7 secrets of Kentucky Derby racehorses

You can’t get close to the Derby's stars but here are some fascinating insights into these super athletes

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The sleek muscled dark bay, grey and chestnut thoroughbreds lining up at the Kentucky Derby on Saturday will run one and quarter miles in just over two minutes as 170,000 fans cheer. You can’t get close to these star athletes, but here are a few of their secrets. 

1. Racehorses love peppermints.  Untwist the crinkle wrapper and you have their full attention.  They will frisk you for peppermints.  They know if you "forgot" one in your pocket. 

2. Two Derby racehorses are half-brothers and you can trace their ancestors back to the 1740s. Five minutes on the internet and you will know more about the Derby horses than you do about your own family tree, thanks to over 300 years of breeding records. 

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In Saturday’s Derby, the 12 horse Taiba and the 16 horse Cyberknife are half-brothers, both sired by the famous Gun Runner who won $15 million.   Impress your friends by informing them Cyberknife is "a Gun Runner" while favorite Zandon is "an Upstart" and long-shot Tawny Port is "a Pioneer of the Nile." Warning: it’s addictive, so if you point out that that Derby record-holder Secretariat is "a Bold Ruler" for his famous sire, get another Mint Julep. 

Messier, a 2022 Kentucky Derby favorite, stands in his stall in the barn of his trainer, Tim Yakteen, at Santa Anita Park on Monday, April 25, 2022, in Arcadia, Calif.

Messier, a 2022 Kentucky Derby favorite, stands in his stall in the barn of his trainer, Tim Yakteen, at Santa Anita Park on Monday, April 25, 2022, in Arcadia, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

3. Racehorses are loved…and they love to run. Behind every horse are dozens of people called "connections" ranging from owners to trainers, exercise riders, hot-walkers, the vet, jockeys and the horse’s favorites, his grooms who feed, bathe and adore him. They hide it, but most of the connections are a bundle of nerves on Derby day. 

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As for the horse, he can’t wait to run and each believes He Can Win. Lazy Thoroughbreds do exist, and they make great sport and pleasure horses. You just won’t find any in the Kentucky Derby field. 

FILE - John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit crosses the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., in this Saturday, May 1, 2021, file photo. 

FILE - John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit crosses the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., in this Saturday, May 1, 2021, file photo.  (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

4. Racehorses are masters of self-control.  Sure, they prance and carry on, maybe even bucking from excitement as they parade to the paddock before the race.  Each Derby runner follows a sensible, full-grown adult horse called a "pony" who provides a friend to cling to. 

FILE - In this May 4, 2019, file photo, Luis Saez rides Maximum Security, right, across the finish line first against Flavien Prat on Country House during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

FILE - In this May 4, 2019, file photo, Luis Saez rides Maximum Security, right, across the finish line first against Flavien Prat on Country House during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Young colts also complete formal training and pass a test on how behave at the start.   But then comes the gate.  The pony goes away.  The horses load in, at the most exciting moment of their lives, eager to run, and yet these horses stand in stillness waiting to break as the race starts. Amazing. 

5. Racehorses have tiny, dainty teeth.  Most Derby colts were born in March 2019 and just lost their baby teeth.  Watch a racehorse take the bit in his mouth, and you will see blunt, creamy half-moon teeth smooth as Tic Tacs.  Horse teeth lengthen with age; hence the old saws "long in the tooth" and "don’t look a gift horse in the mouth." 

FILE - In this Saturday, May 4, 2019 file photo, Flavien Prat on Country House, third from right, races against Luis Saez on Maximum Security, right, during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Maximum Security finished first but was disqualified. The fastest two minutes in sports will also be the quietest in Kentucky Derby history. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

FILE - In this Saturday, May 4, 2019 file photo, Flavien Prat on Country House, third from right, races against Luis Saez on Maximum Security, right, during the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Maximum Security finished first but was disqualified. The fastest two minutes in sports will also be the quietest in Kentucky Derby history. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

6. But they don’t have tattoos.  Once all racehorses had 6-digit tattoos inside their upper lips, to identify them. After 2019, they all got microchips in their necks.  Much easier to read. 

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7. Racehorses can get career makeovers. Today’s Kentucky Derby elite can expect more races and long breeding careers.  At other tracks, some stalwarts race until age 8 or 9. Most retire earlier; some horses only run a few races. What happens then? 

Horses often live past age 20 and ex-racers have a great work ethic.  In recent years, the Jockey Club and the racing industry as a whole has poured effort into helping Thoroughbreds live a good life after racing. 

FILE - In this May 4, 2019, file photo, fans cheer as they watch a race at Churchill Downs before the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

FILE - In this May 4, 2019, file photo, fans cheer as they watch a race at Churchill Downs before the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

One result? Legions of starry-eyed girls aged 12-72 buy and retrain their ex-racers for other careers.  Five hundred and five racehorses from across America are entered for the 2022 Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover in Kentucky this October 12.  Most are just months off the track, and will compete in new disciplines from jumping to polo and barrel racing. 

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On May 1, ex-racehorse Sea of Clouds (a "Malibu Moon") placed tenth for American Olympic medalist Philip Dutton at the prestigious 5-star international three-day eventing competition in Kentucky.  At age 11, "Socs" is well-loved; his connections include famous Derby-winning trainers Graham and Anita Motion and Sheik Fahad Al-Thani.  Another racehorse, Blackfoot Mystery, made the U.S. Olympic team in 2016. 

Exercise rider Taylor Cambra rides Kentucky Derby entrant Omaha Beach during a workout at Churchill Downs Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Exercise rider Taylor Cambra rides Kentucky Derby entrant Omaha Beach during a workout at Churchill Downs Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Remember the Kentucky Derby horses, no matter where they place Saturday, are proud champions in their own eyes and cherished friends to their connections. 

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