Do race horses care who wins?

Are they competitive? Or do they just have some animalistic notion through training: Starting gate opens, run fast. Jockey whips butt, run faster.

I would imagine they could even be trained to understand the idea that they should try to finish ahead of the other horses. But then I think they’re simply following commands learned through training and don’t particularly care.

The idea that it’s training over any competitive instinct would seem to be supported by the fact that many of the good horses that finish strong hang back in the early part of the race, I’m sure at the command of the jockey.

So, did Secretariat think, “I’m gonna go out there and kick some equine ass today?”

An interesting bit of research I ran across a few years ago (no, I don’t have a cite…sorry), found that over a certian span of time (don’t remember how long…20 years, maybe?), the average human time for various racing events had steadily dropped, while the times for race horses had stayed substantially the same.

The study concluded that one of the major reasons for the difference was the mental factor. A human can be motivated to beat another person or time, you can’t make a horse want to win.

Some do, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Typically, it’s just a bunch of horses running.

One such competitive horse was Alysheba. (He won the Derby in 1987, the Breeder’s Cup Classic in 1988.) He was an intelligent horse who rarely won by more than he had to–he was competitive enough that he liked to be able to see other horses (from what I understand, Silver Charm, the 1997 Derby winner, is much the same way). When Alysheba won the 1988 Breeder’s Cup, he was easily in the lead and half pricking his ears (a sign of inattentiveness, relaxing, “Okay, I’m in the lead, all done.”). The then 3yro colt Seeking the Gold came running up on his side, and once Alysheba caught sight of him, he flattened his ears against his head and literally jumped into a new gear of speed. His jockey, Chris McCarron, said that 'Sheba had knocked him on his butt when he “shifted” like that–Alysheba saw the other horse before he did! He ran eyeing Seeking the Gold the rest of the way, and won by 3/4 of a length.

This is why Alysheba was one of my favorite racehorses of all time–he genuinely seemed to enjoy his sport. And once again…he’s the exception, not the rule.

A 2-year-old colt is the equivalent of a 16-year-old boy–just a raging bundle of male hormones, geared up to compete for females. Sometimes the competition takes the form of fighting and biting, sometimes it takes the form of running fast. I think most racehorses, colts AND fillies, enjoy the competition, because racing against each other is something that all young horses will do instinctively, out in the pasture. The ones with the most “will to win”, that is, the most aggressive ones, are the ones singled out by a trainer for polishing up and eventual presentation at a racetrack.

And when you see a jockey using a stick in the backstretch, that’s just an “encourager”, a “reminder”. It doesn’t mean the horse is running out of fear or pain, because the stick doesn’t hit that hard. It just means the horse needs to be encouraged to stay on task. Horses have a 2-second attention span, and some of them get bored with running sooner than others.

But as far as “caring” about who wins, no, I don’t think so. Sometimes you’ll hear stable lads say, “He’s feeling down because he lost today,” but I think they’re just projecting their own emotions onto the horse.

Well, I think race horses DO care who wins, at least the same sexes do while the race is going on.

First of all, horses’s brains are pretty much hardwired to run like hell and try to be the first in any group of horses. If you’re in a group being chased by a pack of wolves or fleeing a fire, where is the safest place to be? In front. So, the ‘competitive spirit’ that makes horse racing possible is a simple survival trait.

Now, why should they actually care if they are first or second, as long as they were faster than the danger they were running from?

Horse herds always have a pecking order - dominant stallion who must compete with other (usually younger) stallions to maintain his position, and dominant (or lead) mare who bosses the other girls around. Along with these positions come both responsibilities and privileges.

Much of the interaction between horses involves affirmation or challenges of pecking-order position. There are several aspects to the ‘horse in the lead’ competition.

Most of the time the dominant mare actually ‘leads’ the herd. She picks which direction they will travel, where they will stop for food and water, WHEN they will stop and for how long, what trails they will follow, etc. While these are important decisions at any time, they are especially important on the rare occasions that the herd is fleeing predators, fires, etc. Having an inexperienced or panicing mare take the lead could be disastrous for the entire herd. So, one important aspect of being ‘lead mare’ is the ability to stay near the front of the herd and lead them out of danger in a hurry. Being ‘lead mare’ also means first at the water hole, first at that bunch of particularly succulent grass, first at the salt lick, etc.

