Nowadays, Quarter Horses which race are more like Thoroughbreds than they are like roping horses, cutting horses, steer-wrestling horses, or any other members of their own breed. Once you’ve learned to pick a Thoroughbred who should perform well in short races, you can pick a Quarter Horse with the potential to win in his own sport. It’s not just because of the similarities in the demands of the two sports. Genetically, there’s very little difference between today’s Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred, and among Quarter Racing Horses the difference is shrinking rapidly.
There are two reasons for all those Thoroughbred genes. The American Quarter Horse Association, the breed’s registry, wasn’t established until 1940. Before then, owners of quick little western horses who wanted more size and elegance bred their animals to Thoroughbreds. After 1940, the new registration rules conveniently permitted these habits to continue. It’s the owners of Quarter Racing Horses who’ve taken greatest advantage of the rule that permits the offspring of a Quarter Horse and a Thoroughbred to be registered as a Quarter Horse. Each decade that passes sees the Quarter Horses used in racing become more and more Thoroughbred. But there are still a few differences between the breeds, although the differences may be just a matter of degree. Quarter Horse races are shorter than normal Thoroughbred sprints; the standard distances range from 220 to 400 yards. So a Quarter Horse with the potential to win should be like his sprinting Thoroughbred cousin, only more so.
There are a few special characteristics to look for in a Quarter Racing Horse.
For every horse generation that passes, the Quarter Racing Horse becomes taller. He’s still shorter than the average Thoroughbred (14.3 to 15.3 hands) because height is not an advantage, and breeders aren’t attracted to tall stallions even if they want more Thoroughbred blood.
In fact, too much height is a disadvantage since longer legs and a lengthier stride go along with it. The long-striding horse can rarely get himself into top gear before a Quarter Horse race is over. Quarter Horses are likely to be heavier than Thoroughbreds of similar size since they need solid bone to take the stress of sudden acceleration. They also need plenty of heavy muscle, particularly in the rear end.
A Quarter Horse without substantial hindquarters isn’t going to have the power to get out of the starting gate quickly and will fail at racing. There are almost no exceptions to this rule. No rear, no horse.
Quarter Racing Horses should be short-bodied and stocky, at least compared to Thoroughbreds, because this is the body type that can survive the pounding of the short, all-out stride necessary in a race of a quarter mile or less. It’s an inflexible body type, but that doesn’t matter. Standard length Quarter Horse races are run on the straightaway, and turns play no role at all.
Head and Neck
The Quarter Racing Horse needs to carry his head and neck higher than the Thoroughbred since he’s going to have to be able to break out of the starting gate completely alert. Some good horses carry their heads low at the walk, and then bring them up at the gallop. Others never get them up and always lose ground at the start.
A Word of Warning
While it’s challenging and often helpful to try to pick out possible winners by their physical characteristics, it’s most useful with young horses who have never started or with horses trying a new kind of race. Once a horse has a racing record, his past performances are far more important than his physique. Winner’s circles see their share of rangy sprinting Thoroughbreds, long-bodied pacers, and tall Quarter Horses.