Comedians have long-used horse track lingo for one-liners and punchlines. “It’s girdle in the stretch,” comics have told drunken crowds, “and it’s gum sticking to the rail. Next up, see Filly Mignon in the Porterhouse Stakes!”
Perhaps the comedy is our culture’s thin understanding of horse racing vernacular. Gambling terms sound like fun, but most of us only know what a few of the words actually mean. Like “colt,” and “filly,” which denote genders of Thoroughbred racehorses.
But wait – what is a Thoroughbred, exactly? It’s strange to think of how many Triple Crown bettors couldn’t provide the definition. And what about equine-breeding terms such as “Standardbreds,” which readers see time and again but remain confused by all the same?
It’s time to write it all down in one place. Here’s a guide to the most popular types of racehorse breeds in America, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
Is it Western Europe, Asia, or Africa which is responsible for Thoroughbred racebooks, a billion-dollar economy built around the best breed of racehorse in the world?
That depends on how far back in time we go.
A stock of Arabian and Barb (African) horses were introduced to breeders in England in the 4th century. To encourage selective breeding of the superior bloodlines, King James and King Charles imported a total of 43 “Royal Mares” from which modern Thoroughbreds would spring. Centuries later, a total of 186 Thoroughbreds from England became the foundation of racehorse breeding in the United States.
But racing isn’t the breed’s only specialty. Many are bred for show jumping, dressage, polo, and fox hunting. Averaging 64 inches high and weighing about 1,000 pounds at maturity, Thoroughbreds are usually bay, chestnut, brown, black, or gray.
The horses get a bad deal on birthdays, though. Any track breeder’s Thoroughbred born in the Northern Hemisphere is given a birthdate of January 1st to standardize ages for racing. In the Southern Hemisphere, the animals are given a birthdate of August 1st.
Thoroughbreds: Pure Bred and Hot Blooded
Thoroughbreds are not perfect. They’re sensitive and spirited horses. Their nature can lead to thrilling sprints on the track, but also to embarrassing and dangerous situations.
Former Kentucky Derby hopeful He Hate Me won the Tremont Stakes in 2017 but “lost his marbles” during a post-race parade earlier in the year. He Hate Me’s mood swings continued and helped knock the horse out of Derby contention in 2018.
Thunder Snow is another Thoroughbred colt with a temper. He earned a post at the 143rd Run for the Roses. But the 3-year-old was thunderously upset about the track at Churchill Downs, which was wet and soggy. Thunder Snow tried to buck his jockey right out of the gate, then had to be coaxed to the finish line long after the other animals had crossed.
The horse is fine on dry, hard tracks, winning its share of sweepstakes. But high rollers won’t take a chance on him outside of races in the Dubai desert where rain is usually not in the forecast.
Famous Thoroughbreds in History
Secretariat remains the most widely-known Thoroughbred of modern times. The only Triple Crown winner to have a Walt Disney film named in its honor, the legendary colt won the 1973 Kentucky Derby with a fantastic sub-2:00 time. After a 2 ½-lengths win at the Preakness, Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by about 1/16 of a mile in what is considered the finest performance of the 20th century by a North American horse.
The most famous Thoroughbred filly of all time is Ruffian, a supremely talented racehorse who met a tragic end in the ‘70s. Ruffian won her first 10 races, to the shock of the betting world. Soon the beautiful black damsel became a symbol of women’s rights. Promoters capitalized with a “Battle of the Sexes” match-race between Ruffian and the colt Foolish Pleasure. The filly took a lead on the final stretch but suffered a broken leg and had to be put to rest hours later.
Fillies are not common at the Kentucky Derby, as female horses mature more slowly than colts.
That leads to long odds, making Thoroughbred fillies the best horse racing breed (and gender) to bet on in many circumstances.
