In the modern world of speed figures, tracking devices, and sheets handicapping, just about any racetracker will tell you making it into the hallowed ground of the winner's circle might depend more on cats, birds, bugs, peanuts, popcorn, and pennies.
And those are just a few icons of a virtual pantheon of superstitions that many owners, trainers, jockeys, and fans either rely on with something akin to religious zeal in seeking good luck or methodically avoid in hopes of dodging misfortune.
These folkloric notions, which pass from generation to generation and often touch some of racing's greatest competitors, both human and equine, have a rich history dating back centuries. The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, published in 2008, states that brass ornaments made 5,000 years ago were designed to ward off evil spirits from horses. Other beliefs gradually arose and spread, such as the idea that a person would gain good fortune if he spit on his little finger and rubbed it on a horse.
Although many racing luminaries might profess they do not believe in superstitions--defined in the Microsoft Encarta Dictionary as "irrational but usually deep-seated beliefs in the magical effects of a specific action or ritual"--nearly everyone has a story to tell regarding fortune or adversity.
"I'm not superstitious--but when you see certain things, you just wonder." "I'm not superstitious," declared Stone Farm owner Arthur B. Hancock III, "but when you see certain things, you just wonder." Omens Hancock can relay many stories of what he calls omens before remarkable events in his racing life, including winning the 1999 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes with Menifee, and involving the experiences of his late father, Arthur B. "Bull" Hancock Jr., master of Claiborne Farm.
The younger Hancock grew up skeptical of his father's insistence that the family sit in the same seats at Keeneland when they had a horse running as well as his conviction that his horses would lose if he encountered a certain male acquaintance at the track.
"I was at Vanderbilt (University), and I told my father for that to be true, it would have to happen 50 or more times. He said, 'It's happened enough so that if I see that man, I know I'm not going to win.' And now there's a person who, if I see him before a race at Keeneland, I know there's no way I'm going to win--we always get beat," Hancock said with an ironic chuckle.
With Menifee, Hancock said he clearly recalls standing in Keeneland's paddock talking with several people when bird droppings landed on his suit collar. Rather than feeling appalled, he was buoyed.
"I said it was an old saying that if a bird did that to you it's good luck," Hancock said. "Some guy had a Kleenex, but I said,'Just leave it there.' Of course, Menifee won the race." For other examples of good luck, Hancock cited finding a penny lying heads-up and a four-leaf clover before Sunday Silence, the champion colt he co-owned, won the 1989 Kentucky Derby. Before Sunday Silence's Preakness Stakes victory, Hancock saw a Baltimore oriole fly across his driveway and land on a tree limb, followed by a bluebird.
"Some people might laugh and scoff at omens, but I've had enough experience to say they're usually a pretty good sign about what's going to happen," Hancock said before exclaiming: "Who knows?"
--Stone Farm owner Arthur B. Hancock III
The sight of a gray horse has long been regarded as a harbinger of good fortune, and former Keeneland President Bill Greely--who grew up as the son and grandson of trainers--recalled the venerable track tenet, "if there is only one gray horse in a race, that's the horse to bet."
Irish-born trainer Eoin Harty, who is based in California but keeps a string at Keeneland, noted another color-related superstition. "A horse with four white legs--people try to avoid them like the plague," he said.
And while birds have provided luck to Americans such as Hancock, he said that in Europe the sighting of a magpie means "nothing good is going to happen."
Harty trained for several years in the United Arab Emirates, where in March he saddled Well Armed to win the $6 million Dubai World Cup. While based there conditioning Godolphin juveniles, he learned that a horse with a dorsal stripe, a black line down its spine that is a vestige of primitive color patterns in equines, is not valued.
"Sheikh Mohammed told me that one," Harty related. "I had a horse I really liked and I told him about it. So Sheikh Mohammed came to the barn and went into the stall to look at him, but he was out again in about two seconds, shaking his head and saying, 'That horse has the sign of the ass.' And he was right--the horse never amounted to a hill of beans."
