How To Pick a Winning Kentucky Derby Contender

Posted by Loren Hebel-Osborne on Fri, Aug 2, 2013 @ 16:07 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 the “X Factor” in both people and animals, but most agree that you will know it when you see it.

     Horses will start giving 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 specific. They are eager and “pumped,” “on their toes” and dancing. Again, think about how you saw Muhammad 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 Derby horses will e shiny, beautiful coats and will have great muscle definition. 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 excellent sign that a horse is in great health. If you can see dapples even on the rib cage, this horse is in peak condition.

     Horses that are nervous or fearful about the upcoming race will often have erratic ears or ears pinned flat back. They will often swish their tails in an east/west direction and will likely sweat. While some sweat is acceptable between the back legs and on the neck, you don’t want to see sweat over the whole body. And 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.

     Once in the paddock, look for those individuals who look like the football 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 walk into the paddock. You want to see a free swinging shoulder with a large range of motion. Importantly, watch the back feet. You want those back feet to step right into the footprint left by the front foot. This “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. For people, this is when you stand 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? This week, there have been many of us observing all these clues. Does the horse have good energy? Is he moving freely and breathing easily with good air exchange? Horses whom have caught my eye include Union Rags – perhaps one of the prettiest horses I’ve ever seen. Rags has thoroughly enjoyed seeing the crowds and has been bucking and playing in his gallops. Dullahan has been the same. Churchill is his home track and he’s enjoying all the folks who have come to “his” party. Daddy Nose Best, on the other hand, is a very serious horse. He is not interested in the party – only the game. He is very focused on the job at hand, has his head well into the bridle and training like a machine. Bodemeister seems to be quite relaxed. He goes out each morning, looks around for a moment and then happily goes about his job.

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

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