Remember, Horses Are Animals

While immersed in past performance lines, it's easy to forget that horses are much more than speed figures and troubled trips. They are living, breathing animals. They have aches and pains. They get sick. Some days they feel like a million bucks, others they wake up on the wrong side of the hay.

One of the major points I try to pound home with people in the casual seminars and in on-line chats is - "never make a bet before the post parade."

The lesson I learned on Preakness Day?

"Practice what you preach."

It's too painful to go into all that here, and the purpose of this column is to educate, not whine, so if you want to read more about my Preakness misfortunes, "like" Horseplayer NOW on Facebook and link to my blog.

The biggest advantage to attending the races live at Arlington Park is your ability to head down to the paddock and eventually to the rail on the apron to get a close-up look at the competitors for each race.

Especially with young inexperienced horses, it's important to see how they are handling their surroundings in the walking ring. Are they calm and professional (good) or nervous and upset (bad)?  Do they look alert and interested, or dull and indifferent?

A horse's attitude can change a lot between the paddock and the racetrack. A disinterested racehorse could very well perk up once their hooves hit the track and they realize they're about to compete.

Positive signs: 

  • Overall alertness. On their toes, nudging the pony. Prancy, but not too prancy.
  • Well defined muscle tone.
  • Fluid gait.
  • Satellite ears -- twitching back and forth like a satellite dish.
  • Confidence. A horse with their neck bowed feels invincible.
  • Shiny coat. One that glistens in the sun. Dappled out, like freckles on a human.
  • Front bandages off. Sign that a horse is getting over some physical issues.

 Negative signs:

  • Sweating on a cool day. Look for a frothy substance on the neck and kidney area. It's a sign of nervousness. Sweaty horses are said to be "washed out".
  • Front bandages on for the first time. Often a sign of a horse having some physical issues. Proceed with caution.
  • Dull and disinterested. Walking with their head down like they just woke up from a nap. This look is not nearly as negative with classy, seasoned veterans who have been to battle many times and understand their job.
  • Rambunctious. Horses who are overly excited are wasting valuable energy.
  • Teeth chattering. Sign of nervousness.
  • Choppy gait. Sign of a "sore" horse.
  • Incessant tail swishing. Sign of being mad or upset.
  • Are they fat? Don't laugh! Horses returning from a layoff carrying a lot of extra weight probably need a race or two.

 Learn to read:

  • Horse relieving themselves. Often a sign of nervousness, but if done causally with other positive signs, don't read too much into it.
  • Early warm-up. When a horse breaks off of the post parade early to warm up, you can look at it a couple of ways. A) A horse in good form warming up away from the pony is professional, and often times talented. B) Cheaper horses may be trying to work the "kinks" out before the race. Not a good sign.
  • Tiny horses often handle off-tracks best. Not an issue at Arlington, where the Polytrack is never sloppy.
  • In sprint races, look for horses who are built like a Mustang - compact, big chest and hind end.
  • In route races, look for a horses who are built like a Ferrari - sleek, long and athletic.
  • Horses who like turf often have big, wide, paddle-type feet.
  • Post parade appearance is extra important for horses returning off a layoff. Based on all the factors we discussed, do they look race ready off the bench, or do they look like they might need the race?
  • Young horses don't have a lot of miles on them, so chances are most of them are going to "look" good physically.
  • The more professional they look and act, the better chance they have to run a big race. Remember, they're still learning their trade.

Horses can be upgraded or downgraded based on how they look and act on race day. You might not like a horse very much on "paper," but physical hints are ones that should not be ignored.

When betting a racetrack I'm not familiar with, particularly those with a lesser caliber of racing, I often toss out the past performances and bet solely on post parade looks. You can come up with a lot of bombs that way!