So much has changed in the Thoroughbred industry in the past 25 years or so, the least of which is not training a race horse. Training race horses still has some basic fundamentals, and remains a crafty art, but it is very different than it was years ago.
To people who have worked or spent time on the backside, and have been around the game awhile, the changes are obvious. To those who are newcomers, or who have spent their racetrack time on the frontside, the changes are less apparent.
Race horses are athletes and have more in common with human athletes than meets the eye. While true they run naturally, when in the wild they normally run straight and in spurts. They have to be coached and taught to run in circles, and at different speeds and paces. Like a coach, some trainers are better than others. The good ones, really good ones, identify a horse as an individual and get inside the animal’s head and truly educates them. At least that is how it used to be. Today, the so-called super trainers with their large strings, often at multiple tracks, run a make or break type of program. They have too many in training to have an individualized program, but they are winning at high percentages, so nobody is complaining. The difference shows in the longevity and the number of starts in a year and over a career.
It is no secret, the old school method produced horses who lasted longer and ran more frequently. They also did so with less medications. Today, the large majority of horses in the US race on Lasix. Years ago, a horse who needed Lasix was considered a second stringer and could not even race in New York, which is where you had to run if you wanted to be champion. Taking nothing away from today’s trainers and methods, it is not the same and in the long run it shows.
Old school trainers were patient. They had non-winners in one, two, three and even four allowance races to take their horses through, while slowly letting them develop and learn the game. Today they go from a maiden, to stakes, or the optional claimer, or even the outright claimer. Today’s trainer pays close attention to their stats, specifically their win percentage, so prep races are not used like they were. This is further increased by the Kentucky Derby point system, which forces trainers to have their horse at peak level before the Derby, in order to qualify on points. Additionally, horses have to be cranked up to get in the money, in a so-called prep race, to assure them a starting place in the gate on the first Saturday in May.
In today’s game you have a much larger concentration of good horses distributed to a much smaller percentage of trainers. This creates a playing field that is anything but level for the smaller barns. When you can send your horses out in sets, primarily made up of talented and fast horses, and can train behind them, in between them, to run with, and past them. It certainly gives you an edge over the guy asking around the backside for a work mate or a free-lance rider to get on one horse. True that always took place, but there used to be a lot of powerhouse farms and barns, and that has given way to a few and a lot of partnerships with common owners pooling resources, as opposed to competing.
Today so much more depends on the Vet and Vet work a trainer has done. There are many more medications available today along with things like; shock wave therapy, laser, equine massage, and acupuncture. The barns that utilize these enhancements get better results on the whole than the barns that don’t or cannot afford to. We are not even taking into consideration those who push and even exceed the envelope. That is a subject for another day.
One of the things that has remained steadfast is teaching a horse to change leads. Many bettors do not realize how important this actually is. When a horse is racing or running, the legs on one side of their body lead, or extend farther than the others. Teaching a horse to change leads on cue is vital. Usually, because we run counter clockwise here in the US, horses are generally on the right lead on the straightaways and on the left lead on the turns. This is the natural motion anyway. A race horse will tire faster if they stay on the same lead too long. Changing on cue, or at the worst, changing is important. Think of it this way. You are at an airport carrying some heavy luggage, or at a store carrying a heavy package. Your normal inclination will be to lean on your stronger side and keep going until fatigue sets in. Then you switch arms, and your gait and there comes your second wind. You changed leads and if you watch horses do it in races, you will see that renewed energy. If you pay close enough attention, you may pick up on a next out play or play against.