07/04/2013 11:20AM

Blinkers: A closer look at their impact on racehorses

Justin N. Lane
Palace Malice wore blinkers for the first time in the Derby and unexpectedly set a fast pace before fading to 12th. With blinkers off in the Belmont, he stalked and won by 3 1/4 lengths.

Palace Malice broke from the gate on the lead in the Kentucky Derby. He raced head and head with Goldencents down the long frontstretch through an opening quarter-mile in 22.57 seconds and, leaving Goldencents behind, roared through a half-mile in 45.33, one of the fastest Derby splits ever. Even as Palace Malice was leading the Derby, all was lost.

“Around the first turn, that was the ‘oh no’ moment,” said jockey Mike Smith, riding Palace Malice in a race for the first time. “That was when I knew this wasn’t going to work out very well.”

All year, Palace Malice had been starting slowly, racing from behind and in trouble. The colt possessed speed − he nearly won a five-furlong race early in his 2-year-old season – and suddenly, there it was again in the Derby. Why? There was the screaming crowd, the slapping of hooves on a sloppy, sealed racing surface as loud, Smith said, as gunshots. But most important was the nylon and plastic apparatus Palace Malice wore on his head.

Todd Pletcher had fitted Palace Malice with a set of blinkers for the first time. Blinkers, plastic eye cups attached to a nylon hood, are so common on the American racetrack as to escape notice much of the time, but Palace Malice’s runaway-train act showed how potent their effect can be. Blinkers keep horses from seeing what nature meant them to see, which is just about everything. The hood’s effects are varied and not always easy to predict. They can turn an anxious horse docile, a docile horse anxious. They can cure bad habits and create new ones. Blinkers added can produce one set of effects, blinkers off another. Astute horsemen are tinkerers, and blinkers are a tinkerer’s delight. Pletcher, seeing Palace Malice’s radical reaction to blinkers, took them off immediately. Five weeks later, Palace Malice won the Belmont.


“Blinkers channel their vision, cut down on the scope of their sight,” Pletcher said. “Some horses see everything out there, from the bushes on the track to the grandstand and the poles. Some are distracted. Some are scared. Some are scared running next to horses. It’s all instinct. You look at a bush by the eighth pole, and to you it’s a bush by the eighth pole. To a horse, it’s a panther.”

In tinkering with a horse’s field of vision, though, one trifles with nature. Horses are awesome at smelling, with olfactory systems finely tuned like a dog’s. Keen hearing and a nearly panoramic field of vision add to a survival system based on flight, not fight. Horses don’t see as sharply as humans – their average vision is pegged at 20/60 rather than 20/20, and they can see a limited color range – but horses’ eyes protrude from the side of their head and create a vision field covering everything except what lies directly behind them, and a small space right in front of their face.

“A Thoroughbred hundreds of thousands of years ago was out on the plains or the prairies or the steppes spending most of the day munching,” said trainer John Gosden, who is based in his native England but learned the American perspective on blinkers during his years as an assistant and head trainer in California. “That’s why the ears go back and forth: They’re always listening and watching, particularly laterally. Their reaction is to get out of there or to wait for the other members of the herd. With blinkers, you’re changing a few millennia of evolution.”

Put yourself in Palace Malice’s place during the Derby. Straining to use his full range of vision in response to the wet track, the loud-pounding hooves, the crowd noise, Palace Malice had his senses overwhelmed. That’s the odd thing about blinkers: They might panic a horse, or they might keep a horse from panicking. Even if he races at a pace less than furious, a horse filled with instinctual anxiety, often induced by looking around too much or seeing something unusual, can’t perform optimally.

“You want to keep a horse from panicking,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “That’s what you have to worry about with the horse, what you think about with blinkers. Lactic acid kicks in when they turn for home because they panic. They might be dead fit, but if they get to panicking, they’re out of gas.”

Palace Malice always had trained like a good horse. Before the Derby, Pletcher saw talent there that was going untapped during races.

“Blinkers are for when you think they can do more, and when you think they can do more, you look to make changes,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “Most of the time, it’s basically when you’ve hurt your feelings over, ‘I thought you were better than that!’ ”

Asmussen’s father and mother trained Quarter Horses, which is where Baffert’s training career began. Baffert estimates he raced 90 percent of his Quarter Horse starters in blinkers.

