Challenger - Return Home   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2003

Well I remember Secretariat’s epic run in the Belmont Stakes. Well will I remember my anguish when a 70-to-1 shot won this year’s Belmont. If I’d bet $100 on Sarava, that would have been $7000 in my hand. But such, says our man Mike, is the way of things in

The Sport of Kings

Mike Resnick




I am a horse-racing fanatic. I don't bet, but I've been known to fly halfway across the country to watch Seattle Slew hook up with Affirmed, or Dr. Fager take on Damascus.

I've written for The Blood-Horse, American Turf, Horseman's Journal, and half a dozen other racing publications, and I wrote a weekly column on racing for more than a decade.

So it stood to reason that sooner or later Guy Lillian was going to ask me to Explain It All To You.


To understand horse-racing, you really should learn some of the lingo. So let's start with it. _

Furlong_. A furlong is an eighth of a mile, 220 yards. The term originated because that was approximately the length of a farmer's furrow. Almost all horse race distances are described in furlongs. A 6-furlong race is 3/4 of a mile; an 8 1/2 furlong race is a mile and a sixteeth; a 12-furlong race is a mile and a half. _

Turf_. Turf means grass. Most American races -- 80% or more -- are run on the dirt. The rest, and almost all races in Europe, South America, Australia and Asia, are run on the turf.

Track conditions_ are fast, good, slow, muddy, and sloppy. Strangely enough, you get your second-fastest times not on good tracks, but on sloppy ones, because if there's standing water on the track, it means that it hasn't soaked in and the track is reasonably hard beneath the water. Good and slow tracks are tiring, and this affects front-runners the most. Muddy tracks are a class by themselves: some great horses, such as Swaps, could barely stand up in the mud, let along run in it; others, such as Bold Ruler, were far better in the mud than on fast tracks. Most horses are relatively unaffected by it. _

Weight_. It's impossible to stagger a start, the way you can do with human runners, so when the track handicapper tries to give every horse an even chance, he does it by assigning different weights to them. The usual rule of thumb is that 2 pounds equals a length, and scale weight is usually 126 pounds -- so if I think that horse A is 4 lengths better than horse B, and that horse A is probably a length and a half poorer than the average good horse of his age and class, I would assign horse A 123 pounds and horse B 115 pounds. Most jockeys weigh between 95 and 112 pounds, and any extra weight the horse must carry is made up by putting lead weights in the saddle pads. Over the past century, only truly exceptional horses have been asked to carry 130 pounds or more, and only one in the past 50 years has won with 140 pounds.


Horses don't just run hell for leather from flagfall to finish. They can't. The very best horses can sustain an all-out drive for about half a mile. There are no races that short for Thoroughbreds anywhere in America.

Competition saps a horse's energy. A horse running three lengths ahead of the field after a half-mile in 47 seconds uses much less adrenaline than the same horse, running neck-and-neck for the lead with a rival, uses after a half mile in that same time of 47 seconds.
The purpose of the jockey is twofold: to keep his horse free of trouble (and by trouble, I mean traffic jams), and to conserve his horse's energy and get him to relax, whether he is running in front or coming from behind.

How do you know if your horse is doing well?

Easy. Watch the jockey. If his rump is way up in the air, well above the saddle, if his toes are up and his heels are down, he's restraining the horse. (Remember: he weighs 110 pounds. The horse weights about 1,100 pounds. He _has_ to practically stand up and lean back to restrain the horse.) How do you know when your jockey is asking for speed? His rump will come down to the saddle, he'll lean forward, and he'll drop his hands (thus releasing his restraint on the reins).

How do you know when your horse isn't responding? Every major jockey since the now-retired Bill Hartack is right-handed, so each of them uses his crop (it's called a "popper", because it makes a startling sound but doesn't hurt or leave welts) in his right hand. If, in the homestretch, you see your jockey has shifted the crop to his left hand, it means he wasn't getting any response from his mount and is trying to startle it by whipping it on a side that never gets whipped.

