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Why is the Thoroughbred Breed Preferred for Horse Racing?

Published on: November 7, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Thoroughbreds are considered the best racehorses due to their exceptional speed, agility, and strong competitive nature. Originating in the 17th century, they’ve become the face of horse racing, combining outstanding athletic abilities with a spirit unmatched in the equine world.

This article explains the unique qualities that make the Thoroughbred breed unparalleled on the racetrack and why they continue to be the top choice for the sport.

The Origins of Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds have a rich history that goes back over 300 years. This breed first came into being in 17th and 18th century England when native mares were bred with imported Arabian, Barb, and Turkoman stallions. The goal was clear: to create a horse that could dominate on the racetracks. And that’s precisely what they did.

The very first Thoroughbreds set the standard for what a racehorse should be—fast and fiery with a strong desire to win. Racing, as we know it today, wouldn’t be the same without these early horse athletes. The Thoroughbred’s reputation for speed and endurance quickly spread, making them the model for horse racing worldwide.

These horses weren’t just fast; they were the fastest. By the time formal race meetings became a regular occurrence in England, the Thoroughbred was already the favorite choice for racing. This began a legacy that led Thoroughbreds to dominate the racing scene for centuries.

Picture of a racehorse which is a Thoroughbred breed.

What Makes The Thoroughbred Breed Ideal for Racing?

Thoroughbreds have distinct physical traits that make them natural athletes on the racetrack. Let’s break down what sets them apart:

Built for Speed

These horses are lean powerhouses with large, well-muscled hindquarters that propel them forward. Their long legs give them a lengthy stride, allowing them to cover more ground with each powerful gallop. Plus, their slim build minimizes the weight they carry, which naturally helps in speeding up.

Heart and Lungs

Thoroughbreds also have an incredible cardiovascular system. Their large hearts pump more blood, and their efficient lungs provide ample oxygen, which is perfect for endurance in longer races.

Height and Build

Standing between 15 and 17 hands high (a ‘hand’ is a unit of measure equal to four inches), Thoroughbreds tower with a graceful, athletic build. Their deep chests house those large lungs, and their overall body structure is balanced to support both speed and agility.

Compared to other breeds, Thoroughbreds are the marathon runners of the equine world. Quarter Horses, for example, may excel in short-distance sprints thanks to their stocky build and explosive power, but they can’t match the Thoroughbred’s stamina over longer distances.

Draft horses, with their muscular and heavyset frames, are powerhouses for pulling and farm work but don’t have the lightness of frame or heart size that makes a champion racehorse. In short, every aspect of a Thoroughbred’s build is designed to maximize their racing potential. This specialization is why you’ll find them outpacing other breeds on the tracks time and time again.

Picture of a Thoroughbred foals and broodmares.

The Role of Selective Breeding and Genetics

Thoroughbreds aren’t just born fast—they’re bred to lead the pack. Selective breeding is the secret sauce that has fine-tuned this breed for the track. Here’s how it works:

Crafting Champions Through Selective Breeding

Breeders carefully choose the fastest and most durable horses to parent the next generation, ensuring that top racing traits are passed on. It’s like picking the best athletes to form a super team. Over generations, this has created horses with the innate ability to run at lightning speeds and handle the pressures of competitive racing.

Genetic Gifts

Some of the key traits bred into Thoroughbreds include:

  • Speed: Thanks to their genetics, Thoroughbreds have fast-twitch muscle fibers, much like sprinters, which allow for explosive speed.
  • Stamina: They also possess a high number of slow-twitch fibers, essential for endurance, to sustain high speeds over distances.
  • Mental Agility: Racing isn’t just physical. Thoroughbreds are sharp-minded and capable of making quick decisions during the intensity of a race.
  • Competitive Edge: The desire to lead, known in racing as ‘heart,’ is another trait breeders look for. This isn’t just physical—it’s a mindset.

These traits don’t just appear out of thin air. They result from meticulous breeding choices backed by an understanding of genetics. For instance, the gene for large heart size—a trait famously linked to legendary racehorse Secretariat—is sought after for its correlation with exceptional racing performance.

