If you have ever been to the races chances are you’ve been down to the parade ring to watch the horses go round and round before the jockeys get on board and are led onto the course for the race. You’ll probably have noticed that quite a lot of people do this before the race and it can draw quite a crowd. So what’s all the fuss about? Surely they’re not all here to check out the stable lads/lasses as they lead their charges around or to see if they can spot someone famous in the parade ring.
No, quite a few of the people in the crowd will be checking out the runners to see which ones are looking fit, healthy and read to run the race of their lives. Of course, they may be looking to spot the ones who are unfit, unhealthy as well but either way they’re giving themselves an extra edge in deciding who to back or who not to back. So stop looking at the people and start looking at the horses.
Mr Ed apart, horses, of course, can’t speak but they can tell you an awful lot if you know what to look for.
And luckily for us we have a nagnagnag reader who knows exactly what to look for and she’s kindly agreed to give us a master class in paddock watching. So it’s over to Dee Thompson who will tell you all you need to know………
Actually before Dee starts here’s a diagram of a horse with the technical parts of its body labelled (for those of you who don’t know your fetlock from your forelock)
Clues from the paddock
Horses like humans can have good and bad days, you know those days you wake up and feel a bit sluggish, you dont have your usual energy or feel mentally a bit out of sorts and certainly don’t feel your best and other days you feel fantastic bursting with energy, happy to be alive, and feel like you could conquer the world. Well horses are the same, some days they feel like they are world beaters and other days they feel like they would rather be at home having a lazy day. Breeding, form, statistics, are just parts of the racing puzzle, one of the most important bits of the puzzle is how the horse is feeling and looking on the day of the race. How it turns up at the racecourse following its journey and ultimately how it looks in the parade ring.
As well as working as a paddock judge for the last 6 years I have been looking at horses in the parade ring for the last 30 years and have seen enough to know that there are some very important clues to be found in the paddock. Recognising that the mental attitude of the horse is also very important to observe, I did a horse whispering course to increase my understanding of horse body language and attitude.
Its not all about finding the winner from the paddock, it can also be a way of avoiding a losing short priced favourite, I have seen many fancied horses who have the best form running for the best trainers who turn up looking negative and have lost. I constantly see the best looking horse in the parade ring win at all prices. Last year alone I found 3 winners at prices over 100-1 from the paddock and my biggest of all last year was at amazing odds of 260-1.
Because a lot of horses tend to run regularly at the same tracks by regularly visiting the parade ring you get to recognise what your horse looks like on its winning day and you then can often work out when to avoid it and when to back it. You often see your horse coming to peak condition, see it win, and then see its decline.
There are several factors to take into account which I will cover in greater detail in coming blogs
2) Fitness and condition
3) Body type specifics for different distances
4) Athleticism and movement
5) Attitude and body language
6) Other variables: sweating, ears, tails and quirks.
I have to say that judging a horse’s coat is far easier in the sunshine, and it can be difficult to assess in poor light, and even more so on cold or wet days when the horses are covered in blankets but even then you can see enough on their face and neck to get an idea of the condition of the coat.
The coat can provide clues to the horse’s well being and general health. If the horse has rich colour, especially bronzing and the coat is shiny and reflecting sunlight this is about the best you can get. If a coat is dull and dry and absorbing sunlight then this horse may not be at his peak, or maybe somehow lacking in optimum nutrition. If a horse is from a top stable and fed the best nutritional feed its coat is generally going to be in good condition, in these cases you have to take other factors more into consideration mainly their mental alertness and demeanour which I will explain in more detail later.
I wouldn’t rule out a horse because its coat was dull, if it ticked all the other boxes, but if you find one that ticks all the boxes and its coat is shiny and bronzing then you have found a good one indeed.
Do be aware that this is not an exact science and there are horses that do turn up looking absolutely outstanding every single time, and run badly every single time, I have a list of those, you can get caught out, but if you get to know them you get to avoid them.
Shiny - characterised by the coat gleaming, the sun bounces off it, it has a clear bright look to it.
