Two decades ago one of the most notorious identity mixups surfaced on Derby Day at Churchill Downs when a winning horse was not who he was purported to be.
Running in the first race of the day, Blairwood was entered under the erroneous name of Briarwood. The winner was taken down, and a subsequent investigation led to the suspension of trainer Jerry Romans.
More importantly, the incident sparked much tougher horse identification rules. Just like every baby has a birth certificate, every thoroughbred has foaling papers. Its identification records are on file with the Jockey Club office in Lexington, Ky., said Tommy Weinhardt, Philadelphia Park’s horse identifier for the past 10 years.
As each horse enters the paddock Weinhardt inspects its lip tattoo to verify the correct horses are running in the race. It takes him just two or three seconds to reach up with his left hand, flip the animal’s upper lip and check the numbers.
Next, Weinhardt scans the body of the horse, comparing the coloring, markings and any other identifying characteristics with the paperwork submitted by the owner. Any discrepancies are reported to the track stewards, but the responsibility of scratching the horse lies with Weinhardt.
So, how easy is it to pull the old switcheroo?
“The last ringer at Philadelphia Park was eight years ago,” he recalled. “The horse had run in Texas and Florida; we were fortunate to catch him. I think the perpetrator got ten years in prison.
“It’s more the wrong horse showing up. You might have two bays that look alike in stalls next to each other and the groom grabs the wrong horse for the race. The horse would be scratched for improper paperwork.
Every horse has markings that are unique.
“I may notice a slight discrepancy in one of the horse’s cowlicks, a piece of hair that is one of the most important identifying features of a horse,” he explained. “A horse has at least two neck cowlicks and can have several forehead cowlicks.”
The Identifier also inspects and verifies the identity of any horse new to the track. Weinhardt estimates he tattoos 600 horses a year, the most famous being Smarty Jones.
“A lot get tattooed when they turn two years old, but I have a trainer here who has horses that don’t race until they’re three. I’ll be doing a dozen of his in the coming months.”
How is the tattooing done?
Weinhardt brandishes a fearsome-looking clamp, known as a twitch, that turns up the horse’s upper lip and exposes the inside pink skin. Tiny inked metal needles stamp the inside lip, pressing in a code letter to indicate the year of birth, then five numbers. Registered with the Jockey Club, it constitutes a kind of horse license plate.
The inside of the lip is rather like shoe leather, said Weinhardt.
“The needles are roughly a quarter of an inch in length and don’t penetrate much,” he explained. “You’re just scoring the outer surface. The vast majority of horses it doesn’t bother.”
With the job complete, Weinhardt snaps a photo with a flash camera held right up to the muzzle.
“With a dark brown horse the ink looks more muddled,” Weinhardt related. “But with a chestnut or gray horse you have an ideal inside lip that is a perfect pink with no black markings or freckles that makes the tattoo easy to read. It should last forever.”