Chasing Down the Derby

  • Shaun Tolson

The Rituals of Racing

Third baseman Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game; Michael Jordan wore his collegiate shorts under his professional uniform throughout his NBA career; and goalie Patrick Roy always skated backward toward the net before each period (and would talk to the posts during games). All three have been inducted into their respective sport’s Hall of Fame, and each athlete was especially superstitious.

When it comes to sports in general, however, there may be more superstitions (and superstitious participants) in horse racing than in any other category. To help you through that sea of ritual and compulsion, we’ve uncovered some of the most common beliefs.

A horse with four white feet has long been thought of as a weaker runner. Many owners and trainers believe that the lighter pigmentation leaves the hooves prone to unsoundness due to wear and cracks. A champion racehorse is strong and powerful; tender feet simply don’t fit into that equation. But then there’s Frankel, a now-6-year-old stallion with four white feet, who never lost a race in 14 events, 10 of which were Grade 1 (G1) races. Further debunking superstition, Frankel won his first race on Friday the 13th.

Flaxen (white or golden colored) manes and tails generally are considered bad luck, but that didn’t stop Flame Thrower, a now-16-year-old stallion who won a handful of G2 races and earned more than $450,000 over seven career races. According to Julie Cauthen, Keeneland’s director of owner and client development, the flaxen colt was “wickedly fast.”

Many people believe that an old mare will be unable to produce a strong runner. Secretariat—born to an 18-year-old mare—repudiated that premise by winning the Triple Crown in 1973.

Another prevailing view is that May foals, which are among the last crop of horses born in a calendar year, will never catch up to those born earlier in the year. Seabiscuit, who was born in May, seemed to have no trouble catching up to anyone.

When it comes to race day, many owners (and bettors) think that it’s bad luck to bet with 50-dollar bills. Many owners don’t want to be wished “good luck” before a race, and some don’t want their horses photographed before a race either. Owners and trainers also have their preferred spots to view a race, and many choose to do so away from the track itself.

Finally, when it comes to stabling a horse, a cat in the barn is considered good luck, but rakes or pitchforks hanging with straw in the tines are believed to be unlucky. So are peanuts (at least in the barn). Some horsemen even believe that it’s bad luck to hang a winner’s circle photo of a horse before the horse has retired.

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