Last updated: May 21, 2023
When I was looking at a racing form, I noticed some of the horses had long breaks between races while others ran quite often. This made me wonder how often the average horse races and how the frequency of races impacts their performance. So, I did some research to find out.
On average, racehorses race seven times per year. The horse’s race frequency varies; higher class horses race once a month or less, lower level racehorses run every couple of weeks. Injuries and race availability are also factors in how often a horse can race.
Racehorses are investments for their owners, and they only make money when running. Owners want horses every week, but there are reasons a racehorse can’t run too often.
A fit racehorse can compete in 18 races annually.
The number one factor in determining when a horse can race again is his fitness level. Fitness level or condition refers to the horse’s ability to run. A horse’s fitness level is determined by timing him during his morning workouts and seeing how it recovers.
During a race, the horse’s body takes a beating, and he will need some time off to fully recover and regain his fitness level. If he has not sustained any injury, he will need two to four weeks to get back into running shape and be ready for his next race.
A fit horse needs two to four weeks off to recover between races.
If the racehorse is considered a top-class horse, he will likely be given a month between races to recover and get into peak condition after a race.
Remember, though horses are individuals, their recovery time will vary after a run. Some horses may need an extended break of six weeks or more before being ready to race again.
Injuries limit the number of races a horse can run.
After a race, the trainer and groom will check the horse for signs of injury. Often they will notice heat or swelling in the joints or maybe bleeding from the nostrils.
If their examination determines the horse has sustained an injury, treatment and rest will be necessary. If the damage is considered minor, the horse still requires some time off from training and racing.
If racehorses aren’t given proper time to heal, the minor injury could end up becoming a catastrophic injury. The time off will depend on the horse and the severity of the damage.
Some injuries take six to eight months to heal.
It is not uncommon for a horse to need a six to eight-month layoff before returning to race training. Click here to read more about how minor injuries can lead to catastrophic racehorse injuries.
Owners want their racehorses back on the track and racing as soon as possible, but they need to listen to the advice of their veterinarian and trainer. Pushing a horse onto the racetrack too early could cripple a horse.
There has to be a race for the horse to compete.
To be able to race a horse, there must be races written for the conditions your horse meets. It’s not uncommon for a trainer to have his horse ready to run but cannot find a race to enter his horse.
I have a young horse that hasn’t raced in a month because I can’t find a suitable race for her. She is fit and ready to go, but the track stewards haven’t written a race with the right conditions.
For example, she is a maiden that competes well in six-furlong races. For her to have a shot at winning, she needs to run in a maiden claiming race at six furlongs or less, but the only maiden claiming races available are at a mile or longer.
I don’t want to run her in an allowance race or over six furlongs. In this situation, I have to wait until the stewards write a race that fits my horse. Races are even more challenging to find for horses in higher classes.
This is understandable because the lower the level of the horse, the more horses, and in turn, more races are written for them. The best horses will have to wait for the right race suited for him. They don’t write stakes races every day.
Track rules require a certain amount of rest days.
Track rules require a minimum amount of days a horse must have off between races. Most states have six days’ rest before the horse can run again. Let’s look at why a horse may take time off between races.
Trainers decide when to race a horse, and sometimes it’s a personal decision.
Like other professions, a trainer wants his career to look as good as possible. Racehorse owners want to send their horses to the trainer who gives their horses the best chance to win.
To help make the decision, they will look at the performance records of the horses under each trainer. Trainers know this, and if they want to continue to attract good horses, they need to keep their record looking good.
It used to be the practice of trainers to give a horse a prep race before a big race as a “tune-up.” Now because they are concerned about having a higher winning percentage, “tune-up” races are rarely used. Now trainers will give the horse extra workouts during training in place of the “tune-up” race.
Owners want to run their horses as often as possible.
Owners of racehorses are in the business of making money. They can’t make money if their horse isn’t running. It costs a lot of money to own a racehorse, and the prospect of earning any of that money back only happens if the horse is in a race.
