Thoroughbred racing: a visit to Keeneland

October 15, 2011 • 12:16 pm

Thoroughbred” refers to a special breed of horses developed three centuries ago in England, and widely used in America for racing.  One of the premier places to watch them, and perhaps one of the most beautiful, is at Keeneland.  Opened 75 years ago right outside Lexington, Kentucky (making it convenient for me to visit last Wednesday), it’s a lovely track set among lush, white-fenced horse pastures where the animals are bred and trained.

Only Thoroughbreds race at Keeneland, and there are only two racing seasons per year: April and October. Fortunately, I was there during one of them, and my hosts at the University kindly used their influence to get me not only a special lunch in the clubhouse overlooking the track, but a box seat in the Gaines Family box.  (“Gaines” was a famous brand of dog food, and how the family became wealthy. I believe the company is defunct, and the family is involved in breeding and racing horses.)

Lunch was preceded in the clubhouse (paid for by a kindly donor) along with five “Gaines fellows”, undergrads chosen by the Gaines Center to undergo a special training program including local outreach, lots of exposure to the arts, and a long senior thesis.

Coats and ties only here, and though it was raining, and the coat of the fellow to my left was soaked, they made him wear it anyway!  I’m hefting a shot of bourbon, de rigueur for a pre-race tipple.

Luncheon was a good slice of Kentucky gentility:

. . . .and was ended by pecan pie à la mode, prepared in a skillet and liberally doused with whipped cream (note to health-concerned readers: this was not my dessert):

Before each race, the horses for that race are brought out into the “paddock”, a grassy area where they are paraded around so those who wager on the races can get a good look at them. (I think it also warms them up a bit and calms them down.) They are beautiful animals, with glossy, muscled flesh and very thin legs (more on that below).  They are racing machines, artificially selected for one thing only: to run fast. Look how thin the legs and ankles of this beast are:

The saddles are put on in the paddock, and then the horses are moved to an adjacent plot of grass where they’re quickly mounted by the jockeys.

Jockeys, of course, are small guys: you don’t want a lot of weight on a horse that needs to run fast to win.  Here’s one “jock”:

Here’s our box.  If you click to enlarge, you’ll see that it’s owned by the Gaines family.  The track, a mile and 1/16 long, is in the background.  The stands are built only along the “home stretch” flanking the finish line.

Before the race the horses parade up and down the track, probably an additional form of warm-up.  Each horse has a “guide” horse to calm it and lead it to the starting gate. They’re also trotted around a bit.

Very quickly, the horses are stuffed into the mobile starting gate, one by one, and the gates closed. Once they’re all in, a bell rings and they’re off!

These things can cover ground fast: they run about 35-40 miles per hour, which may be close to the maximum attainable for one of these beasts, since times haven’t improved over the last few decades.  (In contrast, humans can attain only about 27 miles per hour over very short distances.)

Here’s a finish: the white post takes a photo to determine the winner in a close race.  A video board showing the race, from start to finish (since you can’t see the horses on the far side of the track), is behind the post.

VIDEO!  Here’s the finish of the sixth race.  This is the first video I’ve ever taken and posted!

After the race horses return to the track entry, cooling down.  The jockeys dismount and the saddles are taken off.  I was interested to see that during the race, the jockeys never actually sit on the horse; they “stand” in the saddle.

The track is not dirt, but is an artificial composite material that looks like shredded plastic or rubber.  It’s dragged smooth by tractors after each race.

Thoroughbreds have  health issues, particularly orthopedic ones.  A huge, muscular animal runs on very thin legs and ankles, and this causes fractures.   Sadly, one horse broke its leg near the finish.  The authorities clearly knew what to do: a man was on the spot in seconds, lifting the injured leg to prevent further damage:

Animal-rights groups have denounced the high rate of injury among  Thoroughbreds.  A damaged leg is a very serious injury; as Wikipedia notes:

The level of treatment given to injured Thoroughbreds is often more intensive than for horses of lesser financial value but also controversial, due in part to the significant challenges in treating broken bones and other major leg injuries. Leg injuries that are not immediately fatal still may be life-threatening because a horse’s weight must be distributed evenly on all four legs to prevent circulatory problems, laminitis, and other infections. If a horse loses the use of one leg temporarily, there is the risk that other legs will break down during the recovery period because they are carrying an abnormal weight load. While horses periodically lie down for brief periods of time, a horse cannot remain lying in the equivalent of a human’s “bed rest” because of the risk of developing sores, internal damage, and congestion.