“You want Quarter Horses to be so focused,” he said. “The break is so important: No break, you have no chance at all. You want them looking straight down that racetrack. It’s a controlled runaway.”

Asmussen wanted to distance himself from a Quarter Horse background and prove he was a Thoroughbred trainer. That sometimes kept him from trying blinkers. “I’m not as hard-headed about it as I used to be,” he said. Still, Asmussen continues to harbor a thought – one long associated with blinker use – that tells him a genuine racehorse who fully understands racing doesn’t need to be coaxed into anything by means of the hood.

“I had no temptation to ever put blinkers on Rachel Alexandra or Curlin,” he said. “I think true competitors want to see what’s coming.”

Asmussen’s sense of blinkers as a crutch comes straight out of the European school. Blinkers used to be called The Rogue’s Badge overseas. The application of the hood stood about one step above gelding a horse, an admission the animal could not fulfill his potential through his own force of will.

“It used to be a major statement, a question asked whether the horse is genuine, whether the horse is honest,” Gosden said. “It’s a negative against the horse.”

PHOTO: Secretariat in his trademark blue-and-white hood and blinkers.

But Gosden understands what created different perceptions of blinkers in the United States and Europe. For the big, open turf racecourses of Europe, some with homestretches a half-mile long, a horse’s training revolves around relaxing and conserving energy early in a race. Most European races are run faster on the back-end than the front, the opposite of American-style racing on smaller ovals with shorter stretch runs that leave little time for relaxed, come-from-behind runners to make up ground.

“Racing on dirt ovals, speed from the gate and position is much more important,” Gosden said. “In the U.S. − and I’m going back now to what has traditionally been the way − I would and other trainers would use blinkers to just help focus the horse. It’s very noticeable that some of the all-time great American horses ran in blinkers: Secretariat, Northern Dancer. It was never regarded as a slight on their character or ability.”

Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens recalls seeing fields in the 1930s and 1940s at least half-full of blinkered horses. The trend toward blinker use has waxed and waned over time, said Jerkens, who runs fewer horses in blinkers now than he ever did before and wonders how often the change is made merely for change’s sake. 

“I had an exercise boy once, and every time a horse wouldn’t win, he’d say, ‘Let’s put blinkers on him!’ Lots of time, it’s just grabbing at straws. It’s like tongue ties and a lot of things, in that it can be overdone,” Jerkens said.

Oscar Barrera was a trainer who won races in New York at an implausible rate during the 1980s. Horses claimed by Barrera often demonstrated remarkable improvement. “When he claimed a horse that had blinkers on he took them off, and if they didn’t wear blinkers, he’d put them on,” Jerkens chuckled. Barrera wasn’t the only trainer to use a hood as a feint. “Woody Stephens, he put blinkers on a horse one time to make people think he was going to the front; what he really was doing was taking back.”

HORSE-EYE VISION: The field of vision for a horse without blinkers.

Even Jerkens found good use for specific types of blinkers. It took an extension cup over the left eye to keep Prove Out from his habit of badly lugging in when he raced. But Jerkens took the extension blinker off Prove Out the day he beat Secretariat in the 1973 Woodward Stakes. “I took the blinkers off him because it was 1 1/2 miles, and I wanted him to relax,” Jerkens said.

The extension blinker is the most radical type of blinker, used as a last-resort for horses prone to serious lugging in or out, or other unpredictable behavior. Some horses decide it’s a good idea to make a sharp right or left turn upon being dispatched from the starting gate: They may benefit from a blank view out the side of one eye.

“I’ve claimed few with extension blinkers,” Asmussen said, “and that’s not something I choose to change. I’ve found that with extension blinkers, if they’re there, they’re there for a good reason.”

Just below the extension blinker in terms of severity sits the full cup, which strictly limits the scope of a horse’s vision. Baffert’s Preakness and Belmont winner Point Given made a practice of rearing up without warning, and he raced in full-cup blinkers with holes cut out. Most horsemen using larger blinkers prefer them to have holes: They might not want a horse looking at his competition throughout a race, getting anxious, but believe that a horse needs to be able to see a rival to respond to his challenge.

