Whenever one of the big races comes around, such as the Grand National or the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the commentators will be quick to point out any grey horses that are running in it. It is common for them to be reasonably well-backed, with many punters being keen to get money on them. The obvious question is why it is that that is the case.
What is it about grey horses that people enjoy betting on so much? Are they all that different from horses of other colours when it comes to their personalities and types? Or is it simply because they’re different and therefore interesting?
The reality is that most people betting on a grey horse in a race won’t think too much about its colour. Instead, they’ll just be aware that it is probably going to be easier for them to follow the horse in the race, given that most of the time they would struggle to see the cap or colours of the jockey and would have next to no chance to see the number on the cloth. Instead, they can keep an eye out for the horse that is a different colour to the vast majority of the others. It is a way of enjoying the race more, but such punters might not realise what they are actually betting on.
Horses Aren’t Born Grey
The first thing to note about grey horses is that they aren’t born grey. Instead, the majority of horses are born with a colour in their hair, which they lose over time. This depigmentation takes place as a horse ages, similar to how a human being’s hair goes grey over time.
The big difference is that horses begin to turn grey soon after birth and continues as they age. They carry on getting lighter over the years until they turn completely white, which tends to have happened by the time that they are eight. Horses turn grey at different rates to one another due to numerous factors.
As soon as a horse is born, the greying process begins. As you might imagine, there are a wide variety of colours and patterns to grey horses just as there are to horses of other colours. They can be steel grey, rose grey or dapple grey. They might be pure white grey or just pure while, whilst the ‘flea-bitten’ grey has small speckles on their skin.
It is important not to mistake a grey for a roan, with the latter maintaining a constant amount of white hairs throughout their lives. Not all greys will turn completely grey, with some maintaining the colour in their mane and tail.
There Have Been Some Famous Greys
A horse will need to have had one grey parent in order to become a grey, so there really isn’t any surprise to a horse turning grey. Whilst having a grey parent isn’t a guarantee that the horse itself will turn grey, it is a good indicator that it might happen.
Over the years, there have been some famous greys that have graced the racecourse, to say nothing of history. Marengo, for example, was a grey horse that Napoleon rode in war. Shadowfax, meanwhile, was portrayed as being a grey horse that Gandalf rode in the Lord of the Rings books and films, albeit he was fictional.
Arguably the most famous horse in Britain that was grey was Desert Orchid. Born out of Flower Child from Grey Mirage, Desert Orchid ran his first race in 1983 and was switched to steeplechase events two years later. This was a masterstroke, with the horse going on to win some big races.
None were bigger than the Cheltenham Gold Cup, however. Rain and snow had made the Going Heavy, which was not what Desert Orchid favoured. Yahoo did, taking a lead heading into the final stages. Desert Orchid overhauled it, however, delighting the 58,000 or so people present to watch one of the most exiting finishes ever.
They Don’t Win Often
The reality is that horses that aren’t grey far outweigh the number of ones that are. The result of this is that greys are statistically far less likely to win races than none-greys. The fact that they standout so much in the paddocks and on the racecourses around the country isn’t a surprise, given that only about 3% of all thoroughbred racehorses are greys.
This is probably why so few of them have won the likes of the Grand National, often dubbed the ‘World’s Greatest Steeplechase’. The first to do so was The Lamb, who won it in 1868 and 1871, becoming the first grey to do so.
Nicolaus Silver was the next grey to win the Aintree event, doing so in 1961 at odds of 28/1. It took until 2012 for another grey to win the famous race, with Neptune Collonges managing the feat for Paul Nicholls, having finished third in a 1-2-3 for the trainer in the Gold Cup for years earlier.
The success of greys is noteworthy because it happens so rarely, with Native Dancer, nicknamed the ‘Gray Ghost’, being a standout thanks to his one defeat in 22 career starts on the other side of the Atlantic. That included two of the three Triple Crown legs, missing out only on the Kentucky Derby.
Why Do People Bet On Them?
The sad reality of life for greys is that they do have a higher risk of developing illness than none greys. From the age of ten onwards, they do tend to develop tumours on their skin. This, of course, tends to happen towards the end of their racing life, but it is still the case that fewer people enjoy greys than horses or more ‘normal’ colours.
That isn’t the case for bettors, however. Despite the fact that they don’t tend to win very often, as the three winners of the Grand National at the time of writing can attest to, punters really enjoy putting their money on greys in races.
There might be several reasons for this, but the main one is likely to be that they can be seen and identified much easier than other horses. As a result, they will be a much quicker desire to place bets on such horses as they will stand out.
The truth is that the majority of punters don’t do anywhere near the sort of research that they should before placing bets, instead going off something that helps a horse stand out. This could be their name or the colours that they’re racing in, but when they are an entirely different colour that will definitely help them to stand out.