Training of 2-year-old Standardbreds explored in NZ study

A New Zealand-bred Standardbred. Photo: I, MagicFlute1983 CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons
A New Zealand-bred Standardbred. Photo: I, MagicFlute1983 CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

Most Standardbred trainers in a New Zealand study trained 2-year-olds for early education rather than focusing on a race start at that age, research has shown.

Massey University researchers found that the training pattern of 2-year-olds was similar for public trainers and licensed-to-train trainers, and was influenced by the physical maturity of individual horses.

In New Zealand, licensed-to-train trainers are essentially amateurs or part-timers — individuals who have registered with harness racing authorities to train their own horses. They are restricted to training no more than four horses that they do not own.

Kylie Legg and her colleagues found that the main differences between the two trainer categories were the greater likelihood of public trainers to record the times of horse workouts, and their use of banked corners on training tracks.

The study team, writing in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, said there was limited information available on the training and management practices of Standardbred trainers in New Zealand.

Harness racing, they noted, contributed $NZ442 million to the country’s gross domestic product each year.

They set out to learn more about how 2-year-old Standardbreds are trained, and identify any differences between the two trainer categories.

The training period for 2-year-old Standardbreds, from entering the stable until their first trial start, is about 14 weeks, slightly longer than the 10 to 12 weeks reported for Thoroughbred horses.

The authors conducted an online survey after the 2016/17 racing season, completed by 154 Standardbred trainers, of which 88 (57%) had 2-year-olds in training.

All further work focused solely on the 88 trainers with 2-year-old horses in work, exactly half of whom were public trainers, while the other half held a licence-to-train.

Most of the 2-year-old horses in work were home bred — that is, bred by the person who trained them.

The researchers found that 85% of the public trainers broke in their horses themselves, compared to 64% of those with a license to train.

Training patterns between the two categories of trainers were similar, and was influenced by either convenience or the physical maturity of the individual horses.

Forced breaks from training, for the likes of recovery from injury or illness, were found to be low, at 9.1%.

Most trainers used an 800-metre (½ mile) oval, either finished with crusher dust for an “all-weather” surface, or sand tracks.

Most public trainers — 88% — used tracks with banked corners, compared with 59% of the amateur trainers.

All 88 trainers indicated they chose to start the breaking-in process when the horses were close to 18 months old. It took around six weeks. Some completed this phase in as little as four weeks; others took up to eight weeks.

Most trainers provided a voluntary break in training after the breaking-in process of 6 to 12 weeks.

Discussing their findings, the researchers said the number of trainers and horses represented in the study highlighted that the New Zealand Standardbred training industry had many amateur owner/trainer/breeders with two to six horses in work, and fewer professional trainers with a larger number in work.

They noted that the physical maturity of each horse was a large determinant in training, indicating a horse-centric approach.

“Most of both types of trainer cited early education as the primary reason for training 2-year-olds.

“This finding was supported by the relatively low frequency of horses having their first official race as a 2-year-old, despite studies reporting the positive association of racing as a 2-year-old with longer and more successful careers in both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing.”

The study team found that most trainers were reluctant to make a decision on the horses’ long-term racing career based on their performance as a 2-year-old.

The study team comprised Legg, Charlotte Bolwell, Janis Bridges and Chris Rogers, all with Massey University.

A Cross-Sectional Survey of the Training and Management of a Cohort of 2-Year-Old Standardbred Racehorses in New Zealand
Kylie Legg, Erica Gee, Charlotte Bolwell, Janis Bridges and Chris W.Rogers.
Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Volume 87, April 2020, 102936

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