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Quarter Horse racing vs. Thoroughbred racing - how are they different?

Watching the Quarter Horse in action will take your breath away. They are strong, stout and fast.

And while there are notable differences between the racing Quarter Horse and the Thoroughbred, those who work in the Ontario Quarter Horse industry will tell, they are not as different as you may think.

The American Quarter Horse racing breed has been around since the 17th century, almost as long as the Thoroughbred, when early colonists in eastern North America crossed Chickasaw ponies and other Native American breeds with imported English Thoroughbreds.

Some of these imported Thoroughbreds were direct descendants of the Godolphin Arabian, one of the three founding sires of the Thoroughbred breed. One in particular, Janus, a grandson of the Godolphin Arabian passed on genes that played an important role in the development of the agile and quick Quarter Horse, a workhorse and a racer. Of course its breed name comes from the quarter-mile distance at which it excels

The cross of Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred genes continues today: if you delve into your Quarter Horse racer, you will likely find a Thoroughbred in the first five generations.

Indeed, the dominant Quarter Horse sireline through First Down Dash (1984), one of the sport’s all-time leading stallions descends from Thoroughbred Three Bars (1940), who is in-bred to Domino, a great great grandson of the legendary Eclipse.

Refrigerator, considered one of the greatest modern-day Quarter Horses who earned over $2 million in the early 1990s, is a direct descendant of Native Dancer through his Thoroughbred grandsire Heisanative. Native Dancer is also the grandsire of the great Thoroughbred Northern Dancer.

Even this summer at Ajax Downs there have been several starters with immediate Thoroughbred relatives: Purrfect Storm, an allowance runner for owner and trainer Rick Kennedy, is a son of Thoroughbred sire Ciano Cat a son of one of the world’s leading Thoroughbred stallions, Storm Cat.

Training the breeds

Kennedy is one of few trainers in Ontario who races both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. At his farm in Mount Albert, ON, Kennedy has 24 horses in training, most of them Quarter Horses, and he has 12 horses in training at Woodbine.

 “There is not a whole lot of difference in some of the ways you train them, said Kennedy, who has eight wins at the current Ajax Downs meeting. “They have to be legged up and you have to build up their wind.  Once Quarter Horses are fit you don’t have to train them as far each day.”

Kennedy, a former barrel racer who bought his first Quarter Horse in 1976, said many of the ailments of the two breeds are similar.

“They almost all have the same type of ailments,” said Kennedy. “But there are a lot more “fast twitch” muscle fibre injuries with Quarter Horses than Thoroughbreds.”

All horses have both fast (for quickness and speed) and slow twitch muscle fibres (endurance) but the ratio of fast twitch to slow twitch in Quarter Horses is greater than that for Thoroughbreds.

Since a Quarter Horse can get up to 30-35 mph in a matter of a couple of strides, those fast twitch muscles are the ones being worked the hardest.

Kennedy enjoys training both breeds of horses and believes that because of the speed of the racing Quarter Horse, it can gain a reputation for being more flighty than a Thoroughbred.

“Quarter Horses get a bad rap,” said Kennedy. “They are a very nice horse to be around. “
They’re off!
Jockey David Garcia does most of his work at Woodbine Racetrack aboard the Thoroughbreds but he still enjoys a trip to Ajax Downs to ride Quarter Horses.

There have been many jockeys who got their start in riding aboard Quarter Horses and then moved their tack to Woodbine. One of this season’s top apprentice riders, Ericka Smilovsky, was a leading Quarter Horse jockey at Ajax before moving her tack to Woodbine, full time, three years ago.

Garcia said the biggest difference between riding the two breeds is the quickness out of the gate.

“The Quarter Horse is faster out of the gate than the Thoroughbred,” said Garcia, “It’s most important to get a good break from the gate. Your horse has to be alert.”

A jockey in a Quarter Horse race only has to be ready for the explosive power out of the gate but keep the horse as straight as possible while hoping the rivals beside him do the same thing.

“In Thoroughbred racing, the races are long enough, for the most part, that you can recover from a bad start. You can’t in Quarter Horse racing.”

Once a jockey breaks out of the gate in a Quarter Horse race, the name of the game is to ride hard and fast for anywhere from 110 to 440 yards, or about seven to 21 seconds. A rider will tell you it’s more about the hustle rather than style.

A Thoroughbred race can range from five furlongs (five-eighths of a mile) to 1 ½ miles therefore, riders have to be judges of pace, masters of horse traffic and able to finesse their mount into having the most power left for the last part of the race.

Pick a winner

So what about handicapping a Quarter Horse race compared to trying to pick a winner in Thoroughbred racing?

Doug McPherson has been a handicapper for Ajax Downs for the last four years and is also the chart-caller for Equibase. McPherson is originally from a Thoroughbred racing upbringing as his father Alex is a longtime trainer at Woodbine.

“I like handicapping both breeds,” said McPherson. “I do a bit better with the Quarter Horses as I find overlays (horses that are longer odds than McPherson thinks they should be).”

McPherson notes that there are not as many variables that affect a Quarter Horse race as there are in Thoroughbred racing.

“The process of handicapping a Quarter Horse race is similar; you look at class or appearance on the track. But when your races are usually only 250 to 440 yards, the surface, the jockey, they don’t matter as much,” said McPherson.  

The factors to look at when handicapping a Quarter Horse race include trainers, as the majority of races run at Ajax Down are won by a small set of trainers. “The horses are all trained at farms so you won’t see any workouts or gate training but
there are training and workout days at Ajax and you can see the workout times on Equibase.”

Coming to the paddock and looking at the horses as they go to the track and the gate is one of the most important aspects of picking a winner in Quarter Horse racing.

“If you see a horse acting up, getting really sweaty, that is a negative,” said McPherson. “Behaviour is everything in Quarter Horse racing. You want your horse to be on his toes but not acting silly.”

Keeping notes on each week’s races by viewing race replays made available by Ajax can also go a long way to finding a horse that had trouble in a race.

“It is a bit easier, I think, to pick a winner in Quarter Horse racing simply because there are less factors to deal with. It is a fun challenge.”

So, come and check out the Quarter Horses at Ajax Downs and see how beautiful and exciting the sport is.

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