How You Pick a Great Racehorse
Our equine analyst Jeffrey Seder reveals to us the most critical components of choosing a winning horse.
THE LEADING FACTORS: HEARTS, LUNGS & GAIT
After years of research, Seder has identified his critical area.
“We immediately found the heart’s really different in the really good racehorses that in the average racehorse, in a lot of ways.”
In general, a horse with a bigger heart is more likely to succeed because the heart is stronger and can pump more blood throughout the body. However, determining the actual size and strength of the heart, measuring the organ and its ability to pump blood during a race has been fraught with challenges.
“When we started out, there were transducers and ultrasound machines in big universities, but we needed to go into stalls at race tracks and at barns,” he recalled.
The big devices didn’t work, so Seder built his own devices.
“We used parts from an Apple 2C, and stuff from a defense contractor,” he said. “We had to go down around Washington D.C. and get black box stuff, and put it all together. We programmed in machine language to make the goddamn thing work.”
Another critical factor involves the horse’s lungs and ease of breathing while racing.
“We built a mask to go on the horse, and to get him really working, we put him in a pool in a sling,” Seder said. “We were going to collect the gases, so that we could do the equivalent of what they were doing with human athletes, and finally got a weather balloon to catch all this gas. It turned out that their lung capacity was immense. It was a thermal regulation thing; it wasn’t just to oxygenate the blood.”
The high lung capacity changed their training recommendations.
“To try and train their lung capacity, the way that we do for humans, was silly,” he said. “We were creating pulmonary hemorrhages and all kinds of injuries and attitude problems.”
Finally, they developed new machines and techniques to gauge the horse’s breathing, even while they were running on the training track. But perhaps the easiest factors to test and measure were apparent on the slow motion videotape.
“Until they get the stress of the exercise, you don’t see whether it’s really going to work in racing or not,” Seder said of a horse’s gait. “A horse may walk fine, he may even slowly cantor fine, but when he gets really rocking and rolling, it may all go to hell.”
In the empty stands at Timonium, Seder and his team had mastered their setup. There were a few cameramen to record the galloping horses in slow motion and a microphone to capture how their hooves sounded on the dirt. Behind the wires and mess of equipment, Seder himself watched each horse frame by frame while making notes and pointing to the monitor to illuminate the flaws in gait.
In one horse, he easily saw a common problem.
“Do you see how the hooves hit during the stride?” he said, pointing to the touching of hooves mid-gait. “This horse may be flying in speed, but over the course of his career, knocking those feet together in every gait and every race and every training session, he’s going to have sore feet. And when he walks out to the track to race, those feet will be in pain. It’s a small detail, tiny, but how can anyone expect a horse to win races and have a long career with sore feet?”
The hooves were not the only casualties.
“See here?” he went on, pausing the video. “This horse is whacking itself in the elbow. See it tuck it behind? It’s twisted when it does that. It comes out and wobbles all over the place, snapping all the joints. These legs are really fragile and there’s a lot of ligaments and tendons, eight bones in the knee and every stride those little bones in there are banging into each other.”
THE ROTARY GALLOP
Outside of contact, he also analyzed the way the legs moved on the track.
“This horse is doing what we called a rotary gallop,” he said, describing a shortcoming of The Green Monkey. “The motion is like around the legs of a table in order, in a circle for a rotary gallop. And it’s neither the right lead or the left lead and it makes the stride look longer and smoother, and they use it for sharp acceleration out of the starting gate and they’re not supposed to stay in it.”
During a race, the gait of a horse should change.
“With these young horses going this fast, they try to change their leads from right handed to left handed, and they can’t finish it because they’re not experienced or coordinated enough and get stuck in the middle. You can’t do this in a race. You’ll win the first half of the race and then you’ll poop out and drop back, which happens often. Most people won’t catch that.”
Another horse came down the stretch. Then another. Then five more. In total, over 600 horses were for sale. Whittling down the lot was Seder’s challenge.
“Pedigree has something to do with it,” Seder confessed. “When we look at horses, there’s a higher concentration of good horses that have the criteria we’re looking for that do come from good parents, like the top draft picks that come out of good schools.”
For the traditional take—eyeing a horse’s constitution, their personality, and on—Seder has partnered with Patti Miller, another veteran of the horse industry who was once a jockey and a leading trainer in Delaware. Together, they’ve made a complementary pair, using technology as an “overlay” to help determine what can make a great horse.
“It’s not how fast they go, it’s how they go fast,” Miller says.
As good as their approach has been, the data and heart measurements fail to quantify yet another element in a great horse. It’s an element that may be impossible to quantify. It’s a spirit, a desire, a personality, a willingness to compete, qualities that have nothing to do with large left ventricles or a good gait.
“You need pedigree,” said Billy Turner, the trainer of Seattle Slew, the Triple Crown winner and who works with Seder and Miller. “You need pedigree because it helps to overcome the flaws in the individual horse, and it helps to answer the question that all great racehorses need to have. How bad do they want it?”