Saturday, September 29, 2012

Guest Post - TB Horse Racing Set-ups - The Basics

This week’s guest post is by Region 6 Representative, Jackie Moore.

One of the wonderful things about this hobby is the opportunity to learn so much about so many different breeds of horses as well as different disciplines in Performance.  One of the downfalls is that it is so difficult (if not impossible) for any one person to know all there is to know about every breed and every discipline.  Some disciplines are so specialized, that the only way for anyone to know about its nuances is to actually have competed or worked in that discipline.  Nothing is more aggravating than being one of those people that have specialized knowledge in a specific discipline and seeing set-ups with blatant faults earning NAN cards and championships.  But, again, we routinely ask people to judge set-ups when they most likely do not have specialized knowledge in that specific discipline.  That is just the nature of the hobby.

Well, I happen to be one of the people that has specialized knowledge in Thoroughbred horse racing.  I spent close to 12 years of my life working in the industry - starting out on farms breaking babies and exercising lay ups, and moving on to working on the racetrack as an exercise rider, jockey, and assistant trainer.  So, I have actually ridden Thoroughbreds in races and saddled them before races, giving me specialized knowledge about racing tack that the average hobbyist does not have.

So, I will apologize ahead of time for the length of this post, but I hope that you will take the time to read it, especially if you routinely judge Performance.  You never know when you might be faced with a racing scene, and wouldn't it be nice to know if what you are looking at is correct or not?

First, let's discuss the scene itself.
Thoroughbred racehorses in the US run races counterclockwise.  So, if you have a set-up where the horse is racing or galloping out after the race, the inside rail should be on the horse's left.  If they are going back to the winner's circle or warming up before the race, the inside rail should be on the horse's right (in general).  I know this seems like common sense, but, if I hadn't seen a set-up where this was incorrect, I wouldn't have mentioned it.

The inside rail is generally a narrow board or tube supported by posts which are either angled out or curved out so that the support post itself is on the inside and the rail is the farthest thing out into the track.  This allows a jockey to be able to roll under the rail and avoid being trampled.  The inside rail will never be a thick wall supported by thick posts that are on the same plane as the rail.  This is because if a rider or a horse were to hit one of those posts at racing speed, they would most certainly be seriously injured, if not killed.  The furlong poles are also well inside the rail, not right on the rail, for this same reason.  Some racetracks have what is called a safety rail.  A safety rail has a flat covering (usually metal) that covers the rail's support posts.  This is so that, if a rider falls and hits the rail, the covering helps absorb the impact, the rider can't land on top of or be thrown into one of the posts, and the rider will be thrown into the infield rather than back onto the track (and under horse's hooves).

Here's the rail at Belmont:

And Saratoga:

This is Turfway Park when they were re-surfacing the track and installing a safety rail (the gravel you see on the track is the base layer):

Now, let's move on to tack.

Racing bridles are slightly different from regular bridles.  The crownpiece and throatlatch are separate pieces and go through separate slots in the browband.  The noseband (when used) is separate from the bridle and is not run through a slot in the browband.  The noseband would be placed on the horse first and then the bridle put on over the noseband.  The bridle crownpiece is a long strap that goes from the right side of the bit, over the horse's poll, and attaches to a cheek piece on the left side - there is no short cheek piece on the right side of the bridle.  The cheek piece and crown piece attach to the bit with buckles.  Bridles can be brown leather, white leather, or nylon (or plastic coated nylon) in any color.  

The bits used are most often some type of snaffle with a loose chin strap (similar to a curb strap on a Western bridle, but loose).  This chin strap serves two purposes: it keeps the bit from being pulled through the horse's mouth, and it gives the grooms a way to control the horse while leading without interfering with the rider's reins.  You will often see the grooms run a lead shank through the chip strap or just lead the horse to the track by holding on to the chin strap.  That way, they can control the horse without just pulling on one side of the bit, and the rider still has the use of both reins.  

The reins attach to the bit by either loops or buckles and have rubber grips.  The reins that attach to the bit with buckles have a metal core in the part of the rein that goes around the bit ring.  The reins are very long - the rider will tie a knot in the reins to make them the length they want - and are quite a bit wider than reins you see on show bridles.  Blinkers, when used, are placed on the horse over the bridle and then the sides are tucked under the bridle's cheekpieces before fastening.

