How To Improve Your Strike Rate


The Australian Stud Book registers thousands of new thoroughbreds each year. Of these, many never make the racetrack. Of those that do, most will never win a race; the average racehorse is “slow” in comparison to the average race winner.

The problem for beginning trainers, is that in accepting, educating and racing every horse that is offered, he or she is likely to end up with average results and a poor strike rate.  This is irrespective of how well-designed the training program is, and how talented a horse-person the trainer is.

Some argue that every horse can be improved by a good trainer, and that even naturally slow horses can be made to win races if given the appropriate work.  A friend of mine says that anyone can train a good horse.  Good horses will tend to win races in spite of poor training techniques and mistakes in stable operations.  Average horses are much harder to train, as work and feed regimes need to be carefully modified to suit the individual.

Some of Australia’s leading trainers have winning strike rates in the vicinity of 25% (winners to runners).  That is winning a race every four starts.  A scan of the recent runners and results for these trainers sees a list dominated by trial results.  These trainers trial their horses – sometimes eight and ten times – before they race.  They tend to only start their horses when they are trialling well enough to be highly competitive.  Some of their horses never race, because they never trial to the satisfaction of the trainer.

The problem for smaller trainers, and particularly for those starting out, is that owners invest in a horse in the hope of it winning races, and at a minimum, of seeing their horse race.  A young trainer needs to convince owners that he or she can educate horses to race competitively.  By getting a horse to the races they achieve this.  The irony is that in doing so with every horse that they are given to train, it is impossible for the trainer to avoid a very ordinary strike rate, even if they have some talent as a trainer.  In addition, it costs nothing to start a horse in a race, whereas trialling can become expensive, with no chance of a financial return – this is an added pressure on trainers to race horses rather than to trial.

Placing horses in races that are suited to their ability is a critical skill for any trainer.  Trialling rather than racing, whilst managing the expectations of owners, is a challenging strategy, but an essential one for a trainer seeking to improve their strike rate.


Customer Service for Racehorse Trainers

with James Curtain

The most successful racehorse trainers are invariably good at dealing with people. Owners need to feel valued. Mark Horstmann and Michael Auzenne, of Manager Tools, identify three critical elements of good customer service:

1. The Customer is Always Right
2. Be Nice
3. Over-Communicate

The first of these is the time-honoured maxim of salespeople around the world. It is the second two that are too-frequently missing. It is not hard to “be nice” – a welcoming smile and expressing interest in the other person usually goes a long way. Communication is something that can be more difficult. Racehorse owners want to know how their horses are going – What does the trainer think? What did the trackwork rider say? How’s the horse eating? Any problems? When are we racing? Where to next?

A good trainer preempts these questions and provides owners with frequent, high-quality information in relation to their horse. Many trainers’ websites now have a “log-in” function for owners where they can access information that the trainer has posted about their horse. While this is a useful tool, it doesn’t show sufficient respect to the owner. Reports should be emailed or posted direct to each individual owner, and the owner should be addressed by their name in these communications. The managing owner should be contacted by telephone in the event of anything significant happening – an injury, an opportunity to “pay up” late for a big race, a jockey needing to be replaced.

Without owners, trainers don’t have an income. By valuing owners and applying the principles of good customer service, more trainers will develop relationships with owners for life, which should be the ultimate goal.

When to use Blinkers on a Racehorse

Generally, blinkers are used to assist a horse to focus in its races. Blinkers can help a horse to race genuinely. A horse that is “field-shy”, or that runs about while racing, will often improve with the addition of blinkers. Other horses may simply lack zest in their races, and may be too relaxed. Blinkers can often help these horses to “switch on”.

I have also seen blinkers used to help horses relax, both in their morning work, and in races. Shutting out part of the busy-ness around them seems to assist some horses to settle down.

Care should be taken when considering the application of blinkers; they can have a dramatic effect on some horses, and they can be dangerous if the horse hasn’t had a chance to become accustomed to them. They can also cause problems for some horses at the start of races – because visibility of other runners is restricted, horses that tend to jump as they see other horses jumping, may start coning away a bit slower.

