In my years covering races at the television network TVG we helmet-headed announcers spent a few moments after races talking about why winners triumphed, cashed our mythical bets, slapped each other on the back for picking so well, and moved on to the next race. That’s a shame. And it doesn’t take into account the other horses who finished behind the winner.
If you own of one of those non-winners, you’re trudging to the car (or the bar) wondering why you’re not in the winners circle sipping champagne and smiling knowingly. And maybe, just maybe you’ve lost a little or all of your optimism for the future of your horse. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen. But take heart, take a deep breath (or an antacid) and know that the race ain’t necessarily over for your horse, and especially for you.
With that preamble, in no apparent order of worth, here are the top three encouraging signs for someone to look for when re-watching what might have looked like a disaster at first blush:
1)”We broke from the gate like a shot and looked like we’d win by a football field…it was so depressing when we got caught late and only beat a few.”
Horses who are racing for the first time are going to get a little tired no matter:
- how many miles they’ve put in before their debut,
- how many lively workouts and gate rehearsals they’ve had, and
- how much you want to believe that practice is like the game, it isn’t.
There’s practice fit and racing fit, and horses who have raced before generally are just that much more in shape to finish the job.
The takeaway from this scenario is that your horse showed speed and was involved early, and with race fitness early from this first tussle, should be that much more prepared next time.
A horse that I remember that fit this profile is a graded stakes winner West Point campaigned named High Finance. He gave up ground late in his first race after taking the lead pretty early. He went on to win the Tom Fool at Belmont–a pretty fast dude who improved off that first discouraging loss.
2)”The start was so-so (or a disaster) and then my horse made this huge move on the turn. When they turned for home, I thought we were a sure winner, but we flattened out late.”
When I hear this, or when I say it to myself after watching a first race for one of our West Point horses, I have to stop and re-examine the replay. This is a classic first race “middle move” scenario.
Several of our best horses ever at West Point made this move, finished well back in that first race and went on to greater glory later on in their racing careers.
Flashy Bull, our Kentucky Derby starter and grade I winner was a great example of the sluggish starter who started figuring it out in the middle of the race, and then got tired late (remember that first race fitness issue?). King Congie looked like he was going to blow by Uncle Mo on the turn first time out at Saratoga before tiring. He went on to run well in a number of graded stakes races.
What this scenario demonstrates is a willingness to overcome trouble and enough talent to make up ground in the middle of the race. Flashy Bull finished fourth in his very first race and on paper it looked pretty ordinary. But not when you know what you’re looking for.
3)My horse was just so darned slow early on. Sure we passed a couple of our competitors late, but we were never really close to winning.”
Believe it or not, Awesome Gem, West Point’s all time winning money earner at 2.8 million dollars was 10th leaving the gate in his first start and finished a non-threatening fourth.
You’re never quite sure at what distance (long or short) your horse is going to best perform. You can look at all the physical attributes and family tree, consult a fortune teller, or throw darts to guess, but the horse will answer the question over time.
Awesome Gem started off at a very short distance and excelled later in life at longer distances. There was no way he was gonna out hustle some of the speedy ones in that first start, but he did pass horses late. That’s a beautiful thing to see in the debut performance, slow beginnings but faster endings. Even if it’s just a few horses passed late, it leads you to believe there’s some untapped potential unveiling itself slowly in your four legged athlete.
There are a number of other things to think about after that first race where you’re not hoisting the trophy over your head and discouraged because of it. Is this the best surface for my horse? Did the weather or track conditions compromise his or her performance? Did something happen to severely compromise the horse’s chances (slammed at the break, carried out by bolting horse)? We all know some pretty whacky things can happen in maiden races, especially with 2-year-olds.
I’ll say it again. Most horses don’t win their first race. In fact 90% of them don’t.
It’s hard while you’re choking back a little or a lot of your initial disappointment to remember that there could be a number of encouraging signs to look for. But you oughta do it. It’ll make you feel better as an owner. And it rightfully gives you hope for the next time. Not all of them end up being good, but I’ve seen plenty of horses who don’t win first out go on to create memories for their owners.