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Shaving Time At The Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby 2018 at Churchill Downs.
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin
The Kentucky Derby 2018 at Churchill Downs.

In the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby, horses and their trainers parade through the paddock, and make their their way to and from the track for practice runs. In these moments, the horses move at a pretty slow pace.

But on Saturday that won’t be the case.

These horses are thousand-pound elite athletes — and this race is just as competitive as any marathon or Olympic swim. Since its start in 1875, there are numerous examples of the Derby being won by a fraction of a second.

Which made me wonder, has anyone ever shaved their racehorse to get a better time? Like how some human endurance athletes shave excess body hair to eliminate drag?

“To my knowledge there has never been hair shaved off a horse to save seconds,” said Chris Goodlett, chief curator at the Kentucky Derby Museum. “I don’t know if it is written rule, maybe because of the absurdity, but my guess would be that it would be frowned upon.”

Goodlett said ultimately, the Jockey Club — the governing body of professional horse racing — probably wouldn’t approve of a bald horse; owners are prevented from making any major alterations to a horse’s appearance (also, horse’s can sunburn).

Though, there are plenty of other modifications trainers and jockeys have made for faster runs. 

Three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Gary Stevens said that includes using lighter horseshoes.

“They are not steel shoes; they are aluminum,” Stevens said. “And they are very, very lightweight and they have toe-grips on the front and grips on the rear end as well.”

Stevens also said jockeys' colorful shirts have undergone some aerodynamic updates since the 1980s. The silks now fit much tighter, like what bicyclists wear.

Teresa Estes and her business partner Brenda Byarski run Triple Crown Silks in Winchester, Kentucky. They are designing silks for three Derby hopefuls this year.

“The aero fits tighter to the body, so you don’t have it flapping in the wind when the horse is running,” Estes said.

Estes said many racehorse owners now want something more tailored to the jockey’s bodies to reduce drag.

“The satins you can’t do it because there is no stretch to it,” Estes said.

For that reason, more of their clients are shifting away from those traditional raceday materials to more aerodynamic fabrics.

But even with all the improvements, Stevens said a large part of the Kentucky Derby is still the luck of the draw — specifically the draw for post positions, or which gate the horses get to start out of.

The worst position is closest to the inside rail.

“The ‘one hole’ is dreaded in the Kentucky Derby, because if you don’t break well, if you don’t get a good start, it’s like a giant wave of 19 other horses trying to get over close to the rail to save ground going into that first turn,” Stevens said.

And even with a good post position, sleeker clothing and lighter gear, Chris Goodlett of the Kentucky Derby Museum said there’s one more thing to try:

“Trainers will all joke with us that if you want more seconds, you want to do better in the race, you need to buy a faster horse,” Goodlett said.

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