Used judiciously, blinkers can have a dramatic effect on performance.

It should also be noted that some horses will improve when blinkers are removed. An improvement in performance regularly occurs when blinkers are removed from a horse that has carried them in its races for a long time.

Many, many trainers have explained form reversals solely through the application of blinkers. They are a critical tool in the kit of a thoroughbred trainer, and, used judiciously, will help to win races.

How To Ride a Thoroughbred Racehorse – Part II

In Part I, I wrote about a couple of techniques to assist with riding racehorses, including bridging your reins and holding one rein firmly on the wither and the other rein loose. Here is another technique:

Keep at least one finger under the breastplate strap at all times.  One of Australia’s leading jockeys gave me this tip when I was riding trackwork at Randwick, and it has saved me several times.  If you’re riding short in an exercise pad, and your horse shies suddenly, it’s very difficult to stay aboard.  By holding the breastplate strap, you have an anchor.  You can actually gather the breastplate strap and hold it with your bridged reins, as you see jockey Jeff Lloyd doing here at Rosehill in Sydney:

Jeff Lloyd Jockey

Jeff Lloyd Riding Trackwork at Rosehill Gardens - Courtesy The Daily Telegraph

How To Ride a Thoroughbred Racehorse

When it comes to horse racing, a competent exercise rider is critical. There is a huge difference between riding a horse in almost any other discipline, and riding a thoroughbred racehorse.

Thoroughbreds learn early, to get “on the bit”; they naturally love to run, and most racehorses, once they know what they’re doing, will be keen to get to work as soon as they hit the track. The role of the exercise rider is to stay balanced and restrain the horse to the required tempo, and usually, while exercising, this is a steady canter. Even during fast work sessions, most trainers like their horses to be kept “on the bit”. It is rare to see horses pushed out a the end of a breeze.

So how do you ride a racehorse? They key is to maintain control at all times, and it is more about technique than strength. Older thoroughbreds often have a hard, or “dead” mouth, from years of pulling riders around the track. I’ve seen the strongest riders struggle to hold these horses because they’re simply pulling against the horse.

Here are two simple techniques that will help you to hold your horse:

1. Cross your reins to form a “bridge” and hold it tight on the horse’s neck – not high up but down low closer to the saddle. A tractable horse will flex it’s neck while working, and it ends up pulling against its own neck. I have held the strongest pullers with one hand in this manner.  You can see the world’s fastest racehorse, Black Caviar, being worked in this way here, with jockey Luke Nolen aboard (picture courtesy The Daily Telegraph):

2. Keep one rein tight on the wither and hold the other rein loose. As the horse quickens, put pressure on the loose rein to bring the horse back to the speed required.

It is inevitable that, as you’re learning, the odd horse will run off on you. As a friend of mine says, there’s no end to a circle. So, assuming that you’re working on a circular racecourse (and you shouldn’t be anywhere else if you’re not absolutely confident that you have full control of your horse first), don’t panic. Just keep steering the horse around the track and it will tire. This won’t happen once you learn how to hold your horse properly.

RSPCA On The Wrong Track

In Australia, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been making a fuss about jockeys over-using the whip during races.

To call jockeys who are upset about the new whip rules “rednecks” reflects the ignorance of the RSPCA in relation to this issue.

The new padded whips have been compared with “feather dusters”; they clearly do not hurt a horse, and yet the RSPCA maintains that the animal suffers unnecessarily.  The integrity of racing is at stake here.  Owners and trainers need to be sure that their horse has every opportunity to win the race, and the use of the whip helps to ensure this.

More importantly, punters need to be certain that every horse is racing on its merits.  Gallops racing is preferred over greyhound racing because there is a human influence during the running of the race; whilst a greyhound may opt for a lazy day, a jockey can maintain a horse’s focus with the gentle encouragement of a cushioned whip.

The RSPCA would do well to mobilise its energy and resources towards addressing real issues of concern, cases in which animals are truly suffering unnecessarily.  The organisation is on the wrong track completely in its arguments against the use of the whip in racing.