How do you know if your jockey has confidence in your come- from-behind horse? It's generally considered that for every horse you pass on a turn, you're giving up a length. So if your jockey goes five wide on the far turn, he's saying, in essence: "My horse is so strong today, so full of run, that I'm willing to spot the leader 5 lengths in the homestretch, just to make sure I'm outside of all the traffic and have a clear lane to the wire." (Tired horses, like tired humans, tend not to run in a straight line. The easiest way to avoid them is to go wide and come down the middle of the track - _if_ you feel your horse is good enough to go wide.)

And, of course, if the jock tries to sneak through on the rail, or pick his way through horses like a broken-field runner in football, he's not as confident and he's saving every bit of ground he can.

Off-tracks: if you like front-runners, the best time to bet them is on muddy tracks. Why? First, they won't get mud thrown up in their faces like the horses behind them (and enough mud in the eye or up a nostril can discourage _any_ horse), and second, the horses directly behind the front runner could pick up 10 to 20 pounds of mud on their necks, chests, and shoulders. (Remember the handicapper's rule of thumb, that two pounds equals a length? That means if you pick up 16 pounds of mud, you're spotting the front- runner an extra 8 lengths.)


You can also get a notion of how the race will turn out by looking at the fractions, which are posted every quarter-mile on the infield tote board.

A good, usually victorious, time for 6 furlongs is 1:10; for a mile, 1:35; for a mile and a quarter, 2:01; for a mile and a half, 2:29. As you can see, the average quarter-mile takes a bit longer as the distance increases (and for those of you who care, it's estimated that a Thoroughbred can run 5 lengths in a second, which makes it very easy for a sport that divides times by fifths of a second.)

The world records are, of course, a good bit faster: 1:06 1/5 for 6 furlongs, 1:32 for a mile, 1:57 3/5 for a mile and a quarter, 2:24 for a mile and a half.

Anyway, once you know what a good time should be, and how long a horse can sustain his top speed, it doesn't take much to look at the time and figure out what's likely to happen.

For example, you're watching the Kentucky Derby. It's a mile and a quarter. Five horses are bunched near the lead. The time for the first half-mile is :45 3/5 seconds. What conclusion can you draw? That none of those five will be around at the end. They've used themselves up too early, and there's more than half the race to go.

Okay, now we're watching a 6-furlong sprint. Same scenario: five horses bunched up front in :45 3/5 seconds. What conclusions can you draw from that? That one of them will probably win the race -- after all, a final quarter of 24 seconds, much slower than they've been running, will still get him home in 1:09 3/5, usually a winning time. Which horse is the likeliest? Check those jockeys: whose rump is highest in the air? Who's already whipping his horse before the others do? Is the one on the outside riding confidently, or asking for an all-out effort already?

How do you beat a top front-runner, a Seattle Slew or a Dr. Fager? By making him use himself early. You get him to run that first half-mile in 44 seconds, and he won't be around at the end. You let him get away to an opening half-mile in 48 seconds, and the race is as good as over. If he's a front-runner, he very likely will not relax and let another horse take the lead without putting up a struggle. A front-runner's only weak spot is his stamina, and if you don't force him to expend his energy early, you've lost before the race is half done.

How do you beat a top come-from-behinder, a Forego or a Damascus? By setting the slowest possible pace. That come-from- behind horse wins by catching tired horses with a final burst of speed. Run that first half mile in 45 seconds and you're properly softened up for him; sneak away in 48 seconds, and your horse will be a lot fresher, and harder to catch, in the homestretch.

Did the favorite draw an inside post position? Good. Run alongside him, right behind the leader, and never give him room to move ahead. If he wants the lead, his jockey will have to slow him down until he's behind you and has enough room to maneuver to the outside.

