Horse Mentality Heading Into Belmont

Jun 8, 2017

Credit 123rf Stock Photo

The 149th running of the Belmont Stakes is this Saturday. Twelve horses will compete for the third leg of this year’s Triple Crown series. WEKU’s Stu Johnson has been wondering, “What will the horses be thinking in the gate, at the quarter, and down the stretch?”

Almost three weeks ago, as noted in the NBC TV broadcast, Cloud Computing came on in the stretch and nipped one of two big favorites Classic Empire to win the Preakness.

On this beautiful sunny morning at the Thoroughbred Training Center off Lexington’s Paris Pike, horses and riders circle the track with times charted in the clocker stand.

Winchester native Wallace Howard used to buy and sell horses for Motown Founder Barry Gordy, among other famous owners. Now a trainer, Howard says communication between humans and horses goes on during training.

“They tell you what’s wrong with them and any time they are doing something different, they are telling you," he said. "If they’re not with the same routine every day, if they standing in the corner not coming to the webbing, something’s wrong with him and he’s telling you that.”

Running the clock in the stand was Susie Shurtleff, who’s held the stopwatch there for about five years, was an outrider before that, and says she can’t remember not knowing how to ride a horse.

“They’re a living creature," she said. "They have a mind of their own. Once they learn what you want them to do, they try very hard to please you. You know, they get competitive, they know they’re supposed to run, they know they’re supposed to be in front. And they will try very hard to do that for you.”

Just about a quarter turn away at the Thoroughbred Training Center was the practice starting gate.

Joe Heet’s spent just over three decades helping horses learn how to break out of the gate. When ready, he signs a card to give trainers the go-ahead to race virtually anywhere. Heet believes horses know when they are gaining on the leader as the finish line draws near.

“You know a horse has got some class, he knows when he wins, and he knows what he’s got to do to win, or he wouldn’t have kept coming," he said. "Plus a jock’s helping him too. You know, they’re the pilots and everything.”

Rosie Napravnik was a successful jockey including two Kentucky Oaks and two Breeders Cup wins. Retiring in 2014, Napravnik remains active in racing, helping train Derby contender Girvin. The New Jersey native estimates she’s ridden in some 10,000 races. Napravnik remembers 2014 Breeders Cup Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby as a distracted thinker.

“He kind of pricked his ears as we turned for home and was thinking about looking at and thinking about the crowd in the grandstand, so he was kind of a double-edge sword because he was very smart, but sometimes distracted,” she said.

Communication between horse and human also continues once the horses leave the track. Susanna Thomas runs the Secretariat Center at the Kentucky Horse Park. Retired thoroughbred racers come there to be retrained for new jobs or leisure riding. In the paddock on this day, a new mare has just arrived and was very boisterous.

“She’s brand new at the Secretariat Center," Thomas said. "So, she doesn’t know this environment. And the way horses feel safe is when they are protected by a herd, because they’re animals of prey. Anybody could eat them.”

In fact, Thomas says this mare is trying to get a message out to a horse outside the stable.

“So, she’s gonna holler to her friends and say, ‘Where are you? Where are you?'," she said. "And then the friend says, ‘I’m here, I’m here, Where are you?' That’s what just happened."

Thomas says each thoroughbred has his or her unique horseanality. She says clever trainers and riders take that into consideration along with racing experiences and statistics. She calls it “very intellectual.”

This Saturday, a lot of that intellectual thinking will be put into practice as horses run and think their way around the Belmont track.