As I prepare to ring in the New Year, so too turns my inevitable focus to the "Road to the Derby" prep races and maiden three-year-old allowance races across the country. While five months may at first appear to be a long time to prepare, when you are training young thoroughbred horses, the time evaporates rapidly, leaving the trainer only about 4 races to prepare that athlete for the first Saturday in May.
To use a human comparison, this is much like teaching a teenage girl to drive a car in New York City or a California Freeway at rush hour. While the mechanics of driving may be achievable, establishing the needed experience and confidence to complete the task is really where the "rubber meets the road."
On average, I tell my racing partners that we hope to be able to race our horses once a month. On occasion, it is possible to wheel a horse back in two weeks but it is unlikely that you could repeat that ask of the animal on a consistent basis as its muscles need to recover - eliminating lactic acids from exertion and fully re-hydrating those same muscles as well as its internal organs. Most importantly though, the horse needs the time to mentally process and assimilate the race experience. A positive experience needs to be reinforced and a negative experience must be coached and re-framed for the animal.
Many trainers will agree that the physiology, baring injury, can be the easy part. But getting into the horse’s mind is the trick. I describe traits and personalities of horses like people because sometimes they are no different than humans and perhaps this is man’s eternal affection for the horse versus any other beasts of burden. I’m not alone in these personality comparisons and descriptions, and if you spend any time talking to a horse trainer, you may often forget you are talking about an animal versus a child.
Like people, horses mature at different rates too. Typically, horses that are already racing at two-years-old have shown themselves to be quite precocious. You’ve spotted these kids at school too – showing some "x-factor" that sets them apart early. Some are affable, love the attention, are happy go lucky and willing to try anything that is asked of them. They’re often naturally talented but they don’t often know how good they are – engaging others to spar and play regardless of winning or losing.
Other horses have the natural tendency to be aggressive, to dominate, to want to be the leader, to win all the time. They are talented and they know it. They are boastful winners and very bad losers.
In both cases, you might imagine how easily either personality type’s opinion of the racing game can be changed with a bad or good experience. The affable horse, gets bumped around in the race which is scary or painful and therefore thinks" this isn’t fun, that’s not fair, I don’t like this game." The aggressive horse gives his all and gets beat and therefore thinks "I give up, I’m not good enough, or I can’t." If the aggressive horse wins, he/she may become even more aggressive ie "I don’t need a coach – don’t tell me what to do!"
All of these characteristics/personalities can often be observed in a race. Watching the race live and then watching replays are truly one of your best handicapping tools for young horses especially. I’ve stood next to countless Hall of Fame trainers and jockeys and just listened to the critique. Body language including: ear position, length of stride, nostrils, head position and tail set all speak volumes to a horse trainer.
For one example, Bob Baffert carefully observes the position of the horse’s tail among other things. The tail might be similar to our shoulders. When I walk with my shoulders back, I am energized, confident and strong. So too is an arched tail or a tail held away from the horses body - a good sign of physical fitness and confidence. Bob observes that when the position of the tail "loses form" at the half or 3/8th pole, it is foretelling of the race outcome. Baffert specifically notes as to whether the tail lowers dues to the horse tiring and weakening or if the horse is "tucking" its tail closer to it’s body which is a sign of fear. The difference is subtle but also very specific at the same time. Conversely, if the tail stays in position or further arches, the horse still has "plenty in the tank" and is ready to make his best run down the stretch. This simple body expression of the horse will give Baffert critical cues about how best to tweek his training of that animal either by adding conditioning or fitness to the tired horse, making an equipment change like blinkers or by creating training scenarios in the morning where the horse can develop more confidence in the afternoon racing.
I closely observed two races this past weekend – both horses trained by Bob Baffert. The first race was the Cash Call Futurity at BetFair Hollywood Park. Baffert’s entry was Tap It Rich, a beautiful and brilliant gray son of Tapit. Tap it Rich was super impressive in his first start – winning by more than four lengths with jockey Mike Smith aboard. As I described in one of the scenario’s above, this colt is good and he knows it. He earned his start in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and finished a respectable fifth place but he was a bad actor in the paddock, post parade and then was rank during the race. Tap it Rich might be like a Dennis Rodman – tremendously talented but tough to coach and create harmony with teammates. Baffert was wise to keep veteran jockey Mike Smith, but in his third start, the Cash Call Futurity race, the colt was again rank and apparently unwilling to execute "the play" that his coaches had drawn. At the half poll, the colt had both his tail and his head up. Tap It Rich wasted so much energy fighting Mike Smith and refusing to listen that he had little left in the stretch, faded and beat only one horse. This will be a very difficult horse to turn around. Baffert will have to establish some respect for the rider and encourage cooperation without breaking the colt’s spirit. It will be interesting to see how this horse will handle some discipline. If he learns not to resent instruction and relax, he will be tough to beat as I don’t think you will beat him if he locks eyes with another horse in the stretch – he’s a warrior but the clock is ticking!
The second race I watched and re-watched was a Maiden Special Weight starring a colt named Midnight Hawk. This colt also has tremendous natural talent – with an effortless, long stride. Debuting in December, Baffert has allowed this horse a little more time to mature. This colt was also ridden by Mike Smith. Midnight Hawk got into trouble right from the break, but this horse was "coach-able." The horse lacked a little confidence so he was happy to tune in for support from his jockey. He listened to his rider, relaxed and cooperatively moved around and in-between horses - then pulled away from the field effortlessly when asked to dig deep and sprint the last part. I loved seeing the expression of the horse when he entered the winner’s circle. He didn’t know he won, but he knew he did something right because everyone was so happy and petting him. Baffert’s challenge for this horse is simply to keep him happy and continue to reinforce that racing is fun. At this early stage, Midnight Hawk looks to be a man playing football against boys. It will be a different game altogether when this college quarterback gets sacked in a Pro Game. If the same is true for Midnight Hawk, then maintaining his confidence and developing a little toughness is key to his Derby future.