The Making of a Racehorse

Posted at 6:34 PM, May 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-20 09:29:59-04

Preakness preparations at Pimlico have been in the works for several months, but preparations on behalf of the racehorses is a lifelong endeavor.

The makings of a champion horse begin before it’s even born. Owners approach breeding horse farms like Country Life Farm in Maryland where they have a roster of stallions with a race-winning track record.

“They send mares to us to breed to our stallions to make racehorses or to make thoroughbreds that they'll then sell at the sales as yearlings or weanlings down the road,” said Christy Holden, the general manager, at Country Life & Merryland Farms.

But it's not as simple as it sounds. According to Jockey Club rules, thoroughbreds cannot be artificially inseminated so it's up to Mother Nature, timing, and breeders to help produce a foal.

“It involves a vet checking them weekly until they're about 40 days in foal, gestation is about 11 months, so it's a year-long process before you get a baby from a mating this year,” Holden said.

She added that they’re foaling upwards of 70 mares each year.

The process also isn’t cheap. The stud fee for a foal at Country Life ranges from $2,500 for a stallion named Cal Nation to $95,000 for Malibu Moon, the sire of the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner, Orb.

You can also count on yearly expenses once the foal is delivered.

“Raising a baby that's probably a $10,000-$15,000 a year investment to raise a foal to racing age to where they're 2 or 3 years old and ready to race,” Holden said.

But the potential of having a winning horse can be worth the gamble. More than $48 million in purse money was up for grabs in 2015 in Maryland races.

And if your horse is a big-time winner, they could be worth a lot of money after their racing career ends.

“They're potentially worth millions for the stud career alone,” said Holden.

However, the odds of winning a race or even having a horse compete are not necessarily in your favor.

“These horses are fragile animals, you see their legs aren't that big around and it’s a thousand pound animal, so whatever can go wrong usually does a lot of times. So, to get a horse just to the point where it's running in races is a huge undertaking,” Holden said.

And if they get to that point, training is essential. It can start as early as one year after birth.

Matthew McCarron oversees the training at Merryland Farm. Foals typically are sent there from Country Life Farm when they become a yearling. From there he works with riders to break-in the horses. Training can be up to six days a week, but it takes more than great training program to get a horse ready for one of the Triple Crown races, including Preakness this Saturday. 

“The best of the best, only the elite 3-year-olds in the country or even in the world compete. I would compare them to Olympic-quality athletes, the crème de la crème in thoroughbred racing,” McCarron said.

And while it's rare it could happen, McCarron looks for certain winning characteristics in horses he trains.

“The way they move is a great indicator, but it doesn’t always make a fast racehorse. You also like to see that fire in their eyes, they don't like the horse that they're with going past them, you'll see them pin their ears back and especially when they actually start picking up the speeds then you can actually see which ones have the natural raw talent and those who also have great heart and determination and want to do it,” said McCarron.

That drive combined with genes, training, and a great jockey can set horse owners up for success, but it ultimately comes down to luck.

“There's one guarantee in horse racing and that's there is no guarantee whatsoever. Anything goes, when those gate opens, it's a free for all,” McCarron said.

Last year, American Pharaoh became the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown. There have only been 12 horses total to ever win the coveted title.