In a ‘run for your life’ situation, the dominant mare will do her damnedest to stay at the very front of the herd, and may threaten a faster horse that attempts to pass her. In more normal situations, such as when traveling to water, the dominant mare may also threaten a subordinate that attempts to pass her in order to be first at the water hole. The other horse may decide to challenge the dominant mare’s position - part of this challenge may consist of ‘you can threaten me all you want, but I can outrun you and get there first’. And so a competitive ‘horse race’ occurs, in which both animals have a pretty high stake.

A second aspect is the competition for place in the pecking order, mostly among the younger horses. Each horse is trying to prove that it is stronger, faster, and/or smarter than the others. Since a horse’s life may depend on its speed (the slow get eaten), speed is an important factor in determing a horse’s place in the hierarchy. Not the only deciding factor, but the entire situation is probably much more complicated than mere humans can decipher from observation. At any rate, ‘races’ between the younger horses are one way of determining their placement in the pecking order (and fitness for survival). The benefits of higher placement in the pecking order provide motivation for competition.

Does anyone remember a Kentucky Derby a few years ago that came down to a two-horse race in the homestretch, and the lead horse attempted to bite the horse that was passing it? Sorry, I don’t remember which Derby or the horses’ names! Anyway, I was watching the race along with several other people and was the only person with much experience with horses. One horse had a pretty good lead going down the final straightaway, but the second place horse seemed to find another gear and started gaining on him. As he drew abreast of the lead horse, that horse turned his head and snapped at the passing horse. I commented ‘well, he just lost’ (and he did), but everyone else thought I was crazy. I pointed out the attempted bite, and they still thought I was crazy. They pointed out, in turn, that none of the commentators mentioned it, so I must not know what I was talking about.

After about 10 minutes of this hoopla, a commentator interviewed the ‘losing’ jockey. His comment? “When he took a bite at (horse’s name) as he came alongside, I knew it was over.” I’m afraid I’m a snide person - I rubbed it in an awful lot.

Why did the ‘horsey people’ know that the race was lost at that point? Because the losing horse wouldn’t have disturbed his balance and wasted energy threatening the other horse if he could have outrun him. He’d given all he had to give and was either running as fast as he could, or he was just too darned tired to put out any more effort. So his only option for remaining in front was to frighten the other horse into staying behind him.

Think that horse didn’t care who won?

Spend some time talking to horse trainers, jockeys, etc. or read some of the books/stories about race horses - they’ll tell you that the winning horse knows he won, and he’ll come off the track all full of himself and proud. The losing horses also know that they’ve lost, but it depends on the individual horse’s temperament whether or not it depresses him very much.

And there are numerous stories of good horses with a strong competitive spirit who happened to spend a season competing against a slightly better horse that beat them consistently, and the beaten horse becomes depressed and loses his competitive spirit.

Horses enjoy running and enjoy the competition - you could not force a horse to put out that much effort on something it didn’t enjoy. Ever watch a steeplechase, the Grand National, for example? One of the main hazards during the race are the riderless horses that continue to race and jump alongside the remaining competitors. Horses aren’t that stupid - if they don’t like doing something, they will stop doing it as soon as an opportunity arises. Jumping those huge fences at racing speeds is an extreme effort and dangerous to boot. But year after year, you will see many riderless horses not only continue racing, but actually stay on course and finish the entire race (they do two laps), crossing the finish line ahead of the ridden winners!

Ruffian, I’ve also heard that the ‘loafers’ like Alysheba are considered somewhat of a mixed blessing by trainers - they don’t overextend themselves and so stay healthier, but they don’t often break speed records unless forced to by the competition!

Lucretia, unless my info is hopelessly out of date, racing times for Quarter Horses have increased steadily over the years, albeit by tiny fractions of a second. Thoroughbreds have not shown a steady increase, but this is supposed to be because many Thoroughbred breeders used poor criteria for selecting breeding stock, especially studs. Quarter Horses are rated not necessarily by how often or how much they win, but by a ‘speed rating’ dependent on how fast they cover particular distances. For many years, (and possibly still now, I don’t know) Thoroughbred breeders selected studs by the amount of money they won, which is not necessarily an indication of the horse’s actual swiftness. You’ve got to breed speed to speed in order to produce faster horses.