A Genetic Edge Over the Rest

While many horse breeds are bred for various traits, Thoroughbreds are the result of a centuries-long quest for the ultimate racehorse. Unlike breeds that may be selected for work or temperament, every choice in Thoroughbred breeding is geared toward creating the fastest, most resilient, and competitive horses possible.

The result? A breed that possesses not only a remarkable physicality for racing but also the heart and mind to excel in the sport of kings. In the genetic lottery of speed and stamina, Thoroughbreds have hit the jackpot, and it’s this winning ticket that’s made them the beloved centerpiece of horse racing.

Picture of a Thoroughbred in training.

Thoroughbred Racing Abilities: A Triple Threat

On the racetrack, Thoroughbreds showcase a trio of abilities that set them apart from the herd: speed, stamina, and agility. Let’s explore what makes these horses racing legends.

Unmatched Speed

Thoroughbreds are the Usain Bolts of the equine world. Their speed is a sight to behold, with a record-holding sprinter like Winning Brew running as fast as 43.97 mph. But speed isn’t just about fast legs; it’s also about a fast mind. Thoroughbreds have the mental quickness to react to their jockey’s commands instantly, allowing them to surge ahead at just the right moment.

Remarkable Stamina

Horse racing isn’t always a short sprint – it often requires endurance. Thoroughbreds can sustain a high speed over distances that range from three-quarters of a mile to 1.5 miles or more. This stamina is thanks to their powerful hearts and efficient lungs, which keep their muscles fueled and functioning over the length of the race.

Agility on the Track

Agility is another feather in their cap. Thoroughbreds are adept at navigating crowded fields of competitors, making tight turns, and adjusting their stride on various track surfaces. This nimbleness is crucial in races where strategy and position can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

A Cut Above the Rest

Together, these attributes form a potent combination that is hard to beat on the racetrack. While other horses may excel in one area, Thoroughbreds consistently demonstrate high-performance levels across all three. It’s this all-rounded capability that often has them crossing the finish line first, with a mix of natural ability and honed skill that is the envy of the racing world.

derby turf race edited

The Winning Mindset of Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds bring more to the track than just their physical prowess; their mental attributes are equally impressive. Let’s delve into the temperament and training that prepare these horses for racing success.

The Mental Edge

A Thoroughbred’s mindset is a blend of keen intelligence, sensitivity, and an innate desire to run. They possess:

  • Intelligence: They can learn and adapt quickly, which is essential during the unpredictable moments of a race.
  • Focus: On the track, they demonstrate incredible concentration, tuning into the race and their jockey’s signals.
  • Courage: Racing requires heart, and Thoroughbreds have it in spades. They’re known for their boldness and willingness to lead or chase down the leader.

Training for Excellence

Thoroughbreds are highly trainable, thanks to their intelligent and willing nature. Training a Thoroughbred isn’t just about physical conditioning; it’s also about mental preparation. Trainers harness a Thoroughbred’s natural eagerness and shape it into a controlled, competitive edge. The key is consistency and patience, allowing the horses to:

  • Build Trust: Establishing a strong bond with handlers and jockeys leads to better cooperation and performance.
  • Learn Strategy: Racehorses must be tactically aware, understanding how to position themselves and when to make their move.
  • Stay Calm: Despite their fiery spirit, they must remain calm under the pressures of a racing environment.

Eager to Race

Thoroughbreds love to run. It’s in their blood. Their eagerness is apparent from a young age and is cultivated throughout their training. This natural inclination, combined with their competitive nature, makes them ideally suited for the high stakes of horse racing.

A Partnership on the Track

When a Thoroughbred and jockey click, it’s a partnership that can lead to greatness. The jockey’s skill matches the horse’s trainability and keenness to perform in guiding them to victory. It’s a synergy where mental fortitude meets physical strength, all racing toward a common goal.

kentucky.derby edited 1

The Financial Frontrunners: Thoroughbreds and the Economy of Racing

Thoroughbreds are not just champions on the track; they are also significant players in the economics of horse racing. Here’s a glimpse into how they affect the financial aspect of the sport.

