• Olivia G

I Bought a Race Horse

Sometimes I forget my horse used to race. Cisco enjoys spending his days eating with his friends, an older gelding and the sweetest little donkey mare, rolling, and splashing around in the water bucket, preferably right after it is cleaned. It isn’t until he tosses his head and sprints off in the opposite direction that I think about his past. As Cisco sprints around the pasture, eating up the distance like it’s nothing, his feet pounding on the hard earth, I can’t help but be amazed.

Growing up in the eventing world I was surrounded by fellow hopefuls buying OTTB’s as project horses in hopes they would discover an untapped potential and turn their horse into a master athlete. So when it came time for me to buy my first horse, it was no surprise that I chose a young thoroughbred that had been off the track for a little over a year. It may have been his thin frame, or the way he flew across the earth when he ran, but I knew he was the one. When I bought Cisco I didn’t think much about his life before he came to me. I knew he was on the track and had a not-so-spectacular racing record, but I didn’t realize the extent to which his short racing career would affect his body and his mind. I hope this short deep dive will give you an insight into your OTTB’s life before they ended up in your hands, some key health issues to look out for, and ways the industry could change to give their athletes a healthier and happier life.

A Brief History of Racing

The very first horse races were so long ago that we are unable to pinpoint exactly where they started. There were “four-hitch chariot and mounted races … in the Olympic Games of Greece… in 700-40BCE” (1), however we believe that “racing began in places such as China, Persia, Arabia, and other countries of the Middle East and in North Africa” (1). The first organized faces were created by Charles II (1660-85) in which he held the “King’s Plates; races for which prizes were awarded to the winners” competing in “two 4-mile heats” (1). Horse racing didn’t come to North America until the “British occupation of New Amsterdam (now NYC) in 1664” with a “2 mile course” (1). Skip forward and we see that the “beginning of the modern era of racing” is thought to have been “the inauguration of the English classic races: the St.Leger in 1776, the Oaks in 1779, and the Derby in 1780” (1), and has thus developed into the popular sport and business.

Chariot Racing in Ancient Greece (2)

Thoroughbreds came into the picture pretty early on. Almost all racehorses “can be traced back to one of the three foundation stallions – The Darley Arabian, The Godolphin Arabian, and The Byerley Turk” all “imported into England between the late 17th and early 18th century”(3). When these horses were bred with “Britain’s native, heavier horses, they produced offspring who were much faster, but still had great stamina – they were the very first ‘thoroughbred’ racehorses” (3). With this new breed being imported to the US in loads, and the British introducing their English Classic Races, the US thoroughbred racing industry was born. If you want to read more about the three foundational stallions, visit https://diaryofanottb.com/history-of-the-thoroughbred-the-three-foundation-stallions/.

What Life is like for a Track Horse

The average day of a racehorse consists of track training, some hand walking, possibly swimming as exercise, and a whole lot of time in their stall. For most, a day starts as early as 5 with a breakfast often consisting of oats and grain followed by a training session down at the track (4). After being hosed off, horses are cooled on the walker, a metal contraption that hooks up multiple horses at once to walk at a medium pace in a circle (4). Horses “spend most of the day in their stalls. To give the horses time out of the stall besides their training, trainers allow them to walk the stall rows or graze in the afternoon for about 30 minutes” says John Ehrmann of Newsday when describing the life of racehorse Yes Yes Yes (4). Keep in mind these athletes in training are often two years of age at the youngest. If a horse has a certain talent for racing they can continue to race up until “{retirement} around the age of 6 or 7” (5). To read a more in depth description of a day in the life at the racetrack, visit https://www.retiredracehorseproject.org/track-life/1247-a-day-at-the-racetrack-excerpt-from-beyond-the-track.

The frequency for which a horse will race vastly depends on their level of fitness, their success on the track, the breeding potential of the horse, and the injuries it may face. “On average, racehorses race seven times per year” (6). If a horse is on the fitter side, they will only need “two to four weeks to get back into running shape and be ready for his next race”, however if the horse is top-class, “he will likely be given a month between races to allow him to recover and get into peak condition after a race” (6). This is a fine line between making sure your horse is entered in enough races to make good earnings, but not too many that his body will not be able to handle it and you will have to retire him early. If you end up with a horse that is doing very well in races or has the breeding potential to win big, you will likely want to race him less to preserve his body and allow him to race longer and be more successful in races. Unfortunately, this reality leaves older horses, and less successful horses with the short end of the stick. These horses will “be raced more often than their more valued counterparts. Owners are willing to risk cheaper horses and run them on the shortest break between races to recoup expenses” (6). These horses are used to run as much as they can and earn the owners money in between big races until they can no longer keep up, when they are often given up or put up for adoption. This is a sad reality, but it is not surprising in a big industry, and the idea of running horses hard and fast when they’re young to get the most out of them is not just an idea of the racing business.

A Training Ride at the Track (7)