When you watch the Kentucky Derby, the Caulfield Cup or the Ascot, do you ever wonder how those Thoroughbred race horses are trained? Here's a look behind the scenes at how Thoroughbreds are prepared for their racing careers and how training methods differ in various racing markets. The next time you try to pick a winner at the racecourse or check out the Caulfield Cup results, you'll have the inside scoop on this most important aspect of the sport.
All Thoroughbred racehorses start off in much the same manner. Owners keep and race horses they breed themselves or purchase, usually at auction such as those held at Newmarket or Keeneland, Kentucky in the US. Sometimes a bloodstock agent will assist buyers by helping them connect with breeders that produce horses with certain qualities the owners are looking for or offering advice during auctions. Horses may also be purchased through claiming races, where prospective buyers put money down to take over ownership of winning horses.
Thoroughbred horses are bred and shipped around the globe, and their race training differs widely depending on where they are residing. There are now huge Thoroughbred venues in France, Argentina, Peru, South Africa, India, the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, to name a few. To really see the difference between training methods, it's informative to look at some of the largest race markets as examples: the United States (and Canada, which is quite similar), the UK (and Ireland), and Australia.
Virtually all race horses commence their training earlier than most other riding disciplines, at about two years of age. This can account for some of the temperamental nature of the Thoroughbred, which is likely less due to breeding and more due to the fact that they are pressed into service while their bodies and minds are still developing. It can be a grueling training process, both physiologically and psychologically, and some horses blossom into champions, while others simply aren't cut out for it.
While all race horses start competing at a young age, the emphasis in the US remains on younger horses, while there are far more races for older horses in Europe and Australia. This allows late bloomers time to develop into quality competitors and keeps horses from being forced into retirement at very young ages.
Thoroughbred owners select race trainers based on a variety of criteria including previous or ongoing relationships, racecourse access, success rates, training methods, amount of attention they give to their horses, relationships with jockeys, and price.
Many top trainers throughout the world are second or third generation race trainers and have waiting lists for openings in their barns. Also, many trainers now attend university programmes to learn the scientific aspects of equine care to enhance knowledge learned on the job.
In the UK, and in Europe in general, as well as in Australia, horses training for the racecourse are still treated more like regular horses than in the US. They are typically stalled at their trainers' barns near the racecourses and get reasonable amounts of turnout and herd time. In the US, race horses are usually stabled at the track and spend a larger percentage of their lives in the shedrow.
Training regimens in the US are different from the UK and Australia too, in that workouts tend to be shorter and take place at the racecourse, versus on public or jockey club gallops, like at Newmarket. Emphasis is on sprinting, and even longer races in the US are verging on middle distance for many European staying race horses. Additionally, Thoroughbred racing in the US is flat racing only, and very little racing occurs on grass; most races are held on dirt or on synthetic tracks (similar to the All-Weather in the UK).
The lighter training regimens, coupled with the Thoroughbred bloodlines in the US, have produced what many in the industry feel are more fragile horses with shorter careers. Recently, however, there has been a renewed interest in racing horses with more sturdiness and stamina, which has proved successful with horses of European lines, such as Animal Kingdom, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2010.
While Australian horses are trained more like European racers, there has been a tendency there to focus on sprint races recently. The under cards at races like the Cox Plate and the Caulfield Cup are full of sprints. It will be interesting to see if over time this affects the breeding industry Down Under.
Horses used at the racecourse don't generally receive the kind of detailed training horses in other disciplines get. Instead, they tend to be what is known as "green broke," meaning they respond to basic stop and go commands and perform the basic trot and canter gaits when not walking or galloping. Older horses and UK horses that compete in jumping races have a wider repertoire of skills.
Once horses have been trained to accept a rider and respond to rudimentary requests, they learn to break from the starting gate, one of the more difficult aspects of training for some of them. Many breeders and trainers have their own mini gates that they use for novice racers. First the horse is led to the gate and then gradually taught to enter the chute and remain there with the rear door closed. They are also taught to respond quickly to the gate opening at the start of a race and not to spook at the sound of the corresponding bell or buzzer. Accidents with nervous race horses do occur at the post, and they can be dangerous for the horse and jockey, as well as for the gate workers who help the horses load at race time.
A good trainer focuses attention not just on training a horse to run well but on schooling the horse in all activities of the track to minimize anxiety and make the race enjoyable for the animal. It's common to see schooling horses in and around the mounting enclosure to accustom them to the hubbub of the racecourse and other horses.
Race horses almost always train in the early morning hours while they are fresh and before the heat of the day sets in. Professional exercise riders often take Thoroughbreds through their paces, although in the US especially, many jockeys participate in morning workouts at the track. This is advantageous in that the jockey is able to develop a relationship with the horse prior to racing and discourage any bad behaviours right away. It also allows horses to work at top speeds simulating racing, which can't always be achieved with an exercise rider.
To get a glimpse of how Thoroughbreds train, head out to the gallops at Newmarket or similar jockey club estates to watch them live in action. It's quite a sight to see horse after horse, some of them national or even international champions, going neck and neck out on the fields. When you see the Caulfield Cup results this year or watch contestants cross the finish line in the Autumn Double, you can say, "I saw them breeze last week. It was magnificent!"
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