Hard to know without asking the horses:

The answer: probably some care some don’t. Like most higher mammals, horses are probably so different from each other that it is tough to make generalizations. The personality and intelligence of the horse, relationship with the trainer and rider, and training history all probably play a role.

I remember Silver Charm, the 97 Derby & Preakness winner. Everything I read about him that year basically said he ran the race, the jockey just sorta steered. I doubt that was true, but they gave a lot of credit to the horse for knowing how to win the race.

Here’s a quote from the jockey, Gary Stevens, after the Derby:

So, I think they are very competitive and do want to win. That’s what they are trained to do and that’s what they want to do.


As a racehorse myself, I must say that most of us do indeed care about winning, although I am usually just as happy with second or third place.

  • JB

junebeetle, got any insider’s tips for the betting public? :wink:

Depends on how much money he has riding on the outcome.

Coosa, are you sure it was a Kentucky Derby you were describing about the horse trying to bite the other? It sounds like the 1989 Preakness to me. In it, Easy Goer and eventual winner Sunday Silence locked in a head-to-head battle for nearly the entire length of the stretch (truly one of the greatest races in the last 20 years!). From a head on shot, Easy Goer could clearly be seen turning his head toward Sunday Silence near the end of the duel. It did appear he was trying to reach over and bite the black colt.

This was noted, however, by the commentators. While watching a head-on replay, one (and dammit, I know what he looks like but completely blanked on his name) said of Easy Goer, “At this point, it looks like he was might have been trying to savage the other horse.”

I can think of none of the recent Derbies being that close at least in contact. Grindstone won by a nose, but the horses were far apart. Silver Charm won a close race, but he was just staying in the clear.

Now yah got me curious. I’m off to study my Blood Horse back issues. :wink:

Ruffian, I could be mistaken - in my memory it was the Derby and two completely different horses! But my memory may certainly be faulty, as at that time we usually watched the entire Triple Crown series and it was quite a few years ago. I have probably gotten my races/horses confused.(Getting older has a tendency to create leaky spots in your memory.)

However, I’m pretty sure that no commentator mentioned the savaging incident until after the interview with the losing jockey, as I was getting razzed pretty bad by my coworkers up until that point. I do remember a comment similar to the one you mention after the losing jockey interview, when they replayed the finish run and the commentators were looking for what they had missed. If anyone did mention it, it was sure ignored by everyone until that jockey pointed it out, because I kept waiting on someone to have enough ‘horse sense’ to bring it up.

But, hell, have you ever watched show jumping on ESPN? (At least, several years ago - I’ve not watched that in a long time either.) I used to get so disgusted by the ‘commentators’ that I would turn the sound off so I could tell what was REALLY going on.

I usually bet on a horse that’s won it’s last 2 races because I think they learn how to win. I’ve won a few bucks that way but I usually bet jockeys instead of horses. Dave Palone at the The Meadows (trotters) just ROCKS !! A lousy jockey can make a good horse look bad but a good jockey (Dave, MY MAN !!) can help a lousy horse win.

Now you’ve really got me curious, coosa. Somewhere (and I think it may be in storage) I have a video of the 1989 Preakness. I don’t know that I remember Gary Stevens (on Easy Goer) saying his horse had tried to bite the other, but that’s not entirely impossible in my mind, either.

DoctorD, winning its last two races is actually a shakey deal. If that’s the case, be sure to check how long the horse had inbetween the races and the race entered in that day. Fusaichi Pegasus, this year’s Derby winner, just lost the Preakness to a horse that was 2nd in his last race–to FuPeg–five weeks ago. He was fresh, rested, and raring to go. FuPeg, meanwhile, was running his third hard race in five weeks. Though he had won his previous two in impressive style, he was unable to catch Red Bullet this past Saturday.

Then again, I’m a lousy handicapper–so take anything I say with a grain of salt. :wink:

Isn’t there a very old, very well-known saying that ‘anything can happen in a horse race’? Remember Secretariat losing to an unknown by an ungodly distance because he wasn’t feeling well that day?

Ruffin, if you get a chance to look at the video, please let me know. Now I’m wondering if I’m crazy or something, but I distinctly remember the whole incident, including laughing my ass off after the jockey said that and confirmed what I had said.

Now I’m wondering if my mind is further gone that I thought! And I know that memory can be an awfully deceptive creature at times. Wish I could do ‘instant replay’ with my mind!