The greatest American gelding ever was also foaled in the ‘70s. John Henry was a racehorse with a bad temper who was castrated at 2 years old in a last-ditch effort to solve his anger issues. The animal took out his frustrations on opposing runners, winning 17 of 23 races and placing in 4 others. John Henry won for 10 jockeys and raced in New York, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, becoming known as “the nation’s horse.”
Standardbred horses are found in harness racing. Standardbreds look a lot like Thoroughbreds but are a little smaller and possess flatter ribs with a low center of gravity. Standardbreds have a lot of stamina for their size. They’re built to pull wheels and not jockeys, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t plenty fast into the final turn.
The name originated in the early development of the bloodline. Wallace’s American Trotting Register began publishing in 1871 and promised trainers a listing for their prize animals if only the horses met a standard of speed.
Standardbreds are the good souls of the horse racing world, possessing a bright personality and a willingness to learn. Some farming communities still use Standardbreds for field work and as buggy horses. The animals are also common at equestrian events and horse shows.
Betting on harness racing and “trotters” is extremely popular in Europe. American gamblers have found that the sunny Standardbred personality keeps the horses from flipping out on the track as often as Thoroughbreds do.
Famous Standardbred Horses
Adam and Eve were a fine couple, but sometimes it only takes one to foster a whole new race. Messenger, an English Thoroughbred brought to the United States in 1788, is known as the foundation breeding stallion of the entire Standardbred breed.
His progeny showed great trotting ability and would go on to produce more speedy offspring. Messenger’s great-grandson Hambletonian sired dozens of talented Standardbreds in the mid-1800s, and his lineage is still dominant in harness racing.
Dan Patch is the most noteworthy Standardbred of the last 150 years, a sports celebrity at a time when harness racing ruled betting boards. Between 1900 and 1906, the dark bay stallion was so amazing on the track that owners refused to allow their animals to race against him.
Promoters welcomed the horse onto the traveling exhibition circuit, where he earned 7 figures in purses and broke world speed records in timed trials. Dan Patch even endorsed products in newspapers. Imagine if TV had existed then!
American Quarter Horse
Outback horses are the Kenyan Olympic Team of the equine world, helping their owners cross great distances and participate in outdoor sports. Meanwhile, Thoroughbreds are like mile runners in track and field. They can sprint, sure, but having the endurance of a cowboy’s mount also helps.
Quarter Horses are the Usain Bolts. Don’t bring a Quarter Horse to Churchill Downs – it’s too much track. Don’t take it on a long steeplechase – it might buck its jockey and get into the oat bag. But to get from Point A to Point B faster than even a Ferrari can accelerate? Quarters are the speed demons.
American Quarter Horses specialize in ¼-mile races, giving the breed its name. During the short sprints, some of the animals have been clocked at speeds up to 55 MPH. The “funny cars” of horse racing are not found on as many odds boards as their Thoroughbred cousins. However, that doesn’t dampen the fact that there is no animal in the world more thrilling on the run.
Quarter Horses also owe their lineage to one sire, the 18th-century Thoroughbred known as Janus. Janus was small and quick with excellent health and temperament, and his genes were combined with other studs of English-Arabian lineage to mold the Quarter Horse as we know it today.
Ironically, cowboys have used Quarter Horses as cattle animals for centuries. If a steer manages to escape the herd, a Quarter Horse is not likely to trot 500 yards and track it down.
The American Quarter Horse is the most popular breed in the world today. Its registry numbers around 3 million horses. In addition to short-track racing and cattle drives, the breed is also used at rodeos and in circuses.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Arabian, a breed with unmatched endurance. Arabians run at a slower pace on average than other animals.
But when a canyon ride, a forest trail, or another type of 50+ mile jaunt is at hand, the Arabian horse is usually the favorite to outlast the competition and win. The tortoise always beats the hare!
The Arabian is a horse with a very lean body that is sleeker and smaller than that of a Thoroughbred. Arabians are thought to have been bred in Eurasia as long ago as 3000 BC, so it is impossible to know exactly where the breed’s incredible stamina comes from.
