As a little girl, I would wash my white Breyer horse in the bathroom sink and beg my parents for riding lessons.

Their answer never changed. I was too small, the horses too big and the price tag too high.

Even so, I felt my childhood interest uniquely qualified me to help cover the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown and a must-see Baltimore event. But on that May weekend last year, as I watched seemingly identical glossy brown thoroughbreds with black manes race in jagged lines, I realized my serenades to toy horses had woefully underprepared me.

As I bumbled around, I couldn’t get one question out of my head: Why do all these horses look the same?

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

With this year’s Preakness approaching, I decided to get some answers.

After interviewing some patient and humoring equine geneticists and horse racing experts, I learned that, in fact, all racehorses do not look the same. I just wasn’t looking closely enough.

Graham Motion pets Trikari at Herringswell Stables in Elkton last month. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

“To the masses they might all look the same, but they’re absolutely not the same,” said Emmeline Hill, a premier equine geneticist.

Thoroughbreds, she explained, are a breed of horse. As with labradors or poodles, over centuries of breeding, thoroughbreds have developed a dominant color, in this case a reddish-brown shade called bay.

Hill’s research shows that 95% of thoroughbreds are linked to one bay-colored horse called the Darley Arabian, a well-known “superstud.” There is also variation in the shades and patterns of bay horses. And not all racehorses are bay — some have coats as white as snow or spotted like a Dalmatian.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

How or why bay became the dominating gene is not exactly a topic of interest for most equine experts. The color is more a biological byproduct of their main focus: speed.

In 2010, Hill and her team at University College Dublin discovered “a speed gene” that can preemptively predict the athletic ability of horses, specifically whether they’d have the aptitude for short-, mid- or long-distance races. Hill’s discovery has helped revolutionize the industry, she acknowledged, resulting in even faster racehorses from breeding.

It was a lot for me to wrap my head around. How can this industry famed for luck and superstition also coincide with this data-driven approach to breeding?

“Genetics is a lottery,” Hill said. “Regardless of whether you’re a scientist or not, thoroughbred breeders are geneticists, because they are using pedigrees as a proxy for genetics — and that’s been happening for 300 years.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that these horses, running last year's Preakness Stakes, all look the same. There's a reason for that. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Clark Shepherd, a thoroughbred breeding expert, has spent decades brokering sales and matings for racehorses across the country.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I posed the same question to him: Why do all racehorses look the same?

But Shepherd is a bit of a “neigh”sayer. He started our conversation by saying he didn’t agree with me at all.

He did allow that most of them look similar. The ideal racehorse has balanced, square shoulders, wide hips and perfectly proportioned legs. For many buyers, that’s enough to think a horse will be a winner.

Not for Shepherd.

He said he doesn’t even consider a horse unless two factors align: What is its pedigree, and how does it move? He’ll go back generations, focusing mainly on the maternal line, to identify the speed and endurance abilities of its ancestors.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In person, he’ll closely examine the horse’s gait. Only if it checks all of his boxes — something he calls “design luck” — will he consider recommending the horse to his client. Even then, as with everything in this industry, it’s never a sure bet.

“You cannot predict what’s gonna happen, but you can put things in your favor, thus the ‘design luck,’” Shepherd said.

I thought I finally understood it all. So the industry is focused not on superficial cosmetics but on breeding the fastest animals for profit?

He stopped me. Wrong again. For Shepherd, it’s about much more than money.

“You can’t paint [with] a broad brush,” he said. “Come walk in my shoes for a day, and you’ll see the beauty of it and the people behind it, and the love behind it.”

More From The Banner