A “horse ambulance” quickly arrived, with two men holding a large canvas cover on two poles.  At first I thought this was some kind of stretcher, but I later realized that horses can sometimes be euthanized on the track if the injury is too severe, and I suspect the cover is to shield that operation from the spectators:

This was terribly sad, especially given the statistics that 10% of all Thoroughbreds suffer an orthopedic injury during their racing lives.  Fortunately, this horse wasn’t killed in situ, but put into the “equine ambulance” and driven away.  I wonder if it survived.

Despite the sadness, it was interesting to see a slice of life that was completely new to me.  Thanks to the people at the Gaines Foundation, Robert Rabel, a board member, and the Gaines family for making our visit possible.

50 thoughts on “Thoroughbred racing: a visit to Keeneland

  1. Not that they serve Mint Juleps, but Arlington Park (and Hawthorne and Maywood) is popular here. My old boss dabbled in thoroughbreds at Arlington and elsewhere. A similar experience may be had there.

    As a horse lover, the spousal unit makes me watch the Derby every year, although we stooped watching triple crown races for a while after Eight Belles was euthanized in 2008. Animal activists have a point, to a certain extent.

  2. “guide” horses are usually called lead ponies.

    To fail to mention the drugs that are way too often used to cover up injuries, force a faster pace and more, in TBs, is a huge ommission. There has just been a trainer convicted of drug abuse in his horses and banned from racing for 10 yrs (To be appealed?)
    The barbarism, cruelty caused to horses by drug needs trans[arency and harsher penalties. As well, the life – and death – of horse who dont make it on the track should be exposed – not a pretty picture. These beautiful animals who race their hearts out for mankind deserve better – don’t believe that they all live the green pastures life of the few you see winning the triple crown etc.

    1. As with anything where there’s millions of dollars at stake, there’s plenty of cheating going on. It’s the primary reason I’m not a big fan of any professional sport.

      1. Of course the term “professional sport” is a non sequitur. Perhaps the closest definition is the German term “Volksbelustigung.” In other words, a form of circus, often involving animals.

  3. It seems that what drives horses to run is absolute fear. So what is the fun of watching horses run around when it is against their inclination? I’ts quite a miserable show. I can understand the masochists taking part in the Tour de France, they choose this (free will, haha), but for the poor horses, where is the fun? I wish someone could explain this to me.

    As kids we collected snails, and they raced happily, 1-2 meters per hour, climbing over each other when needed, but they weren’t in a hury, driven by fear…

    1. I have owned horses all of my adult life. They don’t run out of fear. They run for the sheer joy of it; that’s who they are. If you observe horses on pasture without people around or controlling them, they graze and rest part of the time, and part of the time they RUN, kicking up their heels and frolicking.

      I’ve had people accuse me of cruelty because I show my goats, too. They, of course, are never around when we’re loading to go, watching the goats get into the trailer voluntarily. I’ve had a couple that were freaked about getting left home, who would try to show their way into the trailer.

      How much time have you actually spent around horses? L

        1. You are talking about horses enjoying a free life. One of my brothers owned horses, and he quickly developed a strong inclination against horse racing, especially of the type performed in Siena, on the cobblestones of the central piazza.

          Anyway, of course, horses love to run, just like my dog/wolf does. But you have to be a Catholic believing that animals have no soul in order to feel justified in forcing animals into racing, popular entertainment etc.