You're in front, your horse is tiring a bit, and you know that the come-from-behind favorite has yet to make his run? Don't hug the rail. Move out as far as you dare toward the middle of the track, and make that favorite go even wider. His jockey will have just a fraction of a second to decide if you're purposely going wide (and hence he can cut inside of you) or if your horse is getting leg-weary (and hence might bear to his left any instant and close the inviting hole he just made). Usually the jockey will play it safe and go wide -- and you might have made him go just wide enough so you can hang on and win.

It's all strategy, and it's fascinating when you understand what you're seeing.


There are, to date, 16,307 ways to lose a horse race. There is only one way to win: get home first.

Bill Shoemaker is widely considered to be one of the two or three greatest jockeys in history. He was the winningest rider of all time, both in numbers of wins and in money won, when he retired. (Both totals have been surpassed.)

And yet Shoemaker was capable of some of the most bone-headed blunders in major races that anyone ever saw.

Take the 1957 Kentucky Derby. Please.

A racetrack places poles every sixteeth of a mile, so the jockeys can look at the pole as they pass it and know how far they are from the finish. The sixteenth pole is a sixteenth of a mile from the finish wire, the eighth pole an eighth of a mile, and so forth.

Shoemaker was riding Gallant Man. He was a "plodder", a come- from-behind horse who lacked early speed but got better and stronger as the races got longer. He'd been running 7th for most of the way, but then Shoemaker put him to a drive, and he began catching tiring horses. At the head of the stretch he caught the tiring favorite, Bold Ruler. At the eighth pole he caught Round Table. At the sixteenth pole he was within inches of catching the leader, Iron Liege -- and then Shoemaker, who'd ridden in half a dozen Derbies and already won one, mistook the sixteenth pole for the finish wire and stood up in the stirrups, easing his horse. He realized his mistake in less than a second and sat back down and started whipping Gallant Man again...but at the finish wire it was Iron Liege by a nose, and there is no question that Shoemaker standing up for that second cost Gallant Man more than the four inches he lost by.

It came less than a year after an equally glaring blunder. In horse racing, 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds usually run at equal weights -- but after two years on the track, there's usually very little doubt as to which is the best horse, and racetrtacks couldn't draw competitive fields if they didn't start handicapping the outstanding horses by making them carry more weight.

Now, if you're riding horse A, and carrying 125 pounds, and you beat horse B, who is carrying 119 pounds, by 2 lengths, in all likelihood the handicapper is going to increase the weight spread from 6 pounds to 10 pounds the next time the two horses, from the point of view of the trainer and jockey, you want to win a handicap race not by the biggest possible margin, but by the smallest safe margin. Why win by 5 lengths and pick up 10 pounds in your next start when you can win by one length and only pick up two pounds?

Shoemaker was riding the brilliant Swaps in the 1956 Californian Stakes. Swaps had just set a world record in Florida; he would proceed to set world records in 4 of his next 5 starts, something that neither Man o' War nor any other thoroughbred ever did. And since all those upcoming races were handicaps, Shoemaker knew that he didn't want to win by a dozen lengths (though Swaps was clearly good enough to do so). The race began, Swaps lay back in 3rd place, moved up to the lead on the far turn, and entered the homestretch four lengths in front -- and Shoemaker decided he'd better cut that victory margin down so that Swaps didn't pick up too much weight in his next race.

And of course, as he was slowing Swaps down, Porterhouse, a nice but not outstanding horse, ran the race of his life and caught him two jumps short of the wire. By the time Shoemaker realized what was happening, it was too late to get Swaps going again, and he lost by a head.

There are 16,305 more ways, but you don't really need to learn them all today.


Eddie Arcaro, considered the greatest jockey of his time, was riding a mediocre horse in a very unimportant race at Belmont Park. It came in 9th in a 10-horse field.

Upon returning to the unsaddling enclosure, Arcaro was confronted by an irate trainer.

"Why didn't you listen to instructions?" demanded the trainer in a loud, piercing voice. "I told you to lay fourth to the far turn, move up to third at the head of the stretch, and then come on to win!"

"What did you want me to do?" responded Arcaro. "Leave the horse?"


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