The Secrets And Traditions Of Horse Racing

Sports | 5/7/19

Horse racing has captivated all major civilizations, including the Greeks and the Romans. It became a professional sport in England during the reign of Queen Anne in the 18th century. Over the years, horse racing has developed many traditions, some of which continue today.

There are many interesting facts about the jockeys and horses who compete each year with the aim of winning a big purse. Read on to learn about horse racing and the people and animals behind it who work really hard with one goal in mind: victory!

Organized Crime And Horse Racing Go Hand In Hand

horses racing
Lo Chun Kit / Contributor Getty Images
Lo Chun Kit / Contributor Getty Images

There is a lot of money involved in horse racing, so naturally, organized crime organizations have integrated themselves into the sport in order to make a profit. This type of tampering has been going on for years, with incidents involving everything from performance-enhancing drugs to illegal betting rings, race fixing, and the execution of horses.

The Irish mafia, Asian triads, and Mexican drug cartels are all guilty of meddling in the affairs of horse racing. In 2013, a Mexican cartel spent 30 months orchestrating a money laundering scheme that involved doping and fixing races. They spent $20 million to carry out their plan.

A Horse Named Native Dancer Is Part Of Nearly Every Thoroughbred’s Family Tree

Native Dancer Is Part Of Nearly Every Thoroughbred's Family Tree
Bettmann/Contributor Getty Images
Bettmann/Contributor Getty Images

Many of the horses you see racing today can trace their family roots back to a prized stallion named Native Dancer. They also inherited his propensity for weak ankles. The 2008 Kentucky Derby featured 20 horses — all of which had Native Dancer’s blood in their veins. A filly named Eight Belles finished second but broke both her ankles during the race.

A horse’s pedigree is extremely important in the industry and is valued more than any other factor. Unfortunately, some weaknesses are also passed down through the generations. The problem is the racehorse gene pool isn’t very large, and the world’s entire thoroughbred population can be traced back to just three stallions.

The World’s Most Valuable Race Horse Was Kidnapped In Ireland

Shergar being led to a barn
Independent News And Media/Getty Images
Independent News And Media/Getty Images

In 1983, a racehorse named Shergar from the Ballymany Stud Farm in Ireland was kidnapped by three gunmen. At the time, Shergar, owned by billionaire businessman the Aga Khan, was the world’s most valuable racehorse. He was worth about $16 million, or $44 million when adjusted for inflation.

Some believe the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was responsible for the kidnapping. They never took credit for the crime, though. The kidnappers attempted to negotiate a ransom through a handful of horse racing journalists, but police failed to trace the phone calls. Shergar was never seen again.

Jockeys Are Tiny But Mighty

jockeys are usually quite small
Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images
Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images

Most states allow jockeys to start an apprenticeship at the age of 16. There are different requirements for each state, and some are required to pass an exam. Typically, racehorses can carry between 118 and 122 pounds, which includes both the jockey and the equipment.

A typical jockey weighs between 108 and 118 pounds. They vary in height from 4’10” to 5’6″ but are usually on the shorter side in order to reach the weight requirements. Jockeys are weighed before each race, and if they have more than one race in a day they will be weighed each time.

A Horse Named Sea Cottage Overcame A Gunshot Wound & Became A Champion

Sea Cottage racing in a black and white photo
S&G/PA Images via Getty Images
S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

In 1966, a champion racehorse named Sea Cottage survived a gunshot wound. Sea Cottage was favored to win the Durban July Handicap, a South African Thoroughbred horse race. However, bookie Sonny Chislett didn’t want the horse to win so he arranged for the animal to be removed from the competition.

Johnny “Machine Gun” Nel shot Sea Cottage in the rear end during a morning trot. Fortunately, Sea Cottage was a tough animal and he survived to race another day. He even won the July Handicap the following year. He later died of natural causes, while Nel was sentenced to four years in prison and Chislett lost his betting license.

Many Horses Start Racing At A Very Young Age

Horses start racing when they're very young
Reg Ryan/Racing Photos via Getty Images
Reg Ryan/Racing Photos via Getty Images

Horses are only a couple of years old when they start racing. A few of the most sizeable purses involve equines who are just two or three years old. At this age, the animals are still developing, and they are more susceptible to injuries due to difficult training and hard racing.