          1. Horseperson speaking here. These horses love to run, some of them even love to win. BUT that sheer will to run – and the amazing ability of the horses to actually accept “human conditions” is also what makes it so easy to abuse them. They will run even though it hurts, they will run even though they can’t feel their legs because of injections – they will run because that’s what they do. If you look at warmbloods in showjumping or dressage you’ll see them enjoying their work as well. That strange work-ethic in an animal is something we’ve bred into them. And it lies so deep now, that even mustangs who’ve been in the wild for generations can and will be tamed and work their butts off as ranchhorses and show the same strange will to do a good job. It’s almost ridiculous to see such a proud big animal just get down to work at what-ever we tell them to. And it breaks most peoples hearts to see what prof. Coyne saw at the track – animals dying/getting seriously injured because we make money on them.

            1. Good answer Trine.
              Horses, like so many other domestic animals (even some cats) will do things for humans that might cause them harm.
              It is up to the human to take care to not abuse the power. Sadly, where money is concerned, that doesn’t always happen.

              I have never been able to make money off animals. I could never breed for money or be a horse broker. It’s hard to make money as a horseperson unless you are willing to do those things.
              So my horse hobby has always been just that, a hobby (sadly, out of commission now–it does cost money, which I don’t have these days!).

              1. + 2 to Trine, and good answer Lynn, as well. I couldn’t agree more about the problems involved in making money off animals. I can find it hard to even go to pet stores at times…

          2. Really? A Catholic? Not a Baptist? Do Catholics dominate the horse racing industry? And here I thought it was huge in Arab countries too, and the born again southern states. Get over your bigotry and get back to facts.

            1. Well, it is true enough, is it not, that the Christian “dominionist” mindset runs to rampant, regardless of denomination, sect, cult?

        1. I hate that kind of breeding! And the breeding of extremely small hooves on halter-quarterhorses, the extremely dished heads of some show-arabians, colour-breeding, the breeding of dogs that can hardly breathe etc etc etc etc. It’s a disgrace! And the list of sick animal breeding just gets longer and longer every year as new fads keep turning up.
          But I can still appreciate the beauty of (some) of the animals. The thouroughbred in prof Coyne’s first horse picture takes my breath away – look at the huge nostrils of a good runner, the muscles, the alert ears and eyes. GOSH! but he/she’s a beauty. Then look at the legs and go … hmmmm. (The legs of the horse in the first picture are not extreme. There are MUCH worse examples than that. My bet is that that horse will be able to be reasonably sound after its running career, unless something bad happens.)

          1. Did you notice the pin firing on that first horse’s legs?

            By the way, I think that horse has some good bone. I wouldn’t say Thoroughbreds are bred for spindlier legs. The problem is the early hard training they get. Lots of bucked shins and other problems in youngsters.

              “With firing, generally a hot iron is used to effectively burn, sear, or destroy tissue. While often done with a pointed iron (hence, the name “pin-fire”), it also can be done using a horizontal iron bar to affect only the skin and not to extend into the underlying tendons. Alternatively, firing can be done with the iron dipped in liquid nitrogen and then applied to the horse’s leg, a procedure called freeze-firing. ”

              Absolutely delightful. Exactly what one would expect from mixing animal welfare with money.

            2. Lynn: yep, I saw the pinfiring. Sigh. He/she does seem to decent legs though – but when they’re ridden/raced at two … who knows what’s hiding in there.

        2. Thin legs are lighter.
          Light legs can be propelled forward for the power stroke more rapidly by the same muscle mass. So a lighter leg can achieve more strides/second for the same muscle mass driving it (the length would probably have to increase slightly, but it’s too early in the morning coffee to think heavily on biomechanics).
          More strides for the same muscle mass translates to faster running.
          Faster running translates to winning more often translates to more money for owners, jockeys, trainers and breeders.
          And that’s the bottom line.