Older horses and horses perceived as less valuable will be raced more often than their more valued counterparts. Owners are willing to risk cheaper horses and run them on the shortest break between races to recoup expenses.
Good breeding prospects are often run in limited races.
Another reason horses don’t run as often is that more and more horses are being retired from the track. Once a horse has proven itself or herself, an owner may elect to quit racing his horse and start breeding them.
Good broodmares are in high demand, and stud fees have skyrocketed. War Front currently has a stud fee of $250,000.00 per cover. I don’t think we will see him racing anytime soon.
Medicine plays a role in how often horse races.
Over the years, the use of drugs has increased in the racehorse industry. As we saw in the Jockey Clubs’ chart, the number of races a racehorse runs per year has decreased.
Some people believe the new medications have a direct negative impact on the health of a racehorse. The thought is that medication masks pain resulting in a horse running through an injury.
In 2014 panelists of veterinarians met to discuss topics concerning the racehorse industry. This topic came up for discussion. None of the panelists were willing to buy into the commonly held notion that increased use of therapeutic medications, primarily the anti-bleeder medication furosemide, has led to the decrease in starts per horse and lower field sizes. https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/113244/no-consensus-on-fewer-starts-shorter-fields
“Therapeutic meds don’t hurt horses,” Scollay said, adding that over-reliance on therapeutic medications can give a trainer or veterinarian a false sense of whether a horse has a problem or not.
“The intent in which they are used can result in injury or harm to the horse.” (click this link to read the full article.
How Young Can Racehorses Race?
When I was recently at the racehorse training center, I noticed most of the horses looked very young. Seeing all these colts and fillies made me wonder about the age racehorses begin their career.
Horses are broke to the saddle and begin their racehorse training at two years old. The first two-year-old races usually start in the late spring. Track rules do not allow a horse less than two years old in a sanctioned competition.
The rules that govern horse racing require a horse to be two years old to run in a race. But in actual months, he could only be 18 months old. Let me explain; horses are all given the same date of birth, January 1, of their birth year.
Horses may not mature until they are six years old.
Horses generally do not fully mature until they are four or five years old. Some may not be completely mature until six. Racing is rough on a horse’s body, so racing on a horse that is not fully developed can lead to severe and sometimes career-ending injuries.
These youngsters will need additional time off between races and individual attention. Even though horses can begin their career at two years old, many people believe it is too young to start racing.
The vast majority of racehorses will not start racing until after they turn three years old. I wrote a comprehensive article on why racehorses are so young you may find interesting.
How Old is Too Old for a Racehorse to Race?
One day at the racetrack, we watched a horse we previously owned win a race; she was ten years old. Seeing her run made me wonder how much longer she has left in her racing career.
Some horses are too old to race at four years old, while others are still running well at 10 or 12. They’re only as old as they feel. Your horse will let you know when he has finished his racing career and is ready to retire.
As I stated earlier, horses are like people; each is an individual; they age differently, have different genetic makeup, and have been raised differently.
I found the world record for the oldest racehorse to win a race in the Guinness World Records. He raced on the flat and was 19 years old named Al Jabal, a purebred Arab, ridden by Brian Boulton, and owned by Andrea Boulton (both UK), won The Three Horseshoes Handicap Stakes (6 furlongs) on 9 June 2002 at Barbury Castle, Wiltshire, UK. May 22, 2001, Horse, Oldest race winner | Guinness World Records
The record I located for the oldest thoroughbred to win a race in the United States is Behavin Jerry (foaled in Feb of 1964) won a $1,500 claiming race on September 7th, 1981, at the age of 17.
In his racing career, he made 307 starts, winning 38 races. He averaged over 20 starts a year for 15 straight years. He was forced into retirement because of concern he would have a heart attack on the track. He died in 1996 at 32 years old.
It makes you wonder if these horses were still running fast at these ages or where the other horse was plodding. I wrote another post on “How Long Does a Racehorse Live,” and I have a human-to-horse comparison chart in it.
In the table, a horse 17 years old would be equivalent to a human 53 years old, and a 19-year-old horse compares to a human close to 60 years old.
