Equine Physiology



How to Win a Horse Race



By Achim Eberhart 

 Cosmos the Science of Everything

Cosmos Online

The most successful horse racing tactic depends on the personality of the horse, according to a new analysis.


Different pacing strategies can lead to equally fast times, according to a new study which supports anecdotal notions of distinct 'front-runner' and 'chaser' horse personalities.

SYDNEY: The most successful horse racing tactic depends on the personality of the horse, according to a new analysis.

Jockeys and trainers have long been exploiting racing strategies to maximise the performance of their horses, and a new study published in Biology Letters today has for the first time quantified their effects.

Racing tactics such as exploiting the slipstream of other competitors or planning when to accelerate during the course of the race can considerably influence the outcome of horse races, the study reports. But different strategies can lead to the same results, depending on the horse’s personality.

“[We found] that if you’re covered up (staying with the pack) for three quarters of a race, that can be worth on average three to four finish places – which is enough to put you in the money,” said lead author Andrew Spence from the Royal Veterinary College in London.

Saving energy in horse racing

Aerodynamic drafting, which is very common in cycling, is the technique of competitors following each other very closely in order to ride in the slipstream of the leading athlete. This can save a cyclist up to 35% of their energy, and for a racehorse it is estimated that approximately 17% of its total exertion is spent on overcoming aerodynamic drag.

Energy that can be saved for the final spurt if the horse follows behind its competitors and remains ‘covered up’, as jockeys call it, during the main part of the race.

Pacing strategies describe how athletes distribute their exertion throughout a race. In short races there is no point in holding back, whereas constant, moderate pace with a gradual decline in speed towards the end is optimal in long-distance racing.

Horse racing strategies

In horse racing, several different strategies can lead to the same result. And this may have to do with the horses’ personalities.

To come to this conclusion, the researchers analysed data from nearly 45,000 racehorses in more than 3,000 races. They used small radio-transmitters placed in the number cloth of the horses to accurately track their speeds and positions throughout the races.

They found that most horses in a race went similarly fast up until a characteristic break point towards the end of the race, after which their speeds started to diverge. Generally, the horse that slowed down the least after the break point, won the race. “Basically [that is] the one that doesn’t mind pushing through into the pain or that has a further out [pain] limit,” said Spence.

Every horse is different

When a horse is willing to push itself, may also depend on its personality. A ‘front-runner’ horse needs to be out at the front by itself to perform best, while a ‘chaser’ is more comfortable behind the pack, saving its energy to move through towards the end of the race.

“Every single horse is different,” said Wanda Ings, trainer at Wanda Ings Racing at the Hawkesbury racecourse in New South Wales. “Some of them like to run in front; some of them need to be held up and given the chance to finish off.” These are character traits that cannot be influenced by training, she said. “You’ve got to test the water when you first educate [the horses], to see what they really like to do.”

Irrespective of the horses’ different personality traits, which were not individually analysed in this study, faster average speed was achieved by competitors that remained in the cover of the pack for longer.

“For the first time with this dataset we had a chance to see whether spending time behind other horses seems to speed them up. And that’s what we’ve been able to show,” said Spence. Calculations performed by his team confirmed that the difference in average speed between the first and fifth place could be accounted for by the energy saved by a horse remaining covered up for about 75% of the race. That is certainly significant, Spence said. “Especially if the race is being determined by a nose.”

More information:
Original paper in Biology Letters
Andrew Spence’s homepage

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