The racing career of a thoroughbred can be pretty short and, in many cases, that’s the only bit the casual watcher will take notice of.
There is a long life cycle for racehorses however, from when they’re foaled to after they retire.
When Does a Race Horse’s Training Begin?
Horses are foaled usually by major breeding operations and looked after brilliantly from the very first moments. As yearlings, they are often then sold at auctions and the like and are broken in at various racing stables.
This process allows them to get used to wearing tack, having a jockey on board and essentially being steered and manged from up top.
Their more serious training usually begins as they head towards their two-year-old season which is when they can begin racing, in the case of flat horses at least, though they are often left alone until later on if they appear to be a little ‘backward’.
When Do Horses Start Racing?
On the flat, horses can begin racing at 2. This is their juvenile year. Many precocious types start as early as March when the Brocklesby Stakes takes place at Doncaster, some come out later in the spring and many don’t make an appearance until the second half of the season.
Some of the top Group/Grade 1 winners however didn’t hit the track until their three-year-old year. This isn’t uncommon, and trainers are increasingly patient when it comes to getting their horses onto the track for the first time.
As for jumps horses, some come from the flat scene and may have already been racing since they were two or three. They may not tackle a hurdle until they’re four or five in many cases however, but can race on for quite some time after that point.
What Sort of Races Do Young Horses Start In?
On the flat, the two-year-olds will start out in simple conditions; maiden or novice races. Maiden races are for horses who have never won a race, while conditions and novice races can be competed in by those who have raced before but are not yet ready for a step up.
Young horses can improve very quickly and it is not unheard of for a newcomer to win their first race in a novice event in good style and be plunged straight into a juvenile Group 1 race.
In the earliest part of the season the juveniles will almost all be racing over just five or six furlongs. As the season progresses, seven-furlong races and eventually mile races are added to the calendar for two-year-olds.
Over the jumps, emerging hurdlers can begin in novice hurdle races or maiden hurdle races. Some even get going in ‘bumpers’, which are the National Hunt’s equivalent of a flat race run over the minimum distance of two miles.
When Do Race Horses Peak in Terms of Ability?
There is no single answer to this question, as horses can peak at all different times and for various reasons. Some simply strengthen naturally and mature, while others improve after a change of trainer, after being gelded, having had a breathing operation or after trying a new distance.
In general though, the more precocious youngsters may be at their best at three and many are retired quickly at this point.
The majority of flat horses go on to improve further at four and more still get better and peak at around 5 or 6 if they haven’t been retired.
Jumps horses are different. A top hurdler or chaser may be starting to reach the top at around 7 or 8 and can race on at the top level for a few years.
After a horse has passed its apparent peak on the track, there are several things that can happen. At the lower levels they may well simply stay in training with their owners and trainers accepting that they aren’t the force they once were. In this case they are often sold on, too.
Those at the top level with a great bloodline may be retired to the breeding sheds before their regression on the track can do their stud value any damage, while others get a second wind.
Over the jumps especially, horses such as Native River and Tiger Roll have had long careers and appeared to be either out of love with the game or simply past their physical peak only to come right back to form.
For the overwhelming majority of racehorses though, once their peak has gone they are simply retired from racing.
What Happens to Race Horses After They Retire?
There is a special stable in Suffolk where they can be looked after and reminisce about their younger days… not really.
This really depends on the horse’s status, as well as that of their owner. Many which are capable go to stud to be either stallions or broodmares.
Some become hunters or hacks and can be sold cheaply to private buyers, while there are prominent owners such as JP McManus who have the will and the means to keep all of their ex-racehorses on their land and in good health.
There are many specialist retraining programmes now for ex-racehorses to help them lose their racing brain, be less highly-strung and to find new homes after racing.