How Many Races Will a Racehorse Run in His Career?
Looking at the numbers from the Jockey Club, I calculated an average of 28 starts over their lifetime. But again, we have to examine this closer. As we know, if a horse is successful early in his career, he will be turned out to breed at a young age.
For example, a Kentucky Derby winner who is three years old may go directly to retirement after the race. Horses that are the best will have the shortest racing careers because their value is standing at stud, not racing.
Geldings and claiming class horses will run until it is no longer financially viable to continue to run them. They may average 20 races a year over a four or five-year career if they have no injuries.
Does a Racehorse Know When it Has Won a Race?
Racehorses are bred to run, and I believe they enjoy running. If you ever watch them on a brisk morning, you will see they need no coaxing to kick up their heels and run around the pasture.
The larger question is, do they like to race, and do they know if they won? I’m not so sure about this. Some horses get excited before a race and know the race is on. But do the horses care if they win?
Do they realize they just passed the finish line? As much as I and others would like to think so, the answer is no. Horses naturally run to escape as a means of survival.
Young colts may chase each other, but it doesn’t amount to racing. During the final stretch of a race, the horse is straining every muscle to run as hard as possible.
The effort is not to finish first but to please the jockey. A horse knows the rider is asking him to go faster and faster. I do not believe he understands he is running to a spot on the track.
Although they may strut in the afterglow and admiration of the winner’s circle, it is likely about the attention it is getting. It is unlikely they understand they were in a race at all.
Do Quarter Horses run more Races than Thoroughbreds?
Quarter horses do not run more races than thoroughbred horses, but quarter horses can run more races in a shorter period. At most tracks that host quarter horse racing, the season is shorter than a thoroughbred racing season.
Having a shorter season means fewer races are written, and in turn, it’s more difficult to find races to enter a racing quarter horse. Racing quarter horses typically recover quicker from a race than a thoroughbred racehorse.
The quicker recovery period is likely because the racing distance is much shorter, and the horse is not strenuously exerting themselves for as long. Also, quarter horses are built with thicker muscles and are more compact, resulting in being less susceptible to sustaining an injury.
Triple Crown Racing Schedule
The triple crown schedule contradicts what I wrote earlier about the time off given good young horses. The triple crown competitors must run three races with only a short break to recover.
Some horsemen have tried to expand the intervals between races to a month, but this idea has not caught traction with the racing public. The three-year-olds running in this series must be durable to compete and win. I like this schedule.
Over the years, the amount of rest given to horses running in the triple crown has varied. From 1919-1946 horses were only given seven days off between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
The short turnaround was a brutal schedule for the young three-year-olds. But as they say, the cream rises to the top. The modern-day schedule has the Derby running on the first Saturday of May and the Preakness on the third Saturday in May, followed by the Belmont Stakes on either the first or second Saturday in June.
In 2019 this worked out to be a two-week break between the Derby and Preakness and a three break between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. By anyone’s standards, the races push young horses.
Some of the horses can’t stand up to multiple distances with short recovery times. The brief period between races could be why there are so few triple crown winners. It takes a special horse.
Below is an interesting YouTube video that provides information about horseracing.
The Number of Races a Horse Runs Annually Has declined.
The per-year average of races a horse runs each year has decreased steadily over the last 50 years. In the 1960s, the average horse raced close to 12 times per year. Today’s racehorses run an average of seven races per year.
The chart at the top of this post is from the Jockey Club, the governing body of Thoroughbred racing. The graph shows the average number of starts per year that Thoroughbred racehorses have made since 1950.
The chart also indicates the number of horses per race and other pertinent information. Click on this link to access the jockey club website; the site provides detailed and up-to-date horse racing information.
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Meet Miles Henry
An avid equestrian and seasoned racehorse owner, Miles Henry brings his extensive experience to the equine world, proudly associating with the AQHA, The Jockey Club, and various other equine organizations. Beyond the racetrack, Miles is an accomplished author, having published various books about horses, and is a recognized authority in the field, with his work cited in multiple publications.
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