12/05/2013 4:54PM

Eye of the beholder: What to look for before a race

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Barbara D. Livingston
Sharp observers can divine a lot of information about the readiness of a horse before a race from a number of signs.

Informed before an important race that a horse was making a grand physical appearance, Racing Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens – perhaps apocryphally – had this classic racing maxim as a retort: “This ain’t no beauty contest.”

Yet we humans, like horses, are prisoners of our eyes. Vision holding primacy among the senses, what we see automatically is judged, parsed, and weighted for value, and the scrutinizing of horses before they race has long been held dear as a handicapping tool.

And it’s true: Horses, for the most part, and especially the good ones, should look a certain way when they are led from stable to racetrack.

“Curlin, in the paddock, it looked like he was there to eat someone,” trainer Steve Asmussen said of his two-time Horse of the Year. 

A keen onlooker can gain an edge looking carefully at a racehorse. From the time a horse is led into the paddock by his groom, saddled, mounted, taken to the track and warmed up for a race, a careful observer will have a chance to glean important information.

Many horseplayers used to do just that, clustering around paddocks at major tracks, taking notes, and then scurrying to the apron to watch them warm up.

“There used to be guys that watched every horse coming over into the paddock,” said Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens. “There was one guy we called Mike the Shoe. All he did was look at their feet.”

Before simulcasting, horseplayers used to be married to a single venue or circuit. It was possible to get to know most of the horse population. Now, fewer people than ever attend races in person. When most racing fans or bettors lay eyes on a horse, they’re watching a television or streaming video on a computer. Even if a horseplayer knows what he’s looking for, it might not be visible. The question becomes how much, if at all, one should rely on one’s eyes.

Basic prerace appearance is fairly straightforward, there for all to see with minimal practice.

“I do a lot of seminars and I talk to a lot of newbies, and what I’ll describe to them is this,” said track announcer and Television Games Network host Frank Mirahmadi, an avid believer in the power of prerace appearance. “I’m not a veterinarian and I’m not a horse trainer, and neither are they, but these are athletes, and you want them to have the look that it's game day.”

General well being radiates to a horse’s skin and hair. A healthy horse almost always presents a healthy hair coat, one that gleams after basic grooming. When a horse thrives, his dapples – the web of spotted markings on his coat – become clearly visible.

Observe carefully what lies beneath the coat, the muscle and bone. You can see the outline of ribs in a fit racehorse, but there’s fine line between fit and skinny, and between fit and heavy.

People get butterflies in their stomach before an athletic competition. Horses sweat. Kidney sweat can appear as a white foam between the hind legs, a sign of nerves. An extremely nervous horse will break out in sweat all over his body before even warming up for a race.

“Butterflies are fine,” trainer Al Stall said. “Sweat dripping off their belly, that’s not good. Horses get nervous from the inside out.”

A horse that stays dry, has a rich coat, and is carrying proper weight still can give off negative signs. How is the horse relating to its handlers? Is it balky and irritated? And how is it relating to the surrounding environment? A horse that is attentive and observant without being unsettled is the ideal.

“When we took Blame to the Jockey Club Gold Cup [in 2010], the flight was grounded by weather, and we were late getting there,” Stall recalled. “We never really had time to settle in. That horse’s head came up from the minute he went over to the track and stayed up the whole time he warmed up.”

Blame was more focused on taking in strange surroundings than on getting ready to race. He was trounced by Haynesfield that day before coming back to defeat Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“Comfort – that’s what I want to see when they come over,” Stall said. “But that can mean a lot of things. They can be comfortable and on their toes. They can be comfortable and flat-footed.”

Body language

The general carriage and demeanor of a horse coming over to race, his body language, is just as important to note as any particulars. It’s what Mirahmadi called “the look.” It’s something that experienced horse-watchers come to recognize immediately but struggle to articulate.

“It is exactly impossible to put into words,” Asmussen said. “It’s more their mood than their actions.”

Michael Beychok won the 2012 Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship and has regularly been a top finisher in major handicapping tournaments the past several years. Beychok started going to Fair Grounds in New Orleans as a teenager, but he gravitated toward interior rooms of hard-core bettors who concentrated on television monitors, not horses in the paddock.

“I was hanging out with the degenerates,” Beychok said. “That’s how I came up with it. The people I was with, older guys, they never talked about how a horse looked. It was always what was in the Racing Form.”

