Many newcomers to racing wonder how often a horse races.
Naturally there is no official number, as some horses are different to others while trainers also have an individualistic approach.
We’re going through what can be expected of horses generally, to help you to determine how fresh they may be when you assess their form.
Rest Periods for Racehorses
Regardless of the distance they race over, a horse’s wellbeing and behaviour will essentially let a trainer know when they are ready to race again.
A long time ago, one trainer commented words to the effect of “why would I work horses in the morning for free when I can run them in the afternoon for money?” Fair point on the face of it, but no piece of homework takes as much out of a horse as running in a competitive race does, if you are doing it correctly.
A horse can canter each morning no problem, perhaps putting in a fast pieces of work a week or so before a big race. This is fine, but running in said race takes huge effort and leads to horses losing weight. That weight needs to go back on, muscles need to recover and, like us, horses need to rest.
Although the loose quote about running in the afternoon for money instead of in the morning for free is quirky, you may say it’s the epigram that starts the lower-grade trainer’s manifesto.
At the top end of the game, John Gosden once spoke typically pragmatically after Nathaniel lost out by a nose in the King George at Ascot. He’d returned two weeks earlier in the Eclipse, which he won, but the trainer mentioned the fact that there would normally be three weeks between these races.
Gosden noted publicly that that extra week would have been enough time for Nathaniel to recover sufficiently to show his best form, bemoaning it while congratulating the winner. That may be the difference between a top trainer and a lower-grade trainer – patience.
Just How Long Do Horses Need Off?
During their peak season, they can run often. They won’t however keep this going for twelve months.
Many people think of three weeks as being ideal, while when the horse has had an easier time and is nice and fresh, they can run in two big races within a couple of weeks. We’ve even of course seen horses run well twice in two days.
When looking at how much a horse has improved from debut, you may notice a pattern. Often, you may see that a horse ran to a mark of 80 on debut, then to 94, 101, 86 and 105.
Overall, they have improved 25lbs in four runs since debut. That averages out at over 6lbs of improvement race to race. Often, you’ll find that had that debut been in October and the latest run been in June, it also represents four months of the horse being in proper training meaning the same amount of improvement per month.
Horses do improve for racing, i.e., practice, but more so for time given that they need it to strengthen up. So, averaging a run every month or so when in full training would be just about right.
How Many Times Will Horses Race in a Year?
To accentuate the above point, we’ll take a look at the established route of an up-and-coming Derby horse.
While some such types go via the 2000 Guineas, many are not bred to be quick enough for a mile and so will take in one or two Derby trials.
This is 2021 Derby winner Adayar’s season:
He was ready to run by mid to late April, taking in the Sandown Classic Trial. Looking unfurnished and with lots of improvement to come, he was sent to Lingfield just 15 days later for the Derby Trial.
With that race having put him spot-on for a tilt at the Derby, the Epsom Classic came 28 days after Lingfield which was ideal.
Adayar was more than capable of running within a couple of weeks of his Sandown race, but the Derby takes a mammoth effort and so it was decided after Epsom that he wouldn’t go to the Irish Derby at the end of June, or drop to 1¼ miles for the Eclipse in early July.
Instead, he was kept back for the King George V and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot 49 days after the Derby. He won that race too, but again the masterful Charlie Appleby knew full well that he would need to be a fresh horse if attempting to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
71 days past before he ran in Paris, but that meant heading off to Ascot for the Champion Stakes 13 days later was somewhat of a shot to nothing given that he’d been freshened up for France and would now be off until the following season.
In all, this was a well planned and well executed campaign. Adayar ran six times in 176 days, meaning an average time off of 29 days between races. Perfect.
Do All Race Horses the Same Amount of Rest?
Definitely not. Some need longer between races, others don’t.
There is an argument in fact that some trainers run their horses too often. Charlie Johnston has taken over from his father Mark Johnston and carried on the tradition of keeping the horses busy.
This is fine, as long as they are fit and healthy, however punters need to remember that it will mean a horse throwing in a bad run a little more often as they will still only progress at the same rate as a less frequent runner.
Some trainers, who we won’t name, have been accused over the years of exercising too much patience, keeping their horses off the track when opportunities were there.
In the jumps game, that accusation has been levelled at many British-based trainers who appear to keep their horses at home after Christmas right up until the Cheltenham Festival. This has turned some new year Grade 1 races into farces and arguably has even left their horses undercooked at Cheltenham versus those having taken part in the Dublin Racing Festival.
In theory, a horse could begin as early as February in Dubai. They may take in the Dubai World Cup meeting in March, then get to work in the European Flat season from April onwards.
Their opportunities can keep coming, taking in Champions Day in late October and the Breeders’ Cup in November.
Even if you only ran them once every four weeks on average however, they’d be taking part in nine top-class races around the world over that time. For the majority of the thoroughbred population, they would not be able to do that and hold their form the entire time.
Even if the spacing is right then, lots of mileage can put a horse “over the top”. Punters can use this info of course. If a horse has been busy and puts in a bad run, their odds will often be larger next time. If the horse has been freshened up, you may ignore their last run and view their profile overall.
Are All Trainers the Same?
Again, no. As mentioned, Charlie Johnston and several others will generally keep their horses going, putting in lots of track mileage.
Trainers like George Boughey and Sir Mark Prescott have proven very adept at using the handicapping system well, running a well-treated horse a number of times in a short period in order to take advantage and win as many races as possible before being handicapped out of them.
The mark of a great trainer of course is adaptability. The aforementioned Charlie Appleby was 1st and 3rd in the 2021 Derby, but the routes the two horses took after were very different.
While Adayar hadn’t had the hardest preps and was given time off before the King George and the Arc, Hurricane Lane was treated differently.
He was known to have a great constitution and showed Appleby something different to Adayar. Fresh as a daisy after each run, Hurricane Lane was sent to the Irish Derby and to France meaning he raced twice more before Adayar went to Ascot. He even won a St Leger before joining his pal in then Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe field.
John Gosden too has also trained each top-class horse on their own merits. He has exercised great patience with many top types including Emily Upjohn, Taghrooda, Cracksman and Golden Horn.
With Enable however, things were different. In 2017, she took in two trials before winning the Oaks. She won the Irish Oaks and the King George in July before scoring in the Yorkshire Oaks and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. As a three-year-old filly she raced seven times, five times at Group 1 level.
The same trainer treated Roaring Lion similarly. Known for being incredibly hardy, he ran 9 times as a three-year-old taking in such tough races as the Craven Stakes, 2000 Guineas, Dante Stakes, Derby, the Eclipse, the Juddmonte International, the Irish Champion Stakes, the QEII and the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
He went from a mile to a mile and a half and back again, winning five times that year. If the horse showed signs of being capable of that, the trainer did not wish to hold him back.