The Process of Training a Race Horse for the Kentucky Derby

Posted by Jaclyn Harris on Fri, Jan 23, 2015

There is nothing more exciting than watching a thoroughbred on the racetrack.

After all, the Kentucky Derby® is called "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports."

From the speed at which they breeze past spectators, to the thundering sound of their pounding hooves, to sound of jockeys urging them to accelerate, to the final stretch where these equine athletes leave everything they have on the track, horse racing provides adrenaline unlike any other sport.

How to Train a Horse for the Kentucky Derby

The process of getting a horse to this stage isn't easy. Even more so when your eye is on a prize like the Kentucky Derby. For outsiders looking in on the process, it's important to understand the colts you see running in the Kentucky Derby, or the fillies running in the Kentucky Oaks, are very young.

To be eligible to race in the Derby, a thoroughbred must be considered a three-year-old, which means they've only had a year, maybe less, of racing under their belt. These colts are green, not seasoned at all and it is for this reason, and many more, that horse racing can be incredibly dangerous for jockeys and horses alike if training is not done carefully and correctly. 

So, the question remaining is how does a trainer get a horse ready to race in the caliber of horse racing that is the Kentucky Derby? How do you prep a thoroughbred for that kind of pressure and distance? 

Take a look at the process behind training a race horse and then, learn how you can see these colts compete for the roses in the Kentucky Derby!

Horses at the Kentucky Derby®

Raising a Race Horse

The first step in training a race horse, or any horse really, is getting them accustomed to being handled and tacked up. This means, getting the colt or filly used to the weight of a saddle, the tightening of the girth, the feel of the bit in their mouth, and then, eventually, the added weight of a rider.

It is at this time the youngsters will begin working on loading into the starting gate, standing still as the gate shuts and then breaking from the gate.

This is a learning process for both horse and trainer. Similar to people, horses are unique and are motivated in different ways. Their personalities are different and, therefore, no training program is the same for every horse. One colt might need a gentle hand while another might need a firmer approach with more challenges.

It's imperative that as a colt is maturing, trainers study their behaviors and mannerisms carefully to learn what they are picking up, and to ensure bad habits are not being learned. Once these youngsters are at the track, they will need to be keen, alert and professional, and "spooking" is not an option.

From Second to Third Year

Once a horse hits its second or third year is when the colt really hits the track. Customarily between the hours of 6 and 10 a.m., trainers get their horses out on the track with an exercise rider or jockey for routine jogs or gallops every day. The trainer determines the distance the horse will run and what speed the rider should work them at.

A session bringing the horse to a fast gallop, to test its speed and fitness, is called a work or breeze. These workouts can be timed by the track's official clocker and are permitted to be published in industry papers and track programs. This allows potential buyers and people placing wagers to see how the horse has been performing leading up to a race.

The amount of work and the speed the rider keeps the horse at is directly related to the upcoming races the trainer and owners are looking at entering in. For instance, if a trainer is looking to put their horse in the Kentucky Derby® which is 1 1/4 miles long, they will work their colt up to that distance in real time.

Besides from just conditioning and timing, it is important to get horses used to racing against each other. It is not uncommon for a farm to train their horses together on the track in the morning. This allows the horses to get used to getting bumped by other horses and the dirt flying up in their face, and allows them to learn to be guided to the rail by their jockey.

On Jan. 1, when horses turn three, they are eligible for the Kentucky Derby®. In order for an owner or trainer to get their horse admitted into the "Run for the Roses," they must enter in a series of qualifying races called the Road to the Kentucky Derby®.

If the colt is then one of the top qualifiers in the series for the Kentucky Derby®, you'll see them at the starting gate!

Racing at the Kentucky Derby

How YOU Can Attend the Kentucky Derby!

Your Road to the Kentucky Derby starts here with just one call to Derby Experiences! Derby Experiences is the only Official Experience Provider for Churchill Downs® for both the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby® offering a wide variety of event packages with unparalleled access to Derby weekend. Derby Experiences' Official Ticket Packages are filled with exclusive extras you cannot obtain anywhere else. 

Where will you be when the next potential Triple Crown contender is named?

2020 Kentucky Derby Official Ticket Packages