French cups, like Palace Malice’s, are the most commonly used blinker, affording a horse a wide view of what lies in their forward field of vision without the lateral and rear distractions. Pletcher said he nearly always uses a French cup when employing blinkers; Asmussen uses about 75 percent French cups.

Below French cups are the slimmest blinkers, called cheaters, which are deployed on horses in need of a tweak, not a major alteration. The Baffert-trained Game On Dude, one of the best older horses in training, used to wear something like a three-quarter blinker cup, but now runs only in cheaters.

“He runs with a little tiny cup, just so he can’t look back and see the rider, which distracts a lot of horses,” Baffert said. “Speed horses, you want to keep them focused.”

European attitudes toward blinkers have softened in recent years, with more trainers willing to experiment with the equipment, particularly since a cheater-style blinker, called a cheek-piece, was introduced about six years ago. The cheek-piece is just a thick length of sheepskin that attaches to the bridle, acting like a cheater blinker to stop a horse from looking at his rider or finding other distractions behind him. Ruler of the World just won the Epsom Derby for trainer Aidan O’Brien wearing cheek-pieces.

“They make a horse a little like a Christmas tree, but I quite like them,” Gosden said.

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The simple act of donning blinkers can act as a trigger, a signal that something more than slower, routine, daily exercise is expected. “There’s definitely an associative reaction in some horses,” Asmussen said. “You stick a pair of blinkers on them and they lose 10 pounds in the paddock. I claim horses, and if I feel a horse’s disposition changes as soon as you put blinkers on, those are blinkers-off horses for me.”

Most trainers avoid using blinkers on unraced horses. They want youngsters to grasp fundamental lessons, not be tricked into performing them. But for some horses, distractions impede fundamental learning. Shanghai Bobby, the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, debuted in blinkers and has worn them in all his races.

“It was taking longer than it should for him to learn things, and he was spooking from the same things all the time, so that was a pretty easy call,” Pletcher said. “If it’s more subtle, I like the horse to figure it out, because at the end of the day, it gives a horse more options where to settle in races.”

Racing a Kentucky Derby starter in blinkers for the first time has only happened nine times the last 25 years. Pletcher has been the trainer in three such instances: Flower Alley, who had been second in the Arkansas Derby, finished ninth in the 2005 Kentucky Derby; and the filly Devil May Care, adding blinkers after a win in the Bonnie Miss Stakes, finished 10th in 2010. Those blinker choices bore fruit later in the year as Flower Alley won the Travers wearing blinkers and Devil May Care won two important Grade 1’s.

Jockey Garrett Gomez told Pletcher that Palace Malice would have won the April 13 Blue Grass Stakes rather than lose by a neck had the horse not been distracted by tire tracks in the homestretch, and Pletcher said he had toyed all winter with using blinkers on Palace Malice, a curious horse with a wandering gaze. Palace Malice, with Smith up, worked a quick half-mile April 27, his final Derby work, wearing blinkers at a fast pace for the first time.

“I hate doing that in the Derby, but I thought it was time for the change,” Pletcher said. “We worked him, galloped him − he seemed relaxed and fine.”

Pletcher said he still isn’t convinced blinkers alone were Palace Malice’s Derby undoing.

“There’s no way to prove it, but I think the way he ran was about the atmosphere and the surface as much as anything,” he said. “I guess I’d rather have this regret than have something like the Blue Grass happen again.”

Palace Malice hasn’t been fitted with blinkers since, though Pletcher said he might have tried them again had Palace Malice been pointed to a shorter race, not the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. But his hood’s effect rippled through the Triple Crown. If Palace Malice hadn’t run off, maybe the Derby pace would’ve been significantly slower, the race not setting up perfectly for late-running Orb. Maybe Palace Malice himself would have been part of the final decision: He looked just as talented as Derby winner Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow when he came back, blinkerless, to capture the Belmont by more than three lengths.

On the other hand, Palace Malice might never have won the Belmont had his trainer not started tinkering with equipment. Smith got only a helpless feeling as Palace Malice continued accelerating into the first turn of the Derby. In the Belmont, he got nothing but positive vibrations from his mount.

“In the end, what maybe was a good thing about adding blinkers the one time, he was really aggressive again in the Belmont, but he was manageable this time,” Smith said. “He was really more focused without them, but those blinkers got him out of a cycle. They really woke him up that day.”