My grandfather was an expert horseman (after he returned from the battlefields of Europe, during the 1920's and 1930's he drove cattle on the Birdsville track and worked as head drover and foreman for the Kidman cattle empire on properties in far western Queensland), and he was an expert in sizing up a horse before a race just by looking at it walk around and head to the gate. My Dad loves to regale tales of the countless times he was at the track with my Grand-dad, and watched his picks win by a great margin at very good odds! (The sand-track at Albion in Brisbane was his favourite - one day he picked 5 winners on a 7 race card event just by looking at the horses parade. Of course that is long gone, and now utilised for the trots and dogs.),
Still nowadays, the punter at the track can gain an enormous advantage when it comes to the final selection in a race (although less so nowadays with the advent of live broadcasting on cable TV and the Internet). Unfortunately you can't learn the art of judging a racehorse's fitness by appearance overnight. I am sure my Grand-dad would still feel it is well worth the practice whenever you can get to the track, despite the advent of technological change but I will take this moment to confess that I did not miraculously inherit his skills.
Horses come in all sizes, and fitness in a large horse can be harder to judge than in a smaller one. There are some pointers you can look for, however and these will get you started. As with everything - practice is the key.
Start with small field races... in races with large fields and poor race money many runners may simply be there for an outing.
Here are the basics...
This is not a simple test because, like humans, horses tend to sweat either when they are very fit or very unfit. However a really fit horse is likely to sweat less than an unfit horse.
A light build up of sweat on a horse's coat can be a good sign. It means he/she is raring to go and keen to race. A light ring of sweat between a horse's back legs is also a sign of keenness. Be on your guard, however when you see a heavy sweat build up.
Some horses will sweat heavily regardless of fitness through getting worked up and nervous - so horses that have worked up a real sweat close to the start of the race should be avoided. It's unlikely they'll be at their best.
Light sweaters in the paddock, however, frequently dry out once they canter down to the start. Worth taking some binoculars to check how they're doing as they go down to the line. Sometimes TV watchers get a good enough view at this point to be able to make worthwhile decisions.
Generally a glossy coat indicates a healthy and fit animal. Dullness tends to indicate the opposite. Again don't judge on this feature alone as some horses rarely have shiny coats no matter what.
The definition of a horse's muscles is probably the most significant factor. There are many places to look but, for beginners, concentrate on the following:
First look at the hind quarters (behind the saddle). From a point about a quarter of the way down the rump through to the top of the rear legs look for a sharply defined line. This muscle line is quite obvious when it is there and it's a pretty good indication of a horse's condition... the sharper the line the better.
Second, look at the belly and the rib cage. A hint of the rib cage visible indicates no excess fat. Of course it shouldn't be too prominent or the horse may be under nourished.
Lastly look over the chest, especially the area just above the forelegs. Well defined muscles here are a clear sign of fitness.
Over all behavior
Finally check the horse's over all behaviour and demeanour. A horse walking around the paddock with its head held low and looking listless is probably not fit. You want to see a springy step and bright eyes, looking keen and alert. Also a horse with calm appearance is likely to run better than one that is acting up in a nervous fashion.
Horses that are hurling themselves around and rearing up are wasting vital energy.
No matter how inexperienced about paddock judging you are - sometimes you'll just know by looking that a horse is supremely fit. That feeling is your instinct and, through practice, it can be built upon.
Remember you can never judge a potential winner by appearance alone. You should first have narrowed the field with some good prior research or system. If you learn to use this visual skill as the final 10% of your process then you'll certainly get an extra edge that other punters are not benefiting from.
Any questions or thoughts, please don't hesitate to send me an email.