          Feel free to fit any concerns about animal welfare between the bottom line and the end of the discussion.
          There may well be individual “horse-people” to whom the welfare of the horses fits into that narrow gap, but the industry as a whole (make no mistake ; it’s an industry) doesn’t have a space for such considerations. Given two equally-skilled breeders (trainers, jockeys …) one of whom doesn’t make “space” for the animal welfare while the other does … it’ll be the one who cuts the welfare closer who will succeed. The only constraint is that if more of the animals die, then more effort is wasted without return, but that’s an economic argument, not a welfare argument.

  4. I love going to the track and it’s always a mix of sweet and sour: the animals are so beautiful, but the beauty belies the cruelties noted above; there is elegance and pageantry, but also a culture of degenerate gambling that is depressing to see. Thanks for ducumenting your day at the races.

  5. One of the things I really appreciate about the American Dairy Goat Association is that their breed standards directly support the health, productivity, and longevity of the goats.

    When animals are bred for human ends, we need to be careful that it is not to the detriment of the species. When the breed standard starts causing problems, it’s time to reevaluate, IMO.

    Interestingly, steeplechasers are bred to be heavier boned, and even though there are injuries and deaths, percentagewise they are a lot less frequent because the horses are sturdier. Horses’ legs are naturally fine-boned, but breeding this to extremes, and injuring 10% of them, needs to be stopped.

    I think this is part of the reason that the racing industry is having financial problems in this country. Too many people are put off by the deaths. I, too, stopped watching racing after the death of Eight Belles. L

  6. Actually I’m surprised that the injury rate is as low as 10%. Among ballet dancers, for instance, the injury rate approaches 100% over the course of a career, and indeed many fine careers are ended by injury. I imagine something similar is true for football and other professional sports.

    Obviously the difference is that these human athletes have consented to those risks and consider them a fair tradeoff for the opportunity to excel in their art or sport.

    But presumably the horses too get some satisfaction from performing well. So if 10% is too high, I’m curious what level of risk people would consider acceptable for allowing these horses to do what they love and excel at the sport for which they were bred.

    1. “But presumably the horses too get some satisfaction from performing well. So if 10% is too high, I’m curious what level of risk people would consider acceptable for allowing these horses to do what they love and excel at the sport for which they were bred.”

      I suppose that one can take solace in the horsies mercifully not being aware of their delicate legs. Certainly, were they never conceived as a result of purposeful human animal husbandry, they’d never have it to worry about, could they ever be aware of it.

      1. …allowing these horses to do what they love and excel at the sport for which they were INbred.


        you know, whenever I used to visit the Grand Canyon, I used to watch the Wild Mustangs run along the plains nearby.

        strangely, they didn’t need to be run on a oval track.

        let’s not fool ourselves here.

        professional horse racing is for HUMANS, not horses.

        1. oh, and just to be clear, this is in response to the quote you used, not to your response to the quote, which was spot on.

        2. I wonder how many of those free-range mustangs suffer crippling injuries at some point in their lives. I’m guessing the answer is greater than zero. But we consider it ethically OK to let them run anyway.

          Of course horse racing is intended for a human audience. So are ballet and professional football. That doesn’t mean the participants can’t enjoy and take pride in their contribution or feel that it’s worth the risk of injury to do so.

          1. But we consider it ethically OK to let them run anyway.

            specious argument, since “we” don’t “let” them run.

            “We” didn’t inbreed them to be wild mustangs, after all.

            and because we indeed specifically breed (and inbreed) these horses to please us on a track, it is in fact, quite different than ballet and professional football.

            er, unless you want to contend we are specifically breeding people to produce better ballet dancers and football players, and then giving them no choice what to do?

            man, your view of this is quite… naive.

              1. Ichthyic: I agree with you about everything you say about the absurdities of inbreeding and the horrors of drugging horses. That kind of animal abuse (the drugs) should be banned immediately – or rather, the conditions that lead to the drugging should be stopped (The moneymaking, the lousy ethics of some of these breeders/trainers etc). But the fact remains that these inbred, drugged horses … they are (in)bred to run. It’s almost like programming a machine. SOME of them really do like to run. Like it’s bred into herding dogs to herd, into cow-horses to have “cow-sense” (whatever that is), the running is bred into these animals by us humans. And yes, a horse that likes running is a better runner than a horse that does not like to run, so “liking to run” is a trait that it is well worth breeding for if you want to make money on horses. What I’ve written here does not mean that I love the racing-business, it just means that I know horses, and these horses do not look frightened, scared or overly aggressive. Except of course the poor mare with the broken leg.

