The Road to the Winner’s Circle

What does it take to make it to the Winner’s Circle?

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The first step is the horse. Claiming a proven winner is the best road for new owners.

Purchasing a horse from an auction is a great way to get a super horse, but the youngsters are unproven and of course it takes at least a year before the horse is really ready to go. When you purchase a 2-year old at auction, the horse has first to be broken and then the training begins. This is a long road and not one recommended by me for a first time owner.

The claiming route makes the choice easier. There are already stats to consider. Obviously the bloodlines of the horse should also be considered, as well as the current trainer. Getting advice from your trainer is equally important since he will be training your horse and if he is an experience horseman, he can evaluate the horse in the Paddock prior to dropping the claim slip.

I have heard some trainers declare that they made a bad claim. I personally do not believe that there is such a thing as a bad claim. Some claims are better than others, but if the horse is fit, it’s a good claim. Some trainers tend to blame the horse for their shortcomings. Fortunately, our trainer Drew Fulmer is ready for any challenge and is always willing to work with a horse and make the best of every one of his charges.

Once the horse is claimed, it is the responsibility of the trainer to evaluate the horse’s current ability and determine the direction the trainer will take to get the most from the horse. Drew Fulmer spends a great deal of time evaluating the physical condition of all the horses in his barn. A healthy horse is the key to a winning horse. Physical conditioning of the horse starts from day one after the claim. Once the horse is settled in the new barn and the evaluation of his condition is determined, it is time to develop a working relationship between the trainer and the horse.

A happy and content horse works better, learns more readily and has a better chance of winning. Some horses perform better for some trainers and falter with others. It is the responsibility of the trainer to attempt to understand not only the physical health of the horse, but also the emotional or psychological well-being of the horse.

Often it is necessary to move a horse from one stall to another, to make the horse feel at home. This might seem slight, but it is essential for the horse to be comfortable with his surroundings in order to maintain sufficient control of the animal. The horse also has to be comfortable with the trainer. An interpersonal relationship between the horse and trainer are essential. I think Drew Fulmer has a natural talent for communicating with the horses. Whether it’s a touch or a kind word, Drew takes time to know each horse and for the horse to get to know him. It is essential for the horse to understand who is in charge and to feel comfortable and have confidence in his trainer.

I have watched with pleasure the interaction between Drew and the horses. Sometimes it takes more of an effort with a particular horse, but eventually Drew is so good at this developmental process that even a novice like me can see the contact between horse and man.

I have seen Drew Fulmer change the location of a horse from one side of the barn to the other and surprisingly it has changed the attitude of the horse. I have watched Drew talk to a horse and see the horse approach him in a welcoming and trusting manner.

Training a thoroughbred involves structure and routine. The physical conditioning of the horse is essential not only to the win, but to keeping the horse from future injuries. Horses must be monitored on a daily basis to ensure proper health and condition.

The next step to the winner’s circle is finding the right race for the new horse. Generally, the same proven distances and class level are a good start for selecting the race. There are of course some exceptions to this. Drew Fulmer has been known to find a race for a new horse at a higher class or a longer distance. It is only because of his vast experience that he can make such a call. In any case, it is important to find the best possible race for the horse.

Now the entry has to be made. On entry day, which is usually 3 days prior to the race, the trainer enters his horse and preferred rider. It is the responsibility of the Racing Secretary to complete the process. Post positions are selected by draw at random. Getting a good post position can definitely change the outcome of a race.

Likewise, getting the best choice of a jockey is important. The jockeys have agents that attempt to get the best mounts for the jockeys. There are times that the trainer has to make a last minute decision of the rider, if their preferred jockey is not available.

The horse is now entered into a race with a jockey and the post position is assigned.

Most trainers prefer post positions near the center of the field. Once the post position is assigned, a strategy for the race is needed. Trainers discuss their strategy with the jockey just prior to the race in the Paddock area. Some horses prefer the outside. Some horses are pace setters and need to be in the lead early. Other horses come from behind and finish flying. The trainer or owner can tell the jockey what strategy they prefer for that horse and with any luck the jockey will be able to follow the game plan.

Prior to the race, horses are often seen in the barn by the veterinary staff for administration of any needed medications, such as Lasix.

On race day, the first stop outside of the barn is the Paddock. Some horses are easy and relaxed in the Paddock area. Others are bothered by the crowds and need special attention. Most of the time the Paddock time is uneventful, but can be busy. The horses get one final check from the veterinarian to be sure all mounts are fit at the time of the race. The horses are saddled and mounted in the Paddock, then led to the track. The pony rider escorts the race horse to the starting gate.

Now the challenge is to get the horse to enter the gate without incident and get set for the start. The Starting Gate can be one of the most dangerous areas of the race. Some horses get nervous and act up in the gate. It is the responsibility of the starters to help settle the horses and be sure they are facing forward so that when the gate opens, the horse can get a good start. Being left behind at the gate will usually result in a loss.

Additionally, this can be a dangerous area for the rider. Some horses flip in the gate which can be life threatening to not only the horse, but also the rider. Some horses stumble out of the gate, or may throw the rider. Some horses get bumped at the gate. All of these things might not only result in a loss, but can be extremely hazardous to both horse and rider.

A recent significant loss due to problems at the gate occurred in the Traverse Stakes with Palace Malice (winner of the Belmont Stakes). In the Traverse Stakes, Palace Malice stumbled at the gate and started about 8 lengths behind the leader. The jockey was eventually forced to take the horse 5 wide and this magnificent horse finished 4th.

Once the race is off the jockey needs to control not only the speed of the horse, but also the position within the pack. Horses are herd animals and some horses might just go for the ride with the herd if they are not sufficiently urged. Some horses are natural leaders and will try to lead the pack. If the pace is too fast and the race is long, a front runner might tire before the race is over. Rushing, especially in a long race can prove disappointing. Palace Malice ran in the Kentucky Derby and led the pack. He was able to hold the lead until the final quarter and then tired and finished 12th. At times the front runner sets a fast pace and tires, only to be caught at the finish. Jockeys have to be sure not to use up all the horse’s energy or nothing will be left for the close. Some jockeys are better than others at judging the pace of a race. It can be said that some of the best jockeys have an internal time clock and can gage an appropriate pace for a particular horse.

During the race, other things can go wrong. A jockey might lose his whip and is at a disadvantage for urging on a horse. It can be especially detrimental if it happens in the beginning of the race. There can be other equipment problems that the jockey might encounter which are usually beyond his control and just finishing safely becomes the priority.

There is always the chance that the horse might get in too tight and there is nowhere to go. Sometimes the horse has to be checked and loses stride.

In some cases, the jockey has to take the horse wide and in fact that horse is forced to run farther than the rest of the field and might not be able to catch up.

The worst problem I have seen is when a horse breaks down in a race. Any horses coming from behind are in jeopardy of getting injured and the course of the race is changed significantly by such an occurrence.

At times, the horse simply loses his rider. This is extremely dangerous of both jockey and horse. The horse is running free and can easily get hurt. It is the job of the outriders to corral a loose horse as quickly and safely as possible. Also, any jockey who falls off a horse can be injured from the fall, and then could get trampled by any horses coming from behind.

With all of these variables, making it to the winner’s circle becomes the combination of proper training, a good ride and avoiding any other hazards of the race.

The Irish saying, “THE BEST HORSE DOESN’T ALWAYS WIN” becomes apparent when all the above factors are taken into consideration.

The final ingredient for making it to the winner’s circle is LUCK!

I am happy to share some of my winner’s circle pictures.

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