What Makes a Great Racehorse?

min read
Two horses and their jockeys race towards the finish line.
BetMGM @BETMGM Jun 20, 2022, 12:21 PM

There have been many talented racehorses but very few become truly great. Whether you enjoy online sports betting and are looking for more information on how to spot a potentially great runner, or you’re just a fan of the sport and want to know more about what separates the good racehorses from the exceptional, you can learn about the different traits of the world’s greatest racing horses below. 

Ensure you get the most out of any horse racing odds by keeping the following insights in mind.

Physical attributes

What makes a winning horse? If you know how to bet on horse racing and want to improve your odds of making a successful wager, here are some of the physical traits that you need to keep an eye on:

Horse conformation

The Buyer’s Guide from Triple Crown Syndications begins by explaining how something called “conformation” is important for identifying a horse that is more likely to succeed:

“Conformation is the physical appearance of an animal due to the arrangement of muscle, bone and other body tissue. It is the sum of these body parts and how they blend together which determines the acceptability or unacceptability of the horse’s conformation. Good conformation is the overall blending of body parts to form a beautiful athlete.”

Conformation can be broken down into four categories, three of which are physical attributes:

  • Balance – The overall proportions of the horse.
  • Bone – Thoroughbreds with bulkier bone structures make for better racers.
  • Athleticism – This term refers to the look of a physically excellent horse.
  • Intelligence – Does the horse demonstrate a high level of awareness?

These elements go into even greater detail, including the angle of a horse’s hoof, how the cannon bone connects to the knee, the length of the forearm relative to the cannon bone (a shorter cannon bone is better) and the alignment of the legs. This can be quite a complex subject, so be sure to do enough research to get a more in-depth understanding of it.

Hindquarters and shoulder muscle development

When looking at the muscles of a horse, you primarily want to focus on the hindquarters and the shoulders. Look for strong, well-developed back legs and rump muscles, as these play a huge role in the horse’s overall speed. In regards to the shoulders, the distance that a horse has to run comes into play. Sprinters will have more muscle in this due to the fact they have to reach much higher speeds over a shorter distance, while long-distance runners will tend to be leaner overall.

Large eyes and nostrils

A horse with large-looking eyes is believed to be more alert and focused, while nostrils that are broad and wide help the horse breathe in more oxygen so it can run at its peak speed. 

The appearance of the coat

One of the easiest ways to spot a healthy horse is by taking a look at the quality of its coat. A horse that has a lackluster coat is likely not in great shape and is therefore unlikely to perform well.

Other factors

While the physical capabilities of a horse play an obvious role in how it performs on the track, there are many other factors that also affect whether a horse is able to stand head and shoulders above its opposition. These are some of the non-physical traits that can help a racehorse achieve greatness:

Thoroughbred lineage

While the offspring of a successful thoroughbred won’t automatically be a race winner, the genetic stock that a horse comes from does play a major factor in whether it will win or lose. This is simply because breeders look for certain traits in a horse and try to find it a breeding partner that will result in a powerful racehorse, and these traits are most likely to come from a horse that’s already proved itself to be a good bet.


In the past, a racehorse with a long stride was often assumed to be faster. However, today it’s known that the stride length (SL) and stride rate (SR) are together what determine the speed of a horse. This is described in the scientific article, “Average stride length and stride rate of thoroughbreds and quarter horses during racing,” which also concludes that:

“Despite some limitations in methodology, differences between breeds and within breeds support that a higher average SR contributes to the higher speeds previously reported for QH [quarter horse.] Therefore, the analysis of an equine athlete must consider both SR and SL as determinants of potential performance in speed competitions.”

Attitude and confidence

Ideally, a horse should be calm and confident, which is easy to spot by the way it navigates its surroundings. If its head is up and it’s moving slowly and with assurance while listening to its trainer or jockey, then the horse is more likely to be focused and perform during the race. However, if a horse has its head down or is bucking and otherwise moving erratically, with its trainer or jockey struggling to keep it in line, there’s the risk that the horse won’t listen to the jockey and will perform poorly once the race starts.

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If you think you’ve found the right horse but you’re still looking for great horse racing betting odds, you can’t go wrong with BetMGM and NYRA Bets. At our online sportsbook, you can place different types of horse racing bets on races in the US and across the world, ensuring you never miss out on any of the action. You can also enjoy placing wagers on other thrilling professional sports including baseball, basketball, football and more.

Register at BetMGM to join in all the excitement, or visit our blog for exciting horse racing news, articles and insights into your favorite sport!

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.