September 7

What Makes a Winning Racehorse?


For any racehorse enthusiast, the million-dollar question is: “What makes a winning racehorse?”

If you have read our article on why conformation is important in a racehorse, you will know the first step to a winning racehorse is choosing the right horse. Confirmation is important and so is pedigree. However, there are five others aspects to consider when assessing what makes a great racehorse.

  1. Desire
  2. Natural Ability
  3. Soundness
  4. Temperament
  5. Appetite/Constitution

Let’s explore the 5 attributes that make for a great racehorse in more detail.

1.        Winning Racehorses Have the Desire to Win:

Most people know someone who has found everything in life to be easy. These people have never had to struggle for anything; it has just happened for them. Maybe they were born into wealth; they may have the right connections, or they may just have been born with an abundance of natural ability. 

They never had to fight for anything. And when they do, most often they don’t have the heart to fight for it. They never lived up to their natural ability because it was all a bit too hard.

Then you have their polar opposite; those who, as the saying goes, “punched above their weight”. They had to fight for everything they achieved in their life. They got there through sheer tenacity. They had the guts, determination, and willpower to fight for everything. They made the most of whatever talent they possessed. They were never beaten until they were beaten.

Guts and Determination

Lester Piggott is widely regarded as one of the greatest jockeys of all time. He is on record as saying that at least 80% of the horses he rode didn’t want to win. 

You can see evidence of this in every single race meeting. A horse goes up to win, puts its nose in front, and another horse fights back to nose it out in the finish. Quite simply – the other horse had the greater desire to win. 

It can also be called guts and determination. A trainer can’t teach it.

Winning Racehorses Have Great Heart

From the moment humans started racing one horse against another – one saying has stood the test of time “he showed great heart to win.”   You often hear trainers, owners, and jockeys say this when describing the attributes of a winning racehorse.

Two champion racehorses of recent times that exemplify this were the Coolmore owned, Aidan O’Brien trained Giant’s Causeway and the Australian legend of the mid-nineties Octagonal. Both had an abundance of abilities.

Giant’s Causeway

Giant’s Causeway was known as the ‘iron horse” as a result of winning five Group 1 races within the space of 11 weeks as a 3YO. Three of these wins were by the narrowest of margins of a head while the other 2 were margins of ½ length and ¾ length. 

Giant Causeway went on to win 9 of his 13 races and finished 2nd in the other 4. He had a great heart and the desire to win.


Octagonal is clearly one of the greatest racehorses Australasia has ever seen. Bred in New Zealand, raced in Australia, he was by the champion sire Zabeel, out of the champion broodmare Eight Carat

What makes him a great racehorse was his desire to win. We have seen in Octagonal showed similar fighting qualities to Giant Causeway winning 14 of his 28 starts with 7 seconds and a third.

Like Giant’s Causeway, he won most of his races by the barest of margins. Giant’s Causeway tended to be an on-pace runner who fought off all his challengers. Octagonal generally raced back of midfield and had to produce exceptionally strong finishes to get up on the line to win.

Secretariat and Phar Lap

While both these horses were fine examples of showing “great heart”  two other champions proved that they did indeed have a great heart. Secretariat and Phar Lap are two of the greatest racehorses the world has ever seen. 

They both had one thing in common: a large heart. 

This was discovered when both horses died, and autopsies were undertaken. Secretariat’s heart was estimated to be a whopping 22lbs which is more than 2 ½ times the size of an average horse’s heart (8lbs). Phar Lap’s heart was not quite as big but still weighed in at twice the average size (16 lbs). 

This tremendous cardiovascular system, pumping oxygen into their lungs at an abnormally high rate, was clearly a source of their great stamina and power and certainly contributed to them as winning racehorses.

2.       Natural Ability:

Winning racehorses not only possess great desire to win, they also are blessed with fantastic natural ability. In recent times we have been fortunate to enough to have witnessed the feats of two great champions in this part of the world: Black Caviar and Winx.

Black Caviar

Black Caviar retired undefeated winning 25 from 25. While she won virtually all her races untested her desire was tested on 2 memorable occasions. The first occurred relatively early in her career when she slipped as she was leaving the starting gates. She suffered severe muscle strains and was not seen on the racecourse for the next 12 months. 