              2. Errhhh – sorry, it just dawned on me, that I might have missed some kind of sarcasm (other than the obvious????) in your post and thus taken it too literally??? I’m tired – sorry if I made (sarcasm-fail)

        1. one, they aren’t EUTHANIZED, fool, and two, THEY HAVE A CHOICE.

          man, it’s like you took stupid pills today.

          1. One, if a NASCAR driver suffers irreparable brain damage, and we withdraw life support for that reason, then I don’t see how that’s ethically different from euthanasia of a horse that suffers fatal injuries.

            Two, I already acknowledged that human athletes have a choice and are able to make their own risk/benefit assessments. Animals can’t, so we have to do it for them. If we want to do it intelligently, then we have to ask questions about what sort of risks we consider acceptable.

            And three, if you can’t make an argument without shouting and slinging insults, then please take it somewhere else. Jerry has made it quite clear that he doesn’t want that kind of behavior here.

            1. One, if a NASCAR driver suffers irreparable brain damage, and we withdraw life support for that reason, then I don’t see how that’s ethically different from euthanasia of a horse that suffers fatal injuries.

              for the brain impared, I’ll make it simple:

              are the jockies the same as the horses in a horse race, yes or no?

    1. The horse connection was lost in ’43 with the General Foods buy out. Burgers for doggies didn’t hit the market until ’61. See video of a Gaines-Burgers 80s TV ad which claims it’s all good beef-based stuff. Obvious nonsense.

      This NYT ADVERTISING; Dog Food Campaign article By Eric Pace [Nov 29, 1982] fascinated me:

      The General Foods Corporation has added a new product to its lineup of dog foods: a soft, moist food called Improved Gaines Burgers Cheese, made with cheddar cheese. It will be backed by over $9 million in advertising and promotion from Young & Rubicam beginning the first of the year. The campaign will include television commercials and the delivery of 50 million coupons, worth over $13 million, via on-pack, bonus-pack and off-pack distribution between the months of January and June


  7. Your day at the races wasn’t Wed., but Thurs., Oct 13th.

    The vanned off horse was Dance On the Moon in the 4th race. He suffered a severe fracture to the left front leg while going for the lead in the stretch. He was a 4yo gelding son of Malibu Moon & it was the first fatal breakdown at Keeneland since Oct. 21st last year ~ almost a year.

    Your great little video was actually of the 7th race & it went off at 4:28pm

    Age Restriction: Three Year Old and Upward
    Sex Restriction: Fillies and Mares
    Purse: $54,000
    Distance: 6.5 Furlongs
    Track Condition: Fast
    Winning Time: 1min 14.64sec

    10 Zermatt John R. Velazquez
    04 Dancinginherdreams Julien R. Leparoux
    12 Ridgester Jon Kenton Court


  8. Jerry, was this your first exposure to horses or racing?

    Just wondering because your post is such a nice primer on racing (and horses).

    The horse in the first photo you posted has some little scars on his front leg that show he’s been pin-fired. See them in neat little rows on the front of his leg? This outdated procedure seems to still be used in racing, but not in much of the rest of the horse world. For more info on pin-firing, see here: I’ve been a bit out of the horse world, but I thought the practice was about gone. I was wrong. These horses get worked hard young and end up with all sorts of leg problems.

    Racing folks seem to have some of the most crazy traditions and practices of any horse industry I’ve seen. Well, actually the Hunter people are nearly as bad. (Hunters were traditionally horses good for fox hunting, but show horses today have never seen a fox or a field and most never will).

    The track surface can make for great footing. That rubbery stuff is used in a lot of arenas now. It stinks a bit though.

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