Thoroughbred Logic: The Race Record & The No/Low Number of Starts

“… when I see that a horse never started, instead of being excited that they have no damage from the track, I start to raise an eyebrow and a whole lot of questions.”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses her logic on the number of starts when buying off-track Thoroughbreds.

When I grew up riding Thoroughbreds — and let’s be real, any horse I could swing a leg over — I never gave much thought to their pedigree or their race history. It was only what was under me at that moment that mattered. I didn’t have expectations of ability or soundness built of fancy sire names, high speed figures, or the commonly-sought-after “no/low number of starts.”

My childhood trainer holding a much younger version of my former horse, Bold Sailor. Photo courtesy of Terry Schreiber

At that point, I probably wouldn’t have known nearly enough to filter the data I had anyway. My first Thoroughbred, Bold Sailor, was sired by Bold Ruler who also sired Secretariat. I thought that was pretty cool. At the time though, it was all novelty and carried no expectation. That 16.2h dark bay Thoroughbred packed my gangly, green-as-grass butt all over Connecticut, occasionally even winning short stirrup competitions against ponies who could practically walk under him. All I knew about his race career was that he had been “way too slow.” By the time he became mine, he was midway through a struggle with navicular disease, but had had a long show career and had taught a lot of kids like me how to ride along the way.

Today, things are a bit different. I probably spend more time on Equibase than I do on Facebook. Terms like “speed figure” and “dosage profile” actually mean something. And when I see that a horse never started, instead of being excited that they have no damage from the track, I start to raise an eyebrow and a whole lot of questions. No longer pure novelty, my reaction to a horse’s racing record can range from being excited to get them in the barn to making me squint to causing me to be flat out angry. Hell, I’m still fuming about this one…

The stats here, which point to how many races and how little he earned, raise so many questions (and my ire) about why he was not retired earlier. Screenshot from

Thankfully, Artie (Study Habits) is sound despite a pounding career of low-level claiming races and has the heart to go with all that effort. He’s also damn fancy. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

There is a lot to say about all of the data that is in Equibase. If you don’t know what I’m talking about there, go to and type in your horse’s Jockey Club name. You’ll find their race record, complete with their earnings, where and when they raced, how they placed and their speed figure (a comparable number calculated in relation to their speed in relation to track conditions, race distance, and time of the race).  There is even a little file icon, which will take you to their race card complete with notes and helpful descriptions of how the race went and the ability to pay and watch videos of their races.

So now, due to the number of Thoroughbreds in the barn (currently in the 20’s), the amount of time I spend studying their records, and the number of days a week that my amazing vets are out here taking x-rays and doing exams, all that data means more. Otherwise stated, I have started to draw some conclusions.

It might be hard to see, but there is a chip right at the front of that fetlock on never-raced Needles Highway. Image of the radiograph courtesy of Countryside Veterinary Service.

Many ISO posts I see are looking for horses with “No Starts, Never Raced” or “Very Low Starts.” I think the logic there is that folks believe that if the horses never went to the track (or only ran a few times), they never earned the jewelry that sometimes comes with it. Sure, they probably have a point and there are a ton of lovely creatures who fit that bill. But, there is also another side to the low/no starts: if it never made it to the track (note the change in verb there) or never stayed there long, there is probably a reason.

Examined in financial terms, each horse is an investment. Someone paid the stud fee, the race training, the stall, or purchased it from a sale, etc. And if it never was given a chance to bring a return, there is probably an explanation. And that is something that is often worth trying to suss out.

Chonky Uno (Hold Em Paul) never made it to the track and I’m still hoping that it has to do with his body type more than his soundness. Thankfully, we have seen rads of most of his joints and he is sound and going well. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

Sure, sometimes Thoroughbreds are simply too slow. It does happen (ahem, Louis). And some racing operations are absolutely responsible enough not to waste their time, money — and the horse — on a futile pursuit. But the rest of the time, there is a reason. A chip. A behavioral issue. A tendon or ligament. A heart. Disastrous feet and angles. An injury. A general inability to keep it sound.

I have had all of these in my barn.