But Beychok has spent more time around racetracks this year than he ever has before. At the Kentucky Derby, he got his first real feel of a horse radiating winning vibrations.

“I think it was the Thursday morning before the Derby, and I saw Orb come out,” Beychok said. “He stopped right in front of me. I thought to myself, ‘This horse would just devour any horse that came close to him.’ It was almost as if they were staying away from him.”

Orb won the Derby, validating Beychok’s perception. But the fact – getting back to the Woody Stephens pronouncement – is that drab-looking horses regularly win races, while gleaming, high-stepping animals bursting with energy regularly go down in flames. A horse can be having the best day of his life, but if he is overmatched by the opposition, optimal health and condition hardly matter.

“The best rule looking at an older, experienced horse is this: Does he look like he usually looks?” Jerkens said. “When you look at them in the paddock, are they doing what they generally do when they run good? If a horse is generally anxious in the paddock and suddenly he’s quiet, he doesn’t usually run well.”

That’s the thing about prerace appearance – it’s all about the individual. Take Shackleford, a multiple Grade 1 winner and earner of more than $3 million. Even a novice casting a prerace glance at him would have tossed Shackleford from contention in many of his races. The horse often sweated profusely, and he went to the starting gate for the 2011 Preakness Stakes, in which he bravely held off Derby winner Animal Kingdom, a foamy, sweaty mess.

Horses can play an opposite trick, too, sending out false positive signals for no good reason.

“Taptowne: that horse looks fabulous every time he steps on the track,” Mirahmadi said. “You have to temper your enthusiasm for horses that always have that look.”

The lesson is this: If you don’t know a horse as an individual, it’s going to be difficult to make final judgments about what appearance means. A horseplayer that dabbles in multiple circuits from a remote location has to decide how to handle such incomplete information.

“When I was concentrating on one race at a time, when I used to go to the Fair Grounds, I pretty much went to the paddock every race,” said Steve Landry, a Houston accountant who takes his horse-playing seriously, and does most of it from his home. “In the cheaper races, I was looking to see who came up in cold water bandages, who had a lip chain on, to see who’d had their legs blistered.

I always looked for signs of being nervous, and I believe more often than not it did help me. But the whole simulcast thing has changed everything. You often don’t have more than a few minutes between races. And it can be really difficult to get an idea of how horses look on the track.”

TV appearance

Broadcast technology can impose strict limitations on prerace analysis. Cameramen and directors decide which horses are shown and for how long, and the quality of a simulcast signal can distort a horse’s appearance.

“Some of the signals, you don’t get a quality look at the horses,” said Mike Maloney, a well-known professional horseplayer in Lexington, Ky. “Over time, you get a feel for how horses look on a particular signal. Some signals, horses tend to shimmer from the angle of sun, or the camera angle. Other signals, all the horses look like they have dull coats. You have to be really careful about making snap judgments on the simo signal. It’s hard to process all that. I try to be very careful.”

Maloney does not try to paint with too fine a brush. He looks for obvious positive or negative signs to either validate or contradict opinions he already has formed. When there’s live racing at Keeneland, his home track, Maloney will give more weight to what he sees in the paddock and warm-up. Playing simulcasts, he’ll ramp down the importance of what his eyes might say.

“I think people sometimes overanalyze what they see on video,” said Bob Bone, a California-based horse owner and gambler. “If something’s completely washing out in the post parade, sure. But horses are like humans – they have their good days and their bad days.”

Bone said he feels he lacks the eye to make betting judgment based on what he sees onscreen, but that does not mean he finds such information unhelpful.

“The races I like best to play are the cheaper maiden-claiming races, and in those there are so many horses you can put a line through,” Bone said. “You walk over to the paddock at Tampa for an $8,000 maiden claimer, and you can cross off half the field.

There’s a skinny one. There’s a fat one coming off a farm that doesn’t look like he’s quite ready. That’s not my strength, seeing that, and I’m not there, but I do have trainers across the country, and if there’s one I know who’s in a paddock and looking, someone who has a good eye, I’ll call them up.”

Most horseplayers do not have an arsenal of horsemen to ring up for firsthand appearance information, but major racetracks have started attempting to provide something similar, acting as on-site eyes for remote horseplayers. Jill Byrne, Churchill Downs’s racing analyst, delivers prerace handicapping from the paddock, often augmenting opinions she’s formed handicapping on paper with what she sees in the flesh.

“The paddock, that’s basically my office,” Byrne said. “If I see a horse that I picked on paper and I don’t like anything about the way he looks, I will let people know that.”