Describing himself as "about the most superstitious person you've ever met," Harty said he believes that if reins fall to the ground, "it's the kiss of death--I try to avoid that at all costs."
He also mentioned the multi-national superstition that a set of new silks should be stomped on before they are worn in a race, hopefully to prevent a fall that would otherwise sully them.
But Harty and many others cite another superstition above all others.
"The black cat is my No. 1 hex," he declared.
Harty recalled going to the 1999 Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream as the assistant to trainer Bob Baffert. "We had seven horses entered and five were favorites," he said. "A black cat ran across the road in front of us with (two-time champion) Silverbulletday one morning and we didn't win a race." Hancock also has several stories about black cats and luck. In 1981, when he and his wife, Staci, were on their way to see Tap Shoes--a multiple grade I winner they co-bred and -owned--run in the Blue Grass Stakes, a black cat scampered in front of their car. "Staci said, 'Stop!' but I said, 'The hell with it,' and kept going, crossing the path it had taken," Hancock recalled.
"We got to Keeneland and it rained two inches and our trainer, Mr. (Horatio) Luro, had to scratch Tap Shoes--and that was his only prep race for the Kentucky Derby." A further bit of bad luck ensued at the Derby, when Tap Shoes' tongue tie broke and a substitute caused the colt to shake his head in discomfort; he wound up 14th.
Just one year later Hancock and his wife were heading home from a dinner out prior to their homebred Gato Del Sol's run in the Derby. "Staci said, 'Stop! A black cat!' So, I backed up and went down a one-way street in the wrong direction and then a cop stopped me," he said.
"I told him, 'I know you've heard a lot of excuses, but I didn't want to cross that black cat's path.' I told him about what had happened with Tap Shoes," Hancock recalled. "He said, 'I don't blame you, Mr. Hancock. Here's your license back and good luck in the Derby.' " The final twist in that story is the police officer bet his paycheck on Gato Del Sol, who won and paid $44.40 to both his and Hancock's delight.
The dread of black cats is so strong that when a feline of that color lodged in the shed row of trainer William "Buff" Bradley, another trainer did everything he could to avoid entering the barn, even though it was his routine shortcut.
"Some people were very serious about not even walking with me," Bradley said. "I told them I checked this cat and it has white on its belly. You can't see it, but it's really okay."
The black cat that moved in on trainer Ken McPeek was not okay, however, particularly after she delivered three jet-black kittens. While all the black cats were around, McPeek said one of his horses flipped over and nearly died while another reared up and fatally fractured a hind leg.
"I decided to get rid of the black cats; we found them all good homes," said McPeek. "Since they had arrived, we had had a little too much negative mojo."
If there's one gray in the race, bet on her.
Racing Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens, still training at age 80, said he avoids black cats even though he has not suffered ill fortune after encountering them. While Jerkens observed that the sport's younger generation doesn't seem to embrace superstitions as much as earlier generations did, he noted that various racetracks still don't have a barn bearing the near-universal symbol of bad luck: the number 13. Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman confirmed that while the track does number individual stalls with the label 13, there is no Barn 13 on the grounds.
Racing commentator and former jockey Donna Barton Brothers said the aversion to 13 is so strong that her husband, bloodstock agent Frank Brothers, refused to have any stalls with that number in his barn during his training career--or to acknowledge the number in any way.
"He wouldn't even write down the number on the vet's work list. For example, if the date was June 13, he'd write June 12A. I am not even kidding about that," Barton Brothers said.
There is no Barn 13 at Keeneland.