Good colour – has strong colour
Dappled – a sign that a horse is in exceptional good health, signified by gleaming circles which can be seen just under the skin
Dull and dry – characterised by the coat lacking any shine and brightness, it appears dry and bristly
Poor colour – looking wishy washy
Greys coats’ are particularly difficult to assess, although every now and again you see a grey whose coat is particularly shiny, if you see this and its ticking all the boxes then you have found a good one.
FITNESS AND CONDITION
Horses are athletes so fitness is a very important factor. Often at the start of their training preparation they can be overweight and soft, or can put weight on due to being unable to train because of being sidelined due to injury or illness. Through training and racing they become fit and firm but there comes a point for some horses if given a hard season they start to lose condition and can looked tucked up and scrawny. The age of a horse can be a factor, younger horses taking less time to reach peak fitness compared to older ones.
Unfit/soft – horse has big stomach, soft muscles, looks a bit wobbly or flabby in stomach region, lack of muscle definition in hind quarters, lack of muscle definition on neck, this all indicates horse is not fit and ready to win and may need a few more outings before becoming totally fit. Some horses have deep girths and can appear overweight, be sure to check for tightness.
However some really big chunky sprinters can look a little soft and still be fit and powerful enough to win. Whereas the more lean built longer distance horses really need to be showing muscle definition and tightness and hint of ribs to be able to be fit enough to win.
Fit/very fit – horse appearing rock hard. Muscle definitions can be seen clearly in hind quarters and neck, look for defining line on hind quarters and seeing the ribs in stayers is an added sign of fitness. In some cases a rippling muscle can be seen just behind the saddle indicating extreme fitness.
Over the top or tucked up – horses that have had a hard season can start to physically decline, you will see a lack of condition, they appear bony or light behind the saddle. This can be seen in horses that have run too many times in a season or have been overtrained.
BODY TYPES AND DISTANCE
In the parade ring you will see horses all shapes and sizes, for sprint races of 5 furlongs and 6 furlongs you ideally want a big strong horse with a wide chest allowing plenty of room for a good set of lungs and heart, and big strong hind quarters. This shape is best for sprinters but not confined to them. These types can take longer to get fit, and sometimes can be difficult to determine their fitness purely by looking at them.
Then you have light framed horses which look leaner, more angular and longer in the back, this body type is more usual for longer distance horses, these horses require less work to achieve full fitness, and their fitness levels can easily be seen.
Fillies and mares can appear light especially if they are parading next to big strong colts or geldings this doesn’t necessarily mean they are weak.
There is a negative build to be seen in the parade ring and that is a weak horse, characterised by lack of size and scope, they can appear very skinny sometimes small and bony very narrow behind the saddle with a narrow chest and small hindquarters, these horses have no power or strength and usually do nothing in a race.
When you are looking at a parade ring of 2 year old maidens in 5 furlong and 6 furlong races its best to look for the biggest strongest horse that is fit not just for strength and power but its size will give it the confidence to push through smaller horses.
ATHLETICISM AND MOVEMENT
Your horse wants to look athletic in build, well balanced front and back and generally a good shape. Some horses you will see will be higher at the back than the front or very long bodied, these horses are not athletic in appearance. Some horses are bulky at the front with good strong chest muscles but very little at the back end, and the reverse can also be seen, in these cases you have an unbalanced horse that is not athletic in shape and is not a good selection
Some horses are tall and leggy these horses act better on flat galloping tracks and may struggle on tight undulating tracks, whereas smaller compact horses may be more ideally suited to tight turning tracks than there taller leggy counterparts. Likewise the light framed leggy horse is more inclined to cover more ground with its stride, so it is able to stay longer distances.
It is good to observe how the horse carries itself and walks around the parade ring, you want a smooth mover. The ultimate is a horse that looks like it is gliding, this indicates a very good walker.
Generally it is good to see a horse whose hoof print of the hind legs overlap the hoof prints of the forelegs, obviously the overlap can be affected by the relative length of the horse, but generally it is a good guide to how good a mover the horse is. A negative point would be what I call a short walker, where the horse appears to have a scratchy movement and the movement of the hind legs is too short.
