Do horses in the Kentucky Derby even know they’re racing? – Los Angeles Times

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It was the biggest race before the Kentucky Derby, and undefeated colt Nyquist was leading as he headed into the homestretch at Gulfstream Park in the Florida Derby.

Jockey Mario Gutierrez decided to employ a different tactic. He asked the horse to run wide, losing ground, so his chief rival, undefeated Mohaymen, would stay within Nyquist’s sight lines. The confrontation never developed as Mohaymen just couldn’t keep up with Saturday’s presumptive Kentucky Derby favorite.

The strategy was based on how they believed Nyquist was thinking rather than the quickest path to the finish line. The colt has not only never lost a race, he has never even allowed another horse to pass him.

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“If he engages you, he’s going to be tough to beat,” said trainer Doug O’Neill. “The one thing I think could beat Nyquist is if he’s on a lead and someone [he can’t see] is flying five wide outside.”

The anthropomorphism of animals is ingrained in our culture, be it dogs, cats, horses or even Ninja turtles.

But it doesn’t answer the question if horses actually know if they win or even why they are running a race.

“The research, and how true it is we don’t know, is that they want to win,” said Melissa Bain, who heads the Clinical Animal Behavior Service at UC Davis’ renowned veterinary school.

“I don’t know if it’s inherent or they just like to race and run fast,” Bain said. “It probably depends on how they were trained or if they don’t run fast they get hit with a crop.”

Aaron Sones, who along with wife Julie Gilbert own Kentucky Derby entrant Trojan Nation, definitely believes in the intellect of horses. His colt lost the Wood Memorial almost three weeks ago in a tight-as-it-can-be photo finish.

“He doesn’t think he’s a maiden,” Sones said. “He thinks he won the Wood. If you saw him you could see how confident and happy he was with himself. He thinks he did something special in the Wood.”

Trojan Nation has never won a race, so he was unaware of the ritual where the first-place horse is escorted to the winner’s circle for pictures.

“I think when they go back to the winner’s circle they feel all the love and excitement,” said Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. “If you walk into your house and you’re sad, your dog knows it.”

Smith was aboard Zenyatta for 16 straight wins until she lost for the first time in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

“She acted a whole lot different after that race,” Smith said. “She always came back dancing but on that day she was acting tired. Was she tired or was she that way because everybody’s language was down?”

Kerry Thomas, who advises owners on motivating and understanding horses, can best be described as part psychologist and kinesiologist. He spends countless hours studying video of horses both on and off the track and his analysis of equine traits is sought out by handicappers.

“Elite horses like to control their environment,” Thomas said. “Every colt has their own individual herd dynamic. Some personality traits like to stalk and pounce on a horse. Some want to be in the front and manage the herd from that aspect.”

Thomas views the Derby, with more than 160,000 people, as a real test of a horse’s mental ability.

“For me the sensory system is the fabric to a horse’s success,” Thomas said. “Some horses handle it with ease and are better prepared because they don’t waste energy. Some horses absorb stress, just like people, and that is a defining personality trait.”

Thomas believes humans can help a horse adapt to their environment. He’s a fan of some trainers, such as O’Neill and Bob Baffert, who are based in Southern California.

“I think when it comes to developing a horse, I give Doug O’Neill a lot of credit because he has a good feel for a horse and nurtures it along properly,” Thomas said. “I’ve seen him give horses the room to grow on their own. Horses are emotional athletes and a reflection of their environment.”

Do horses in the Kentucky Derby even know they’re racing? – Los Angeles Times