And I have spent a lot of time working with my vet and farriers to fix the things that kept them from successful running careers. Now, I’m not saying avoid the horses with low to no starts. Just know that that number of races is not a panacea to avoid the physical downfalls and wear and tear of the Thoroughbred. It just poses other questions and sometimes other problems.

Tackle (Kampeska) heading back from conformation photos before we knew about his heart. Photo by Alanah Giltmier

Most recently, there has been Tackle (JC: Kampeska). This young horse with a beautiful pedigree including Galileo and AP Indy was bound to be super in sport. Sure, he’s little and just showed no interest in running at the track. According to the race farm owner, he just got slower and slower in the workouts. I thought, cool — maybe he’ll be more interested in sport. He rode wonderfully, came round, was simple enough to toss a well-riding ammy up on him for ride three post track training.

The pre-purchase exam changed all of that. His heart sported a major defect — well, three from-birth defects according to the UGA cardiologist. His slowness and easy going nature was probably partially just who he is, but it was also that he is mid-way through a process of severe heart failure. (As an aside, Tackle is being donated to UGA to the Cardiology unit to teach the next generation of vet students how to do EKGs and learn about defects. He’ll be kept as comfortable as possible for as long as is kind. It is about the best case possible to a worst case scenario).

Needles Highway learning about fences and courses earlier this year. Photo by the Kivu Team.

Then there is Needles (Needles Highway), whose ankle x-ray is above. This big galoof of a horse never made it to the track — he trained…kinda(?), but had something with a tendon. Then he did a little bit more growing up and went back, but was too slow. When he got a PPE there was sagittal flattening in his ankles and P1 chip(s). I don’t care about those and they’re easy enough to pop out if necessary, so when the original buyer passed, he got to come down to my farm. He is now a personal horse who is recovering from all sorts of paddock-related idiocy, but will be very, very fancy in the not-too-distant future.

While I could keep going through the mini-case studies, I’ll finish with this one: Tuck (Louisiana Bling). I picked up this stunning steel gray gelding when I was at a wedding in Houston. Because who doesn’t go find the back-side of the track while having to swim through a slew of wedding events? Oh, that’s not normal? Huh…

My favorite photo of the very photogenic Tuck (Louisiana Bling) schooling at the TB Makeover in Kentucky last year. Photo by Lauren Schuster.

Anyway, Tuck ran six times, earning a total of $300. That should be a red flag right there. His earnings were pitiful. Averaged out, he brought home 50$ a race (clearly races don’t work by averages, but that puts it in perspective). On the shed row, I spent a lot of time looking at his hind hoof angles, but ignoring my better judgement I handed over the cash and shipped him home anyway. For the next eight months we battled those angles until he was stood up enough behind that he could properly ride and work through the soreness in his back. By the time I brought him for sale to the Makeover last year, he was going great, but his was a tough battle and one that I needed a good team of vets and farriers to get through.

Negative case studies aside for a minute, there are absolutely plenty low/no-start horses who are fantastic. This article is just a cautionary write up saying that they’re not the overarching solution to finding Thoroughbreds without body issues. Because as with all of them, it is just a matter of figuring out what you as an owner/rider can live with. I’m cool with Needles’s ankle chips. I was also cool with working on Tuck’s feet until his back stopped hurting. But not everyone has that time or the team that can help bring them both around. And then again, even with the dream team on board, we can’t fix a failing heart and, for lack of better words, that bloody f%&@ing sucks.

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) is one of the unproblematic ones — too immature to run well, he was never pushed and retired from the track after two lackluster races. He is now happily cooking around Novice. Photo by Cora Williamson Photography.

Inevitably, when I start talking about race records, I’ll get asked, “Well then, what is the best thing to look for when buying?” The best thing to look for is a good horse whose issues are the ones you can live with. There isn’t a magic number of races. Some of the soundest horses I have ridden have run over 40 times. Sure, the more they run, they might require more general maintenance in the future, but they also were sound enough to keep running. Ideally, I want horses who come off the track because they slowed down or showed no further interest in galloping to the front of the pack. I want horses from barns and trainers I trust. And I want ones whose kindness and intelligence make all the work that goes into getting/keeping them sound and going worth every day and every penny.

So folks, go enjoy the horse that you have and the novelty of having stats on their past. A good horse is a good horse whether they ran two times, ten times or sixty-three times.