These days it’s not uncommon for a racehorse to retire at the age of two or three. In the past, these animals wouldn’t race until they were older and their bones were more developed. Those who start racing after age four experience fewer injuries and typically have longer careers.

Racehorses Live Long But Retire Early

a white horse peeks out from its stall
Lo Chun Kit/Contributor Getty Images
Lo Chun Kit/Contributor Getty Images

As we mentioned previously, horses can start competing as young as two years old. Many retire early, but typically they stop racing around the age of 15. Some may race a few more years after that, but no horse has won a race after the age of 18. In general, racehorses live for around 30 years.

Where do they go when they retire? There are special places such as the Thoroughbred Retirement Facility in Georgetown, Kentucky. They currently have a herd of over 175 rescued and retired horses. Others are sold to private owners, sent to livestock auctions, or are retired early to become stud horses.

The First Woman To Compete In A US Horse Race Was Met With Hostility

The First Woman To Compete In A US Horse Race Was Met With Hostility
Bettmann/Contributor Getty Images
Bettmann/Contributor Getty Images

Many people didn’t like the idea of a female jockey, but a woman named Diane Crump wasn’t deterred. In 1969, she became the first women to ride in a professional horse race in the United States. She was also the first female to ride in the Kentucky Derby.

It wasn’t easy. The crowd was antagonistic, so she required bodyguards as she was escorted to and from the race track. Other jockeys were also hostile towards Crump. At her first race, she finished tenth in a field of 12. She later recalled people telling her to go home and cook dinner.

The Belmont Stakes Carnation Blanket Weighs 40 Pounds

The Belmont Stakes Carnation Blanket Weighs 40 Pounds
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

When a horse wins the Belmont Stakes, it is draped in a blanket of carnations. The blanket is pretty big and contains over 700 flowers. It takes more than five hours for craftsmen to make the blanket, and it weighs about 40 pounds. The Thoroughbred horse race takes place in June at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.

The event is one of the most popular thoroughbred racing events in America. It is also referred to as The Test of the Champion and The Run for the Carnations. It’s the third and last leg of the Triple Crown series.

A Horse Named Humorist Won A 1921 Race Despite Being Very Sick

black and white photo showing a horse being led to a race
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To be eligible for a race, horses must be inspected to ensure that they are healthy enough for the competition. However, there have been times in the past when a sick horse somehow escaped scrutiny and was allowed to race anyway. That’s exactly what happened in 1921 during the Derby at Epsom in Britain.

The event is the country’s most prestigious horse race, and an equine named Humorist emerged as the winner. It wasn’t until later that organizers realized that Humorist was suffering from tuberculosis. Despite only having one functioning lung, the animal won the race.

People Bet $100 Billion A Year On Horse Racing

spectators placing bets
Horsephotos/Getty Images
Horsephotos/Getty Images

People bet an astounding $100 billion a year on horse racing. They all have the same goal: make a lot of money. But like other forms of gambling, it’s a risk. You often lose more than you win. Is it possible for a person to make a living gambling on horses full time?

There are some very successful handicappers and bettors, but most of them have day jobs that enable them to play the races. Statistically, most professional gamblers don’t make a profit that’s bigger than 10 percent. Still, it can be very exciting to watch a race even if your horse doesn’t win.

Mike E. Smith Was The Oldest Jockey To Win A Triple Crown

Mike Smith covered in mud
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Jockey Mike E. Smith won the Breeders’ Cup 26 times — more than anyone else. He won a total of $312 million during his career. Smith started his racing career in the ’90s and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2003.

Smith’s father was a jockey, and he started riding after dropping out of high school in ninth grade. In 2018, he rode a horse named Justify to the Triple Crown and became the 13th triple crown winner. He was also the oldest jockey to win the title at the age of 52.

Secretariat’s Heart Was Significantly Larger Than Other Horse Hearts

Secretariat had an enlarged heart
Bettmann/Contributor Getty Images
Bettmann/Contributor Getty Images

Secretariat is considered to be one of the greatest racehorses of all time. He set records for each of the Triple Crown races in 1973, and no other horse since has come close to beating those records. He won the Belmont Stakes by a whopping 31 lengths. During the Kentucky Derby, he ran past his peak speed during each quarter mile.

