Physiology of a Thoroughbred: Top 5 Aspects of picking Winner
Picking a winner is both an art and a science, one that we at Blinkers On strive to perfect. It’s a mix of physiology and physiology of a thoroughbred, a skill passed down through horse-loving families generation after generation. The process is notoriously inexact – just ask anyone who bet against Mine That Bird, the gangly little long-shot that won the 2009 Kentucky Derby!
There are a few internal bits of the Thoroughbred racing machine that you just can’t see. A horse’s heart is as big physically as it is metaphorically. The average is about 16 to 18 pounds, but Triple Crown winner Secretariat’s weighed a stunning 22 pounds! A horse’s large spleen is also a central part of its adaptation to running – the spleen stores oxygen-rich blood and releases it as a horse gets up to speed, literally thickening the blood and upping its oxygen supply.
But since you can’t take a horse apart at the saddling paddock, let’s concentrate on what you can see.
Parts of a Horse
Horses are made to run, and each part of their physiognomy is a marvel of genetics and breeding. So, from top to tail:
The horse’s nose and neck are long and broad, funneling large quantities of oxygen into the body. The shoulders and withers (top of the shoulders) are broad and well-muscled, the body long, broad, and barrel-chested to enclose large lungs, that big heart, and the precisely adapted spleen. The back and hocks are finely muscled for control and balance, the rump and stifle thickly muscled for power and speed.
A horse’s legs are stunning, living examples of precision engineering. According to a 2006 press release by the American Physiological Society, to approximate the force a horse’s legs take when they hit the ground in full stride, a human would have to balance on one finger!
To talk about a horse’s legs the layperson needs a dictionary (or at least a good source) – the portion of the leg just above the hoof is the pastern, which connects to the ankle. The longbone in the lower leg is the cannon. In front, the muscular forearm rises above the cannon, with the knee joint between and the broad shoulder above. In the rear, the hock connects the cannon to the gaskin, or upper leg, above which rises the flank and rump. For maximum stability and power, a Thoroughbred’s knee should sit squarely over the cannon when viewed from any direction, and the slope of the shoulder and the pastern should follow about a 45-degree angle.
Selecting the Horse for Your Wager: The Top 5 Indicators
- Watch a horse’s eyes. Look for an animal with a bright, calm, interested gaze. Rolling or darting eyes can indicate excessive anxiety, while lazy or dull eyes can indicate a lack of interest and a horse that’s not “on”.
- Check for white foam between the back legs and behind the saddle pad. “Fizzy,” nervous horses can be keyed up before and during races, wasting precious physical resources on anxiety instead of speed. This foam is known as “kidney sweat” and can indicate a horse that’s frightened or angry instead of ready to race.
- Look out for “washing out.” If a horse is covered in sweat, especially in cooler temperatures, you may be looking at a frightened or anxious animal that’s too keyed up to focus on the race. In hot temperatures a horse may break an honest sweat before the race begins, but if the day is mild and your choice looks like he’s already run a couple furlongs, take your money elsewhere.
- Watch the ears. A horse’s ears can help identify whether the animal is “sharp,” alert, and ready to race, or whether he’s anxious or frightened (in which case the race is lost before it’s begun). A horse that’s sharp and alert may sweat or fight, but his ears will remain pricked and upright. A frightened or scared horse will have ears “pinned,” pressed back against the head.
- Put it all together. A horse can be the perfect racing machine, but if he wastes all his reserves fighting his handlers and his jockey, he probably won’t blow the others away. A “sharp” horse may sweat, dance on his toes, even push his handlers, but his demeanor will be eager, his ears pricked, his neck arched – playful rather than fractious. An angry or frightened horse, awash with sweat, showing flattened ears, is a different beast altogether. The former can carry you all the way to the bank. The latter will sell you short every time.
Visit the paddock before placing your bets every chance you get. Watch your horse from top to tail and get a feel for his body language. If he’s engaged, awake, ready to go – but not a keyed up bundle of nerves – your chances increase exponentially.
If, on the other hand, he’s washing out, fizzy, and shows those rolling eyes and flattened ears, think again. Keep in mind, these horses can sometimes blow the competition away. But when your money’s involved, make sure to bet on a horse that’s likely to win.
Remember the kid’s song? “Head, shoulders, knees and toes…” There’s a little bit of ageless wisdom there. Hum a little tune to yourself and you may up your chances of choosing a winner. But remember… even the exercise physiologists who study physiology of a thoroughbred horses can’t pick a winner every time.
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