As is the case in all sections this is not an exact science and some horses looking funny shapes and some horses that are very short walkers do sometimes win races.
ATTITUDE AND ENERGY
As well as my many years of observing race horses i have done horse whispering courses to gain a greater understanding of reading a horse’s mentality.
Like humans some horses can have off days, some are not in love with the game, some have ran so many times they feel they need a break, some would just rather be home in a field or stable than have to run fast in a race. Some horses on the other hand feel on top of the world, love racing, are happy to be there and are really up for it, both states can be observed in the parade ring.
Ideally you want a horse that looks bright, alert and interested, a horse turning its head towards the handler is a good sign, for sprint races a horse that is on its toes is a positive as long as its not boiling over, whereas for long distance races a relaxed horse is the order of the day as long as with that relaxed state it is obviously bright alert and interested.
Horses communicate with energy and like dogs there can be a ‘top dog’ in the ring dominating the rest, this can sometimes be clearly seen when a horse enters the ring with a presence and its head held high and you see the other runners all holding their heads in a lower position. I have spotted many a top dog situation that have won at all prices, interestingly I’ve also seen obviously submissive horses at short prices expected to win that have lost. One in particular I remember reporting to someone placing a bet that this well fancied hot favourite had such submissive behaviour in the ring it was worth laying as it would never put its head in front, watching the race the horse was full of running coming to challenge the lesser fancied horse which was leading and there was no way it would go past, in fact it was reported to have ‘jinked left’ a few strides before the post, and it finished second.
You always want a horse with bright energy and sometimes what I call strong energy where you see the handler being slightly pulled by the horse, rather than the other way around where you see the horse plodding heavily around the ring almost being dragged by the handler, these horses are truly lethargic, tired, or wishing they weren’t there and are best left alone.
Immaturity can be spotted especially in 2 and 3 year olds who haven’t raced before, you may see the horse rearing up and being unruly, some horses can hardly walk correctly, and some are very vocal, its often best to avoid these as they are not focussed enough or mature enough to run a true race.
Some horses can appear nervous and timid you can spot this by a nervous look in their face, or their overall timid body language with head particularly low, these horses are rarely going to forge ahead to win races and definitely are not going to barge through small gaps in races if needed to.
SWEATING AND OTHER VARIABLES
All horses are individuals so there isn’t a hard and fast rule here. I remember a horse winning the Derby called Benny The Dip – affectionately named Benny The Drip because of how much he sweated, but it didn’t stop him winning the greatest race of all.
When considering sweating do consider the weather, most horses may sweat in the heat of the sun but if you have a horse sweating on an icy day at Hexham then you know something could be wrong.
Light sweating especially on the neck is a positive sign, usually means the horse is up for it, sweating all over can be a sign that the horse is extremely nervous or not 100% well, some horses who have had a long season and are over the top can appear to be sweating all over as well. White foam sweat between the hind legs is said to be a negative as this is a sign of excess adrenaline meaning the horse may be too worked up and nervous, however some horses do still win races in this state.
The positioning of a horse’s ears can be an added clue. Ideally you want a horse with its ears pricked upright but moving towards sounds showing its interested in its surrounding. If a horse has its ears pinned back all of the time, this is an indication that the horse is in a bad mood or feeling aggressive, this horse will probably not give its best performance. Limp ears that flop over can suggest the horse is not 100% or that it is not at all focussed, again you probably would not get the best result from this animal.
For different reasons the horse may hold its tail close to its hindquarters, it could be a filly or mare who feels threatened, however a flat looking tail can indicate low energy, you will usually find the horses with the best energy, coats and overall look have an arched tail which is a very positive sign.
As with all sections there are exceptions to the rule!
And finally having made your selection, if possible, you should observe its behaviour when a jockey gets on board. Some horses appearing very quiet in the parade ring can suddenly burst into excited enthusiasm when the jockey gets on board and ultimately you should watch your selection go to post to check that it doesn’t lose the race before it starts by expanding too much energy on its way down to the starting position.