Unfortunately, Secretariat was euthanized at age 19 because he was suffering from chronic laminitis, a painful foot disease. His body was examined, and it was discovered that his heart weighed 22 pounds, two and a half times more than the average horse’s eight-pound heart.

One Of The Most Grueling Races Is The Grand National

several jumping horses and their riders
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The Grand National horse race is held every year at the Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, England. It began in 1839 and is considered to be “the ultimate test of a horse and rider.” The four-mile race features 30 fence obstacles that a horse and its jockey must jump over.

In 1928, only two horses made it to the finish line. Forty-one horses fell as a result of the bad weather. A horse named Tipperary Tim won, which is ironic since the jockey’s friend joked beforehand, “Billy boy, you’ll only win if all the others fall down!”

The Kentucky Derby’s Rose Tradition Goes Back Over 130 Years

A horse wears a blanket of roses
Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images

The Kentucky Derby is held every year in Louisville, Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May. It’s also known as The Run for the Roses because the winner is blanketed in 554 roses, a tradition that dates back to 1883.

The derby was created by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., who got into the business after visiting several tracks in England and France. He was inspired to start the flower tradition after he noticed a New York socialite giving a woman roses during a derby after-party. By 1896, the jockeys were blanketed in roses after winning the race.

One Jockey Died On His Horse But Still Won The Race

A jockey died while riding a horse at Belmont Park
Bettmann/Contributor Getty Images
Bettmann/Contributor Getty Images

A horse trainer and stableman named Frank Hayes also doubled as a jockey, but he wasn’t a very successful racer — at least while he was living. In 1923, he competed at Belmont Park on a horse named Sweet Kiss. Unfortunately, Hayes had a heart attack in the middle of the race.

Somehow, Hayes’ body stayed on the saddle as Sweet Kiss raced over the finish line and landed in first place. Hayes became the only dead jockey in history to win a race. The horse however, was forced to retire since he was therefore associated as being the "Sweet Kiss of Death."

Race Horses Only Have One Of Two Birthdays

several horses racing against each other
Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images
Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images

Typically mares go into heat from April to October, and foals are born between May and September, but racehorses are officially given only one of two birthdays. Those in the northern hemisphere have a birth date of January 1, while horses in the southern hemisphere have August 1 birthday designations.

The reason is to make it easier to keep track of an animal’s age, which is important for certain races that have specific age requirements. For example, the Investec Derby only allows three-year-old horses, so each horse can only compete in the prestigious race just once in his or her lifetime.

In 1945, A Horse Took Over 11 Minutes To Reach The Finish Line (And Win)

black and white photo of a horse running
S&G/PA Images via Getty Images
S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

The slowest recorded race in history took place in 1945. A horse named Never Mind II took 11 minutes and 28 seconds to complete the two-mile long event. What’s even more amazing is that Never Mind II actually won the race. The equine struggled to go over a fence, and his jockey abandoned the horse.

Then the jockey realized that all the other contestants in the race quit for various other reasons, so he went back on the saddle and ended up finishing the race without a problem.

Jockeys Can Make Big Bucks

jockey wearing purple silk
Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images
Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images

A good jockey can earn a lot of money, and some make between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. Some can earn millions of dollars throughout their careers. They receive a mount fee for each race, which can add up if they ride in 1,000 races a year. But that’s only part of their salary. The rest is from the purse, which is the prize money a horse earns for winning first, second or third place.

Naturally, jockeys make more money if they win a race. At the Kentucky Derby, jockeys in the top five winning slots earn 10 percent of the horse’s total winnings.

Being A Jockey Isn’t All Fun & Games

jockey on horse
Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images
Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images

In general, jockeys are not permitted to own the horses that they race. However, they must provide all the equipment that they use to ride, including saddles, bridles, crops, western tack, etc. They must also provide their own health insurance, travel costs, and agent fees. They own their silks, but the colors are determined by the owners.

The profession also requires a lot of versatility. Jockeys must be able to get along with a lot of different horses. A pro jockey may ride as many as 12 different horses in a single day. They need to know how to handle the temperament of each animal.