Head to a racetrack for morning workouts, and you’ll likely see horses wearing what look like typical English saddles. Return during the races, though, and the picture changes considerably. Gone are the galloping saddles, replaced by tiny scraps of leather that could hardly hold most of us in place.
Just as with any other discipline, racehorses wear gear that helps them do their job. The trick for trainers, though, is keeping that gear as light as possible. Conventional wisdom says every extra pound of jockey and tack a horse carries costs a length of distance, and sometimes margins as small as a nose, head, or neck determine the difference between victory and defeat.
That’s why racing has developed the itty-bitty saddle. A race’s conditions determine how much weight each horse must carry. Jockeys provide their own saddle for a race, and many have multiple saddles that weigh anywhere from 2 to 10 pounds.
Lighter jockeys can use larger saddles, while heavier jockeys might switch saddles from race to race, depending on their weight assignment. If a jockey and the equipment don’t reach the assigned weight, weighted saddle pads are added to make up the difference.
Jockeys use correspondingly lighter stirrups made of such material as aluminum, carbon fiber, or even titanium. The stirrup leathers are much shorter than those on a regular English saddle because a horse can usually run faster if the jockey rides compactly over the withers.
Saddle towels play a crucial role. They identify the horse’s program number for bettors and, in the case of stakes races, include the race name and, usually, the horse’s name.
The color of the saddle towel corresponds with the horse’s number. That way, bettors can more easily follow the horse they backed with their money. Typically, entry No. 1 is red, No. 2 is white, No. 3 is blue and on down the line.
The smaller saddles also don’t use a normal English saddle girth. Instead, racing girths are elastic, and trainers typically add an elastic overgirth, which goes over the horse’s back across the saddle. The primary advantage to racing girths is their lighter weight compared to the leather girths used with regular English saddles.
The undergirth buckles to billets on each side of the saddle, similar to an English saddle. The overgirth buckles underneath the horse’s rib cage—double protection to hold the saddle in place while the horse is sprinting at top speed.
Even so, occasionally a saddle can slip during a race. Triple Crown winner Affirmed famously lost the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup because jockey Steve Cauthen’s saddle slipped early in the race. Affirmed ran fifth, the only time he finished worse than third in his career.
You might also notice racehorses outfitted with blinkers. The nonracing world typically associates blinkers with driving horses, and those blinkers are square or rectangular pieces attached to the bridle to prevent the horse from shying at distractions.
Racehorse trainers hope to achieve the same thing, but racehorse blinkers look completely different. They are sewn into a hood that fits over the horse’s head and come in a variety of sizes.
“I’m going to guess that about 40 percent of our horses run in blinkers,” says Peter Eurton, a Southern-California-based trainer whose charges have included champion and Breeders’ Cup winner Champagne Room. He says young horses are especially easily distracted, so “sometimes they can start out in blinkers and grow out of it. It helps them focus.”
Champagne Room didn’t race in blinkers, but Eurton trainee Ashleyluvssugar, a millionaire 7-year-old gelding who is still racing, does.
“A lot of young 2-year-olds wear just a very small French cup,” says Eurton. “It’s cut down to maybe a half-inch. Sometimes we get horses that really look around, and we’ll put a full cup on them,” which covers about half the eye.