Betting Favorites

In the world of wagering, Thoroughbreds are the main attraction. Their races generate billions in bets each year. Bettors appreciate the predictability that comes with the breed’s history and statistics, allowing for more informed decisions. It’s betting that swells the purses at races, making the stakes higher and the sport more thrilling.

Prize Money Powerhouses

The allure of Thoroughbred racing can be measured in the prize money offered at prestigious races like the Kentucky Derby or The Grand National. Winning these races can yield millions, with prize money trickling down to the smaller races across the globe. The potential for earning big attracts investors and encourages the breeding and training of Thoroughbreds.

Industry Impact

Beyond the track, Thoroughbreds are economic stimulators:

  • Breeding Business: Thoroughbred breeding is a high-stakes industry. From stud fees to sales at auctions, the flow of money is substantial.
  • Employment: The breed supports a wide range of jobs, from grooms and trainers to veterinarians and farm managers.
  • Racing Days: When Thoroughbreds race, they draw crowds. These events boost local economies, from increased hotel bookings to retail spending.

The Global Stage

Internationally, Thoroughbred racing is a sport that transcends borders, with major races drawing international attention and investment. The prestige of owning a winning Thoroughbred can elevate the status of an owner, trainer, or breeder on the world stage.

A Breed Above in Economics

The financial impact of Thoroughbreds extends far beyond their performance in races. They are economic powerhouses that sustain a large part of the sporting world, contributing to a multibillion-dollar industry that captivates audiences worldwide.

Picture of Man o' War winning the Belmont Stakes.
1 R UMAX Mirage IIse V1.1 [4] (Man o War)

Thoroughbreds: Heartbeat of Racing Culture and Tradition

Thoroughbreds are more than just athletes; they are icons that have shaped the culture and traditions of horse racing. Their role in this storied sport is rich with history and prestige.

Icons of Equestrian Elegance

Thoroughbreds have become synonymous with the glamor and tradition of horse racing. They are the stars of the show, adorning posters and racing programs, and are revered in the narratives of legendary races past.

Tradition on Hooves

From the pomp of the Royal Ascot to the roses of the Kentucky Derby, Thoroughbreds are at the center of racing’s most cherished rituals. They are the reason for the iconic “Call to the Post,” and the thundering excitement that follows is often courtesy of these magnificent animals.

Festivals of Speed

Major racing events worldwide, such as the Melbourne Cup, the Dubai World Cup, and the Breeders’ Cup, are dominated by Thoroughbreds. These events are not just races; they are cultural spectacles, complete with time-honored traditions, fashion statements, and social gatherings.

A Tale of Heroes

The names of legendary Thoroughbreds like Secretariat, Seabiscuit, and Man o’ War are woven into the fabric of the sport’s history. Their stories transcend racing, capturing the imagination of enthusiasts and casual observers alike.

Cultural Mainstay

Beyond the track, Thoroughbreds have inspired artists, filmmakers, and authors, cementing their place in broader cultural lore. They symbolize grace, power, and the relentless pursuit of excellence.

Celebrating Excellence

In the end, Thoroughbreds are a testament to the human quest for greatness, celebrated annually in racing calendars and daily in the morning workouts at tracks around the world. Their cultural significance extends well beyond their racing abilities, touching the hearts of those who witness their majesty.

Navigating the Ethical Track: Thoroughbreds and Racing Integrity

While Thoroughbreds are the glory of horse racing, their breeding and racing come with challenges and ethical considerations. It’s a complex track with hurdles to overcome.

Breeding Challenges

Selective breeding has its drawbacks. Pursuing speed and endurance can sometimes come at the expense of overall health. This can lead to a limited genetic pool and inherited health issues, which raise concerns within the racing community and beyond.

The Welfare of the Racer

The physical demands of racing can take a toll on Thoroughbreds. Injuries on the track, though often addressed with advanced veterinary care, raise questions about the balance between animal welfare and the sport’s demands.

