre-race exam, the horse returns to his stall. Trainers usually try to keep activity around the stall to a minimum to help the horse rest in the hours before his scheduled race. Ideally, a horse lies down and sleeps for a few hours.
Once the races begin, announcements are made over the stable loudspeakers as to when the horses for each race should head to the receiving barn, which is where horses get checked in for racing. The horses are called about 45 minutes before their race.
Grooms walk their charges to the receiving barn, and as the horses approach it, the horse identifier looks them over. This includes flipping the upper lip to be sure the horse’s tattoo matches that of the horse listed to race, as well as examining markings.
This process helps ensure that the wrong horse isn’t brought over to race. Sometimes this can be an honest mistake—a groom grabs the wrong bay horse with no white markings, for example.
The process is also designed to ensure that no one tries to run the wrong horse on purpose. Say someone tried to race a 5-year-old in a race for 2-year-olds. Theoretically, the 5-year-old would have age, strength, and experience going for him and could easily beat the 2-year-olds. That would be unfair not only to the 2-year-olds in the race but also the people betting on them.
At the receiving barn the groom is assigned a number to wear that corresponds to his horse’s number in the program. That allows people to better identify the horses as they parade before the public in the walking ring.
Stead says veterinarians draw blood for testing from each horse at the receiving barn. This detects (and, so, helps prevent) “milkshaking,” the process of tubing the horse with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), which is believed to enhance performance by lowering lactic acid buildup in the muscles and reducing fatigue. Blood-testing is one of many tests done to see that no horse has an unfair advantage over another.
From the receiving barn, the grooms lead the horses to the paddock and walking ring. Every track is configured differently, but typically the paddock is adjacent to the walking ring, with individual stalls for saddling in the paddock. At Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, the stalls line one side of the walking ring.
The trainer or assistant trainer saddles the horse in the paddock, then the groom leads the horse to the walking ring so the betting public can view him. The horse’s owners, connections and trainer usually stand inside the walking ring.
Stead watches the saddling and stands inside the walking ring to oversee the entire process in the interest of safety.
“I keep a watch to make sure the horses don’t flip over or maybe kick the wall hard and hurt themselves,” he says.
If this happens, Stead must determine if the horse is injured and should be withdrawn from the race. As with the pre-race exam, Stead would recommend withdrawal to the stewards.
As the horses circle in the walking ring, the jockeys come out and receive last-minute instructions from the trainers. This is also an opportunity for the horse’s owner to meet the jockey and even pose for a photo. The trainer gives the jockey a leg up onto the horse, and the horses walk to the racetrack.
In the United States most horses go to the starting gate with a pony—an older ridden horse of any breed. The ponies are another safety measure, a way to keep an excited racehorse from running off before the race. In many other countries ponies aren’t custom, and some horses that come to U.S. tracks from abroad go to the post without one.
The jockeys warm up their horses before the race, jogging or cantering as they deem helpful for their individual horse. Stead watches the entire process from the track, searching for any signs that horses aren’t sound enough to race.
“We’re looking at how they are moving with a rider on their backs,” he says. “Sometimes that will show something that wasn’t seen in the barn area. Because they are also on a deeper surface, something else might become evident.”
The jockeys might also notice if things are amiss. They can ask Stead to look at something or even tell him the horse isn’t moving right. It’s all a process designed to be sure the horse is physically ready to race.
He watches the horses load into the gate. If a horse were to get injured at any point in this process, Stead can recommend scratching it.
Then the race begins. While the horses run, Stead follows them in a truck so he can be right there if something happens. After the race he again watches the horses come back to be unsaddled on the track, looking for anything to add to his notes.
Racetracks often keep water and ice nearby in case a horse gets overheated. Applying ice or water can sometimes keep a horse from suffering from a muscle disorder called tying-up. In addition, Stead keeps medications on hand that he can administer to help a horse in an emergency.
The grooms return to unsaddle their charges and take them back to the barn. The victor, of course, poses in the winner’s circle.
The winner and a few other designated horses then return to the receiving barn for post-race testing.
“In stakes races, it’s always the first, second, and third horses,” says Stead. “For other races it’s the winner plus a steward’s choice. Usually, it’s a random horse, but it might be a well-beaten favorite or a big longshot who ran second.”
At the receiving barn the veterinarian draws blood again and collects urine samples. Whether the horses go straight back to their stalls or spend time in the receiving barn, the grooms walk them, either by hand or on a hot-walker, until cool and bathe them before giving an evening meal.
It’s a long day, and the horses will get some deserving rest overnight and also usually for the next two days. This helps them mentally and physically before gearing up again for the next race.
Republished with permission of Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine, the official publication of the Retired Racehorse Project, which celebrates these extraordinary athletes and their capabilities as pleasure and sport horses. Join RRP and get the quarterly Off-Track Thoroughbred free as one of many membership benefits at retiredracehorseproject.org/join.