Some photos:


(Yes, the nylon bridle above has the throatlatch 
on upside down, in case you were wondering…)

Racing saddles are pretty much just an aluminum or composite half tree, one billet strap on each side, a flap, a seat, and stirrups.  Saddles can be leather, but are generally clarino - a synthetic leather that looks like patent leather and comes in every color of the rainbow (and is easy to maintain).  Saddles can be various sizes.  Jockeys will generally have three saddles of various sizes and will use each saddle based on how much weight their horse has to carry in each race.  Small saddles can weigh less than a pound while larger saddles can weigh up to five pounds or more.

It takes two people to saddle a race horse.  The trainer or assistant trainer stands on the horse's left while the jockey's valet stands on the horse's right.  Most trainers will place a damp chamois on the horse's back at the withers first - this helps keep the saddle from slipping.  The saddle pad is placed over the chamois and the numbered saddle cloth over the pad.  Yes, pads are used - they are generally just a piece of saddle-shaped foam, but they can also be a rubber material of different weights.  The numbered saddle cloths are very long.  They are placed over the pad with the excess length up near the horse's neck.  The excess is then folded back over the top and the saddle will be placed on top of the part that is folded back.

The saddle is attached with two girths that are made of strong elastic.  The girths are traditionally white, but can be made in colors as well.  Some trainers will use a girth channel under the girths to protect the horse and keep the girth from slipping.  The girth channel can be foam or rubber.  The undergirth has a buckle on each end and is attached to the saddle's billet strap.  The excess billet strap is pulled out towards the flank of the horse so that the excess strap is not under the overgirth when that is put on.  The overgirth has a buckle and keepers on one end and a long strap on the other.  The overgirth is placed across the saddle, just behind the stirrup leathers, with the end with the long strap on the horse's left and the end with the buckle on the horse's right.  Both the valet and the trainer pull down on the girth, the trainer hands the strap under the horse's girth area to the valet, who feeds the strap through the buckle.  The trainer then buckles the girth how they want it, and the valet takes the excess strap and feeds it through the keepers, folding the excess back down and tucking it into the keeper to make sure it doesn't come loose.

No, the excess stirrup leather of the saddle is NOT put under the overgirth.  This is an error I see often.  I think it must come from people looking at pictures of saddled racehorses and seeing the billet strap pulled out toward the horse's flank, and thinking that is the excess stirrup leather.  Trust me, you do not want anything extraneous under the overgirth.  Plus, your jockey has to be able to adjust their stirrups.  As a matter of fact, some jockeys will adjust their stirrups to the longest they think they may need and then cut off the excess.  They will pretty much only adjust their stirrups a hole or two here and there, depending on the horse.

The numbered saddle cloths are standard colors for each number.  This makes it easier for the race caller and the spectators to follow the individual horses in the field.  Even major stakes races generally use the standard colors for each number.

The standard colors are:
1 Red cloth, white number
2 White cloth, black number
3 Blue cloth, white number
4 Yellow cloth, black number
5 Green cloth, white number
6 Black cloth, yellow number
7 Orange cloth, black number
8 Pink cloth, black number
9 Turquoise cloth, black number
10 Purple cloth, white number
11 Gray cloth, red number
12 Lime cloth, black number
13 Brown cloth, white number
14 Maroon cloth, yellow number
15 Khaki cloth, black number
16 Copen Blue cloth, red number
17 Navy cloth, white number
18 Forest Green cloth, yellow number
19 Moonstone cloth, red number
20 Fuchsia cloth, yellow number
21 Light Purple cloth, navy number

Some photos:

Well, again, I apologize for the length of this post, but I thank you for your attention in reading it all, and I hope the information will help both entrants and judges.  Feel free to email me privately if you have any questions.

Jackie Moore
Region 6 Rep

Thank you, Jackie, for sharing your expertise with us! 

Photo credits: Tracks and nylon bridle, Google image search.
All other photos courtesy of Jackie Moore.


  1. This is completely fascinating!

    I had no idea that things like the numbers were standardized.

    1. Jackie Moore10/02/2012 7:23 PM

      Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you learned something new. :)