Potential OTTB owners can often be heard discussing a racehorse’s starts as an indicator of a horse’s soundness or suitability for a second career. In fact, some buyers will put a maximum on the number of starts they consider acceptable. And some sellers put the word "unraced" in lights on their ads, because they know it will draw in buyers. Sadly the racehorse with many starts is often passed over by those who think a horse with so many trips to the gate can't possibly be sound. You might be surprised to learn that much of the time the exact opposite is true.
Pedigree, conformation and the level of care a horse receives are all part of the equation that determines a horse’s soundness. It has little to do with statistics. Here's a little insight into what the numbers really mean.
The most common explanation for the unraced Thoroughbred is that the horse was too slow, but this is actually the least likely explanation. For one thing, no matter how slow a youngster is, he will almost always be given at least a couple chances to show his talent in a real race. It can also mean that the horse never even trained to run for a variety of reasons, such as a freak accident or that the owners ran out of money. A Thoroughbred might be in training 5-6 months before ever making a start on the track. (photo courtesy of Heidi Carpenter)
Most unraced horses were injured at some point during their preparation to run or simply couldn't stand up to the pressure. It takes a horse roughly five to six months of conditioning to get to their first race, and that's barring any setbacks, which are more common than not. An unraced horse might have been in training for a year or more depending on how many issues came up along the way. Most can handle routine galloping but when asked for speed, the chinks in the armor start to show. Nevertheless, these horses might be perfectly sound throughout their riding careers, since their bodies will likely never again have to endure the rigors of race training.
Lightly Raced Horse
This one is pretty easy to figure out. If a horse has only had a handful of starts, a glance at their race record will tell you why they were retired. If they showed any ability or were improving, yet were retired after just a few races, you can almost guarantee there was an injury involved.
The Average HorseMultiple Grade I winner, Game on Dude (on the lead), is an example of the "average" horse having raced 31 times over 5 years. (photo courtesy of Heidi Carpenter)
The lifetime starts of a racehorse averages in the mid-teens. Some people think a horse with 25 or more starts has been heavily raced, although I don't really consider anything under 40 worth getting excited over. A horse with starts in the mid-teens is one that has proven to can hold up to the rigors of racing but might still have some soundness issues if they were retired while still competitive. Most of them are re-homed simply because they hit the bottom of the claiming ranks and are no longer paying the bills, or are no longer happy with their jobs.
Horses with 50 or more starts are typical of a “war horse”. Everybody admires their durability, yet few want to take a chance on buying them. It's a sad misconception that these horses are physically used up, when in reality they have proven over and over that they have the brains and body to stand up to the most physically and mentally demanding discipline. Not only must their bodies be sound, but their minds must be as well. They are almost always classy, intelligent horses who are well respected by those on the backside. These horses love their jobs or they wouldn't have held up this long doing it. They typically carry that professionalism and enthusiasm into new careers and thrive on working rather than sitting in a field.
An example of a "war horse", Oil Money's Dream, who retired 100% sound after 56 starts and 7 years of racing and is now learning to jump.
One of the fun parts about buying OTTBs is getting to know their history, as long as you know what that history really means. I can't count the number of times I've seen people swooning over a wonderful potential purchase ... but because the horse has more than a handful of starts, they assume the horse is damaged goods and are scared off. On the flip side, buyers seeking out unraced or lightly raced horses may be under the assumption that these horses will be more sound, when in reality unraced or lightly raced horses may have more issues. With any ex-racehorse, you need to keep in mind that nothing you ever do with them will come close to the stress they've experienced just training to run.
Race records and pedigrees are fun to study and you can glean some insight if you know how to read them. However, even the most knowledgeable horsemen can only make guesses about what may or may not have happened during a horse's career. When buying an ex-racehorse, the only real way to know its soundness is to get a pre-purchase exam and not focus on the numbers. Always remember to judge the horse standing in front of you and not its one-page race record.
Laura and her OTTB "Smart Little Habit" at home in Texas I grew up on horseback, riding before I could walk. I've worked professionally with horses since I was 16 and have been involved in just about every discipline in some way. I saw my first horse race when I was 6 and have been in love with Thoroughbreds ever since. I started working on the track as a hotwalker at Arlington Park and traveled around the country to various tracks, working as an exercise rider, assistant trainer, pony girl and groom. I left the race track to go back to school but still wanted to stay involved with Thoroughbreds.
I started the Facebook group OTTB Connect, as an outlet to help ex racehorses find homes and promote them as sport and pleasure horses. It's evolved into a 12,000+ member group of Thoroughbred lovers. Posts include tattoo research, finding racing photos or tracking down an OTTB's former connections, help with feeding, training and health care issues, TB news and people sharing their love of Thoroughbreds, in addition to having helped numerous people buy and sell their horses and even networking together to rescue TB's in need.
Recently, I joined with several others to set up a branch of CANTER here in Texas. As Executive Director, I am proud to note that we placed 6 of our first 11 listed horses within a week. Outside the track, I enjoy spending time with my own wonderful OTTB, Smart Little Habit.