The second occurred on her final racecourse appearance. It just happened to be at Royal Ascot. Her one and only start outside Australia. Her regular rider, Luke Nolen, could tell she was not at her physical best, and in trying to give her as kind her ride as possible he dropped his hands 75m off the post when she had the field covered, albeit narrowly. She immediately thought that the race was over and started to pull up.

Immediately realising the gravity of the situation Nolen went from being motionless to all-out action. Being the champion she was “Nelly” lifted herself off the canvas to win by a head. 


And Winx retired having won her last 33 races on end and 37 from 43. She finished 2nd on 3 other occasions with 2 5ths and a 7th to complete her race record. She never finishing further than 4 lengths from the winner in any of her defeats. 

Because she was a horse that needed to be given time to find her stride, Winx always raced back of mid-field. This proved problematic on more than one occasion when a front running horse looked like being impossible to overhaul. But she had the desire to turn the impossible into the possible and turn what looked like certain defeats into paper-thin winning advantages.


And then there is Frankel. He not only retired undefeated (14/14) he was also judged by the World Thoroughbred Rankings Committee, and Timeform, as the best racehorse they had ever assessed since their ratings began. For many racing enthusiasts who were lucky enough to have witnessed his career, he was not only the best racehorse of all time but the perfect equine athlete.

3.       Soundness:

For a racehorse to have any chance of succeeding to greatness they need to be sound as possible. 

Thoroughbreds are incredibly fragile, and history is littered with potential champions that had soundness issues. 

Danzig and Mr. Prospector, who went on to be champion stallions, were both restricted in their racing careers from their promising racing careers from reaching their full potential because of soundness issues. A horse needs to remain sound, not only to race to its maximum potential but also, most importantly, to allow its trainer to maintain its training program to be able to race.

After her mishap at the start, which cost her 12 months on the side-line, Black Caviar was never fully sound. Her trainer, Peter Moody, was constantly walking a tight rope with her training program, getting her fit but also keeping her sound.

Kingston Town

And then there was Kingston Town who raced in the early 1980’s. Trained by Tommy Smith “the King” was the first Australian horse to win $1m and the first to win 3 Cox Plates. He retired with a career record of 41 – 30 – 5  – 2. 

The majority of those wins (24) were achieved by the Sydney way of going. In fact, he was only ever beaten 3 times in Sydney from 25 starts.

At his first race, he came in last in a field of thirteen. He also showed behaviour problems like pacing about his stall and trying to climb the walls. So, it was decided to geld him and send him for a spell.

It would be 3 years and 21 further race starts before he was beaten in Sydney again. And that was as a 6YO with leg problems. 

HIs leg problems first surfaced 2 years earlier after he had won his first Cox Plate. Up until that first Cox Plate success, he had never been able to win left-handed, which led to him being dubbed the “Sydney Champ.” But he came back 10 months later and racing virtually on 3 legs he amassed a further 12 wins from 17 starts over the next 14 months. 

Included in those wins were 2 more Cox Plates and an unlucky 2nd in the Melbourne Cup. 

By this point, he was well and truly recognised as a champion. There is no question that he preferred the Sydney way of going where he bordered on the freakish in some of his wins. But he overcame both his awkwardness in going the other way round. His chronic leg issues, to beat the best going left-handed he achieved that on heart alone. 

Kingston Town had the desire to win which made him a true champion.

4.       Winning Racehorses Have a Wonderful Temperament:

The calmer the horse, the better they tend to handle their racing. Be it at the training track, pre-race, or even during the race, horses that have the ability to remain relaxed and take things in their stride burn off less energy. 

You will often see horses wearing special gear when ready to race. It could be blinders or blinkers, or sometimes they wear a visor. You also find some trainers put pacifiers commonly referred to as a hood on a horse. Trainers put special gear like this on racehorses to keep them calmer at the start and throughout the race.

Of course, a winning racehorse needs to be able to switch on at the track when it’s time to race. Generally speaking, the calmer racehorse is, the more chance they have of winning

5.       Appetite / Constitution:

The really good horses don’t stress; they take everything in their stride. 

They are not box walkers. They come home from the track and relax. And they have healthy appetites. And, unless something is ailing them, they always eat up. Great horses are never bad eaters.

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