Normally, when you get a call at 2 a.m. it’s terrible news! But if you’re in the Thoroughbred business and waiting for your mare to foal, it’s often an exciting announcement — maybe even the first time you will lay eyes on a future Kentucky Derby winner. Going down to the barn on a cold spring morning to witness the foal take its first steps isn’t the beginning of this story, though. An incredible amount of time, passion and manpower (plus a lot of good luck) guides your horse from its birth in the stable to the first Saturday in May. We wanted to give you a brief peek into the Thoroughbred industry and the storied lives of the horses you might place a few dollars on tonight!
The journey begins with the breeder. And just like a successful souffle recipe, the timing and ingredients must be absolutely perfect to create an exceptional racehorse. Breeders must research generations of the potential foal’s pedigree, looking for past matings that have produced winners while considering the physical attributes each side may contribute. Stallion farms make their studs available from mid-February to the end of June, and once pregnant, a mare will carry a foal eleven-plus months. Sometimes a mare doesn’t “catch” (become pregnant), so the owner must ship her to the breeding shed two or three times — and still there is no guarantee of success. But this is only the first of many gambles in the long road to the Derby.
Once pregnant, or “in foal,” the mare returns to her farm or boards with another farm specializing in her care. A team of vets, farriers and grooms care for her and the foal as she nurses it through the summer and up to weaning time. This is one of my favorite times of year — when I can watch all of the babies frolicking in the fields together and starting to get braver every day, running in circles around mares as they graze.
However, this is also a very dangerous time for the young horses. Foals are extremely susceptible to infections, injuries and even sudden dangers like lighting strikes. This is why young Thoroughbreds have so many people caring for them, making sure they are fed, watered and vaccinated properly — and any cuts or scrapes, swellings or fevers are treated promptly. In fact, dozens of individuals share responsibility for their health and well-being during the most vulnerable stages of their lives.
Early fall offers several paths for the foals to take. Some will go to public auction as “weanlings,” a term meaning they’re no longer reliant on their dams. Others will stay on their home farms to await training, grouped with other horses of the same age. And sadly, most won’t head to the track at all. But luckily through various aftercare alliances in the industry, these horses are usually placed in homes where they can be trail riding or performance horses, therapy animals or just beloved pets.
For the select few that make the cut — whether put through auction or kept by their breeders/owners –their training will begin in the fall a year after they are weaned. Here the process becomes extremely vigorous. The owner must carefully decide which trainer will best suit the horse and whose communication style best fits the owner. Once again a large team assembles; the trainer has assistants, workout riders, vets, grooms and farriers that will chart, project and monitor every move the horse makes going forward.
Even naming a horse is a complicated process! You must submit your selections to The Jockey Club, who has a strict set of rules — no more than 18 characters in length, can’t have commercial or artistic value (i.e. named after something copyrighted or a well-known business) and also can’t be the same as another famous horse like Man O’ War or Secretariat; this is akin to retiring a jersey number in sports. Some owners will submit hundreds of choices every year in order to name a few horses, and a lot of the best names will be words reflecting the names of both the sires and dams.
The Road to the Kentucky Derby
Once the horse has been trained and cleared for racing, the trainer and owner select a maiden race for its participation. This means that the horse has never won before and will therefore “break his maiden,” getting that first win under the belt and starting its racing career. The Derby is an interesting goal — one that most trainers aspire to — but the race itself has an interesting qualification process.
The Derby offers 20 openings; a point system from a series of two races determines these twenty runners. The system breaks down into two phases: the first phase is the Kentucky Derby Prep season, which runs from the late fall into the early spring. The second, called the Road to the Kentucky Derby, carries much higher points for wins and placings and includes the traditional prep races such as the Arkansas Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Wood Memorial.
These are all important predictors for who will take home the roses — many of these horses will race against each other before the Derby. And while one may have a huge win in the prep race, anything can change come Derby day. For instance, it looks like we’ll have a sloppy track this year! Variables from surface conditions to how far they’ve traveled to get to Louisville to how recently they last raced can all be a contributing factors affecting their chances.
The Main Event
Whether you’re at Churchill Downs or you switch on NBC around six pm today, you will see the large groups of people doing the ‘walk over’ from the backstretch, bringing the horses from the barns to the paddock to be saddled. Owners, trainers, racing managers, bloodstock advisers, grooms, hotwalkers and exercise riders, select friends, family, office employees — they are just the tip of the iceberg of the unseen army of individuals with a rooting interest in each horse.
The night-watch man that foaled the horse; the vet tech that gave him immunizations; the bloodstock agent who sold the breeder its dam; the van driver who drove the horse up from Florida last week; the groom who hot-walked him in on brisk mornings; the jockey’s agent who secured the jockey his first Derby mount; the farrier who specially made his shoes… They too are all cheering for their favorite horses from a location other than Churchill Downs, in all likelihood already working on next year’s crop. Stopping for a moment to watch the race on their phone or to crowd around a TV in the tack room.
The Jockey Club estimated that around 20,000 foals were born in 2015. And of them, only twenty get to walk the stretch to My Old Kentucky Home today — and of those twenty only one will take home the coveted garland of roses. Only 143 horses in the history of racing are Kentucky Derby winners; it’s an exclusive club if you’re a horse, but we love to think of the plethora of people who can share in their victories. That is why today we’d like to toast our Mint Juleps to all of the men and women that make the dream of the Derby’s two minutes of glory a reality!
A special thanks to The Tony Leonard Collection for the amazing historical photos!