"Almost everyone in horse racing has a superstition that is uniquely theirs." "Almost everyone in horse racing has a superstition that is uniquely theirs," she continued, noting that jockeys often have what they consider lucky boots and lucky vests. "(Two-time Eclipse Award-winning rider) Mike Smith used to have to flush the toilets in the men's jockey quarters in succession, and if anyone tried to mess up his ritual, he'd have to begin again. That was before every race." Jerkens said many racetrackers have believed it is very bad luck to put a hat or helmet on their bed. Eating peanuts in the barn was considered "deadly," he added, and nibbling on popcorn in box seats was deemed such bad luck that it was forbidden by some owners. The late Jane du Pont Lunger of Christiana Stables "was fairly adamant about (popcorn in boxes) and just would not allow it," Barton Brothers said.
Scott Blasi--who, while more than four decades younger than Jerkens, represents a different era in racing--downplays superstitions. But the assistant to Steve Asmussen, who has won two training titles at Keeneland and trained 2007 and '08 Horse of the Year Curlin as well as superstar filly Rachel Alexandra, admits both he and his boss have tried to dress for racing success.
"If you look at Curlin's win pictures, Steve and I are wearing our same suits in all of them," Blasi said. "I bought a new suit for Rachel, and I had one for (2005 Kentucky Oaks winner) Summerly, too. I say I'm not superstitious, but I do have suits for horses."
Blasi's sister-in-law, trainer Helen Pitts-Blasi, also has sought luck through wardrobe choices. "Sometimes, you wear the same shoes and pants and you think it works if you win two races in a row with a horse, but it won't work for the third race and then you throw it all out the door," she said jokingly.
Fortunes are not just linked to the items worn by people but also encompass the horses and their equipment. Many assistants and grooms believe that once a horse starts winning, his or her bridle and bit should never be changed.
Curlin "had all his own stuff" and always wore the same tack, Blasi said.
Hal Wiggins, who developed Rachel Alexandra from Keeneland maiden winner into record-setting Kentucky Oaks champion prior to her sale and transfer, recalled that he purchased a new bridle about two weeks before the Oaks. On race day, his assistant Brett McClellan called to advise Wiggins that he was putting the new bridle on stablemate Abbott Hall and not on Rachel Alexandra.
"Sure enough, if I had made him put the new bridle on Rachel, she would have lost and he might have quit," Wiggins said with a chuckle, observing how keenly held some superstitions can be on the track.
Do's and Don'ts
Other superstitious practices around tracks include avoiding hanging up pitchforks or rakes with straw stuck in the prongs; installing cloves of garlic in barns and spreading salt in stall corners; banning brooms in shed rows and on shipping vans; wrapping dollar bills in horses' bandages the night before races; avoiding betting with $50 bills and marking programs with red pens; and displaying horseshoes with the ends up so luck can't drain out from the interior.
--Racing commentator Donna Barton Brothers
"I'm not going to ignore signs and tempt fate; it's just too awesome and powerful." Photographs of horses that will be racing have been shunned in barns, along with overnights and past performance data. "Don't ever show that or read it around a horse on race day--they'll find a way to get themselves scratched," said Jim Cornes, stakes coordinator at the Pennsylvania racetrack Presque Isle Downs who previously worked for Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens and for Kiaran McLaughlin.
It's considered bad luck for breeders to name a horse after themselves or for owners to change the name of a horse. "They don't turn out to be anything," Cornes explained. "And it's an absolute kiss of death if someone says 'I'll see you in the winner's circle' before a race--that puts a hex on you." Even though such beliefs may strain the logical mind, some of history's greatest cultures and leaders have been influenced by superstitions, Hancock noted, beginning with the ancient Romans' aversion to black cats. He suggested that even though some events can't be explained rationally, he has grown to understand the beliefs of previous generations regarding portents of fate in racing.
"I think Shakespeare said something like, 'There are many things in the universe not contained in your petty philosophy,' " Hancock said. "I'm going to be just like my father--I'm not going to ignore signs and tempt fate; it's just too awesome and powerful. We're all at the mercy of destiny and providence."
--Arthur B. Hancock III
Reprinted courtesy of Keeneland magazine.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.