Maggie Wolfendale of the New York Racing Association appears on the NYRA broadcast specifically to report paddock observations. Wolfendale, the daughter of a trainer, gallops horses in the morning and keeps notes on the appearance of all the horses she sees in the afternoon.

“I’m watching horses all day long,” Wolfendale said.

Wolfendale is like the old, studious one-track horseplayer familiar with all the veteran stock on a circuit. When she attempts, say, to judge the amount of weight being carried by a horse returning from a long layoff, she can refer to the way a horse looked months before to make that call.

But for all her time spent looking at horses, Wolfendale hesitates to make definitive judgments when she, like so many bettors today, is watching from a remote venue. “I can guess, but I’m 10 lengths behind,” she said.

Still, people can’t seem to resist the guessing, and the “beauty contest” approach Stephens derided long ago will not disappear as long as folks go to the track. The compact viewing area in Hawthorne Race Course’s underground paddock was crammed with fans the evening of Nov. 30 as nine horses walked round and round before the $350,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup. The easily recognizable hardcore regulars – guys who might take up the same spot for the third race on a Wednesday afternoon – craned from their tiptoes, tight-lipped.

But most onlookers were more casual fans. A large group of them kept up a running commentary on the scene unfolding before their eyes. “The 1 is huge. Look at him!” “I like the 9. He’s on his toes.” And on it went, no one mentioning the number 3 horse, Last Gunfighter, the 4-5 favorite who won by a length.

Tyler Mathis More than 1 year ago
In cheaper races I always pay attention when a local horse gets fractious, dumps his jockey in the post parade, breaks through the starting gate, etc...if behavior of this type is observed I get to the window in a hurry and play, and it pays. Many may think this crazy, but those who have been around long enough have seen too many of these horses who have "wasted their energy before the race" keep up said energy all the way to the wire. In many of these cases it wouldn't surprise me if performance drugs are in use, especially because I'm talking cheaper races (I'd never bet a stakes horse who broke through a starting gate). When it comes to skullduggery, horse racing has no more legitimacy than the stock market.
Michael More than 1 year ago
Best article I have read on this subject. I play strictly by observing horses, no handicapping whatsoever, and have a long time record of being a profitable player this way. Since it is a pari-mutuel game, having a skill only a tiny part of the betting public has creates many overlays.
Thomas Cook More than 1 year ago
Too much info to write about properly. This isnt even a rough draft. But nice try.
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Thomas Mcdonough More than 1 year ago
Maggie Wolfendale and Michelle Yu are the best-put the guys to shame-Maggie could stick to paddock appearance and conformation and leave the handicapping (layoffs, past, performances, etc.) to the viewers.
Frank Leverone More than 1 year ago
Maggie Wolfendale does an excellent job with her analysis. The fact that she is non-commital is okay. I remember one time when she noted that the favorite was equipped with a run-out bit which, on TV, I did not notice. When the horses hit the club house turn, sure enough, the favorite headed for the outside rail despite the bit and was done. She also mentions how a horses body type lends itself to the particular race which I think is helpful; long and leggy for routes vs. compact and muscular for sprints. I would add one other body type that I think is userful - small, well balanced horses seem to do well in turf routes.
Richard Catalano More than 1 year ago
i've been watching horses for 45 yrs now, i' disabled now and don't get to the track,nyra dooes an ok job but maggie wolfendale is terrific with her insigts, and yea i wis the show better angles in the post parade,it helps! good article keep it up
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love to go to the paddock to watch the horses I look for many things and find it helpful I wish I could see more when I am at OTB . Would NY show more of the horse and less of the pony taking him to post It seems the camera is often on the wrong side of the horse.
Matthew Ellis More than 1 year ago
Good article ! Along with final odds the final bit of information to be gained before race. Definitely a skill but very effective in judging horses fitness and energy level.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Took me a long time to start to see the signs of a fit racehorse(i.e. body language, dappled out, focused in the paddock etc.). It's not always accurate, but it's another piece of the puzzle, when handicapping. It's a supreme joy when the standout horse in a race,,happens to be your horse. Conversely ,as an owner ,you can identifye who your horse's competition may be. I check the paddock when I go to my local racetrack.i also had the opportunity to attend a yearling sale with an accomplished trainer and gained a much better understanding of conformation .He pointed out flaws in conformation which help me visually identifye horses that can be disregarded for handicapping purposes. I found this article helpful .