Arabians are used in a variety of hunting, trail riding, and jumping activities, with mares historically being more active. But endurance rides are the Arabian’s calling card.
Arabians in the National Distance Championships
An endurance ride is a timed test of a horse and rider over a measured path built into natural terrain. Horses at the National Distance Championships and other endurance treks are expected to go as far as 100 miles in a day. But don’t feel too sorry for the animals. Endurance riding came to prominence as a sport in the 1950s due to the excess of phased-out cavalry horses from the U.S. Army.
Soon battle-tested beasts were taking part in a self-sustaining sport with owners to call their own. Cavalrymen already knew that Arabians were superior at carrying hundreds of pounds over great distances. Soon, the sleek old bloodline was dominant in cross-country riding.
The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and other national groups oversee horses and riders in competitions around the world. Most of the betting is left to exchanges and private deals.
There has been some controversy about the well-being of the animals in endurance competitions, but time spent with a vet on the trail is mandatory. Compared to former life in the cavalry, the Arabians have it quite easy these days.
How to Win Bets by Knowing the Breeds
An argument about which type of competition makes the most exciting bet is a dead end. “I like betting on baseball; it’s easier to win,” says one fan. “Nah, basketball is my favorite sport,” says another. Gamblers are torn between the sports they enjoy most and those that offer tasty odds. Everyone must make their own decision as to where to draw the line.
Horse racing is no different. No pair of tastes is the same, and the best breed of racehorse to bet on is in the eye of the beholder. Other than fillies and geldings getting buried by bookies before a sweepstakes, there aren’t many “gimme” picks in any breed’s specialty.
But no matter which breed is being gambled on, it’s important to understand the nature of the animals.
A newbie might not know that Thoroughbreds are subject to mental collapse. That fact costs bettors an awful lot of money every year before the Kentucky Derby.
For a horse to win the Kentucky Derby, it must run in the Kentucky Derby. Thoroughbreds can become hard to train, hard to race, and an overall pain in the neck when only 2 or 3 years old. The syndrome can hurt or kill a racehorse’s chances to go to Louisville.
The number of colts given futures markets for the Derby is always in the hundreds when the odds are released. It’s only later when things start to narrow down.
A given Thoroughbred may have a decent chance to line up and run faster than 20 other horses at Churchill Downs. But it is hard to analyze a field of hot-tempered horses and see who is likely to qualify in spring.
A horse like He Hate Me wasn’t a bad bet at long odds months before the race because there wasn’t enough information to tell whether his parade incident was a fluke. But if the long-shot advance gamble isn’t backed up with 5 or 10 other small bets on similar horses, it’s like throwing a single grain of grass seed in the dirt. Nobody knows if a Thoroughbred will keep its “marbles” and improve.
For a contrast to betting on the angry colts of America, look to France and the steeplechase breed Autre Que Pur-Sang. There is Thoroughbred blood in AQPS, but they are much more stable competitors.
Steeplechase horses also compete at an advanced age. 9-year-olds dominate 8-year-olds at the Grand National at Aintree. Betting on a wise old horse is a different kind of hunch, and a single futures bet is safer in the Liverpool race. A play on a 9-year-old gelding from France usually ends up with the horse at least qualifying and running the race as planned.
As for winning the bet as planned? That’s a whole other breed of a problem.
Horse Racing Through the Microscope
It probably seems so simple to the newbie. A bunch of highly-touted Thoroughbreds get together and race on TV, and the fastest one wins. If you bet on that one, the racebook sends you money. Right?
Well, sure. But like any other science, the sport of horse racing becomes more complex every time one looks at it closely. We have only touched on a small selection of breeds here. The world of equine racing is endless!
Don’t let the monotony of familiar tracks create the wrong impression. Horse racing is as diverse, unpredictable, and fascinating as any other genre of competitive sports.