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Picking a Kentucky Derby Winner: Physicality Handicapping

Posted by Loren Hebel-Osborne on Mon, Jul 21, 2014 @ 14:19 PM

One look at even an old photo of Muhammad Ali before a fight and you could see victory. Equine athletes are much the same, and the winner will show himself before a race too. Many have tried to explain this “X Factor” in both people and animals, but most agree you know it when you see it.

Reading Body Language: The X Factor


Horses will begin to give you clues during the walk-over for a race. You want to see a horse walking with purpose, pulling his handlers along, ears pricked forward in the direction of the paddock, head bowed and eyes bright, but not necessarily looking at anything in specific. They are eager and “pumped,” “on their toes” and dancing.

Again, think about how you saw Muahmmad Ali going to the ring. The winner will not be bothered by the crowd except by an occasional buck or leap, which might be similar to a human fist pump.

Most Kentucky Derby horses will have shiny, beautiful coats and will have great muscle definition, meaning the horse is in great health. What you are looking for is a coat that appears to be shining from the inside out – it will glimmer without the help of natural light (Think of a glowing pregnant mother). Dapples in the coat are another sign. If you can see the slightest dapples even on the rib cage, this horse is at a peak condition.

Horses that are nervous or fearful about the upcoming race will often have erratic ears, or ears pinned flat and back. They will often swish their tails in an east/west direction and will likely be sweating hard. While some sweat is acceptable between the back legs and on the neck, you don’t want to see sweat over the whole body. Be especially watchful when there is sweat on the top of the back called “kidney sweat.” This is a sign of a frightened or nervous horse and one should avoid betting on him.

The Telling Walk-Over

Once in the paddock, look for the horses who look like the footballs players do just before they burst through the paper sign and run onto the field. These horses know what’s coming next.

Watch the horses' gait as they move into the paddock. You want to see a free swinging shoulder with a large range of motion. Most importantly, watch the back feet. You want those back feet to step right into the footprint left by the front foot.

Kentucky DerbyThis “tracking up” is also important at the trot during the warm-up. The trot is a two-beat gait that you should be able to count. The hip range of motion should be equal to the shoulder.

A horse’s tail will give you further clues. You want to see a tail that is held away from the body or even arched. Compared to people, this is when you stand up straight and pull your shoulders back. The tail position indicates confidence, good conditioning and hind end/back strength.

Finally, observe the overall demeanor of the horse. Is this horse enjoying what he’s doing? Does the horse have good energy? Is he moving freely and breathing easily with good air exchange?

An example of a horse who has caught my eye in this way before past Kentucky Derbys is Union Rags, perhaps one of the prettiest horses I have ever seen. Rags thoroughly enjoyed seeing the crowds and had been bucking and playing in his gallops.

Dullahan has been the same. Churchill Downs is his home track and he’d been enjoying all the folks who have come to “his” party. Daddy Nose Best, on the other hand, was a very serious horse. He was not interested in the party – only the game. He was very focused on the job at hand, had his head well into the bridle and was training like a machine. 

Each of the horses I just described also described their respective trainers’ demeanors.

Horses still respect the “leader of their herd” so they are likely taking their clues from their humans and mimicking them – their stress, their ease, their confidence, and their energy levels. So if you are a better reader of people than horses, be certain to watch the trainers closely at the track too as they may be your best indicator for picking the winner!

Do you have your own tips for spotting a winner? Share them with us in the comments below.

Use These Cues to Place Wagers at the 2015 Kentucky Derby!

Kentucky DerbyNow that you know how to reading body language cues from horses, you're ready to spot a winning contender! Take the knowledge you've gained here and go forth to place your wagers on the next Kentucky Derby champion! 

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Topics: Kentucky Derby

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Kristen Doolan

Kristen Doolan was born and raised a Florida State Seminole. Making her way from Florida to North Carolina, Kristen achieved her B.S. in Business Adminstration, Marketing at The University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is an avid traveler, college football addict, beach bum and loves spending time with her family and friends. 

Jazzy Morgan

Jazzy Morgan is originally from London, England and a die-hard Manchester United Fan. She grew up in Connecticut and made the move down south in 2011 where she attended Winthrop University and received her B.S. in Family & Consumer Sciences and a minor in Marketing. Jazzy enjoys traveling, working out, reading her monthly Vogue & Cosmo and keeping up with fashion trends.

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