The Question of Ethics

Horse racing faces ethical scrutiny. The use of whips, the debate over racehorse retirement, and concerns about doping are hot topics. The industry must address these to maintain the integrity of the sport and ensure the well-being of its equine stars.

Future of the Breed

As awareness and concern for animal rights grow, the racing industry is challenged to adapt. Safer tracks, improved retirement options for racehorses, and stricter breeding regulations are being discussed as ways to safeguard the future of Thoroughbreds in racing.

Preserving the Legacy

Ensuring Thoroughbreds can race and live healthily is essential for the sport’s survival. Advocates, owners, trainers, and fans agree that the love for these animals and the sport must translate into responsible stewardship.

The Finish Line: Thoroughbreds and Their Racing Legacy

In the fast-paced world of horse racing, Thoroughbreds reign supreme. As we’ve journeyed through their history, characteristics, and the very culture of the sport, one thing remains clear: Thoroughbreds are the lifeblood of horse racing for several compelling reasons.

A Recap of the Thoroughbred Advantage

  • Historical Prestige: Thoroughbreds carry a legacy of racing excellence that dates back centuries.
  • Physical Excellence: They possess unique physical traits that make them natural athletes on the track.
  • Mental Sharpness: Their temperament and intelligence render them highly trainable and competitive.
  • Economic Influence: Thoroughbreds command significant economic clout, bolstering the betting and breeding industries.
  • Cultural Impact: They are woven into the fabric of racing traditions and rituals worldwide.
  • Ethical Forefront: The breed stands at the center of meaningful discussions about ethics and animal welfare in sports.

Thoroughbreds are not just participants in the sport of horse racing; they are its cornerstone. Their relationship with horse racing is symbiotic; one thrives with the other. The legacy of the Thoroughbred is etched into every starting gate, each thundering hoofbeat, and the collective breath of spectators witnessing a thrilling finish.

The future of Thoroughbreds in racing is one of reverence and responsibility. As we celebrate their speed, agility, and grace, we also shoulder the responsibility of ensuring their industry remains ethical and their care paramount.

Ultimately, Thoroughbreds are more than just the preferred breed for horse racing; they embody the sport’s heart and history. They remind us that beyond the roar of the crowds and the clash of hooves, there lies a storied partnership between humans and horses, racing towards glory together.

Be Part of the Thoroughbred Legacy

Whether you’re a seasoned racegoer or new to the sport of kings, there’s always more to discover about the captivating world of Thoroughbred racing. Here’s how you can engage with the sport and learn more about these extraordinary animals:

Experience the Thrill

  • Visit a Racetrack: There’s nothing like watching a race live. Feel the ground tremble and hear the crowd’s excitement. Check out to find a venue near you.
  • Attend a Racing Event: Major racing events often have programs for newcomers to learn about the sport. It’s a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the racing culture.

Expand Your Knowledge

  • Read Up on Racing: Visit your local library or bookstore for books on Thoroughbred racing history, famous racehorses, and how the sport operates.
  • Online Resources: Websites like The Jockey Club and Thoroughbred Breeders Association offer a wealth of information, from beginner’s guides to in-depth articles.

Get Involved

  • Volunteer: Racing charities and rehabilitation centers for retired racehorses always welcome a helping hand. It’s a direct way to contribute to the welfare of Thoroughbreds.
  • Racing Clubs and Ownership: For those looking to take their passion to the next level, consider joining a racing club or exploring part-ownership opportunities.

Stay Connected

  • Follow the Sport: With social media, it’s easier than ever to follow your favorite racetracks, horses, and jockeys. Connect with the community and share your experiences.
  • Engage in Discussions: Online forums and fan groups are great places to ask questions and engage with other fans. Your passion could inspire others!

The legacy of Thoroughbred racing is vibrant and ever-evolving. By engaging with the sport, you become part of a community that celebrates these magnificent animals and the excitement they bring to our lives.

Let’s race towards a future where we continue to honor and uplift the breed that makes this all possible. Start your journey today, and who knows, you might just find yourself part of a new Thoroughbred story.