You’ve wasted time and energy to hamper a race when you see your choice set foot on the track, whether it’s in person on television. To your horror, or bewilderment, your horse wears bandages on its front legs. Does this mean that you immediately change your choice? Does it mean proceeding with caution? Or does it mean nothing at all? One thing is for sure: front bandages mean something, to both thoroughbred and standard competitors.
Not a big deal if you are looking for worn bandages. Crawlers are often used on the hind legs of sensitive thoroughbreds on deep sandy tracks. The surface can irritate the fetlock, the joint that connects the long bone of the cannon with the shorter, steeper pastern that leads to the hoof. The resulting abrasion is called “running down”, hence the name of the bandage. Rundowns, which consist of a normal elastic bandage tape covering a protective pad, with an additional adhesive pad sometimes added as a top layer, are used so frequently on the hind legs that you will see races where all horses have rear exhausts.
Much less common are initial tours. It is rare for a horse to run to the front and it is not ideal for a horse to need worn bandages as completely free movement of the fetlock is best. But the Vetrap tape that is used is light and flexible and has a negligible effect on the horse’s gait if applied correctly. Frontal runs may only indicate sensitive skin or some kind of mild fetlock pain, not necessarily a lack of solidity. This is a “proceed with caution” situation, if indeed the problem is a horse’s tendency to run ahead.
The difficulty is because the front wear patches are usually covered by full Vetrap below the knee, and it is difficult to distinguish between a racing bandage meant to support questionable ligaments and tendons and a simple wear cover. There are trainers who use front racing bandages as a precaution on a fully healthy, well-built horse, but most trainers prefer the freedom and flexibility of an unimpeded leg. Front bandages are rarely there unless there is a problem (or a belief that there could be a problem) with two exceptions: a trainer can bandage a healthy horse to avoid being reclaimed or to increase his odds. A horse that appears with front bandages may be perfectly healthy, may not be healthy but fast enough to win anyway, or may be too ill to compete.
The situation in sled racing is a bit different. Instead of wrapped bandages, trainers are more likely to use the orthopedic bandage, a device made of synthetic or leather that protects the bones of the legs, usually from interference from other legs. Worn on the back in the handyman, orthopedic bandages can also widen and improve your steps. Used on the front legs of trotters or pacemakers, they support tendons and usually only appear in horses with previous problems. Standardbreds generally don’t suffer the catastrophic breakdowns that Thoroughbreds do, but a sore Standardbred is no more likely to win than a sore Thoroughbred.
The bottom line about frontal bandages is this: they may or may not indicate a potential lameness problem, but they usually indicate that someone is concerned about it. Many horses win with them, but as a racing fan or casual gambler, you don’t know what’s going on in the trainer’s mind, so a horse with the front bandage is a dubious bet unless everything else seems correct.