Author and artwork: Patrick Rhodes
A horse with a crimson “6” displayed on either side of its girth processes to the parade ring. There are people milling about, looking over “Six” as well as the other entrants for the 2013 running of the St. Leger Stakes. Alongside Six stands a very short, wiry man dressed in a matching crimson outfit. He speaks with the trainer in hushed tones, discussing race strategy. Six is alert; energy radiates from the tip of it’s brown and white snout to the end of its finely groomed tail. As the pair leave the ring and canter to the gate, Six snorts a couple of times as the gates are closed behind it. In short order, the other steeds are similarly lined up and a bell rings. And they’re off!
Sprinting down the front straight.
Horses are fast; according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the fastest average speed ever attained by a horse is 70.76 kph (43.97 mph)1. That record was obtained over two furlongs (about 402 meters or 1/4 of a mile). For distances more comparable to Triple Crown racing, the fastest average speed over ~2.4 km (1.5 miles) is 60.86 kph (37.82 mph)1. It stands to reason that the longer the distance, the slower the average speed will be – although the track surface has a large impact on this (see Table 1).
Thoroughbreds – especially the 3 year old thoroughbreds who run in Triple Crown races – are magnificent steeds fleet of hoof and possessing a stalwart character. These beasts are bred for the racetrack and represent the apex of equine short-distance speed. In fact, the pace at which they run is within a stone’s throw of the world record every year2,3,4,5,6,7. Using the two most popular Triple Crown series in the world (English and American) and taken over an 83 year interval (i.e., since 1930), the average winning speed for each Triple Crown race is as follows:
Table 1. Average Winner’s Speed (since 1930)2,3,4,5,6,7
Keep in mind, however, that each racetrack is distinct – each has curvatures and elevation gain unique unto itself (English courses tend to have more ups and downs while American tracks tend to be flatter). In general, dirt tracks (favored by America) allow for faster speeds due to the hardness of the surface when compared to grass (favored by England). Further, dirt tracks produce a tighter cluster of top speeds when compared to grass (smaller standard deviation – noted in Table 1).
That being said, are horses getting faster?
A mile into the race, the horses are tightly packed, occasionally brushing up against one another. Pacing at about 50 kph (31 mph), the jockeys’ eyes are darting around, looking for signs of a break. Only the sound of hooves thundering into the bright green turf can be heard on the far side of the course. Slightly ahead of the pack and running well inside the railing is a black Range Rover, its cameras capturing the race. Each jockey is adjusting his position, working the mouth bit to alter the stride and tempo of the horse. Six is running comfortably in the middle of the pack, watching…
As the 2013 running of the St. Leger Stakes approaches – and given all the talk about drugs in the sport – I was curious to see whether the speeds have been increasing. After plotting the winning speeds7 of the St. Leger Stakes over the past 142 years (i.e., since 1870), I was a bit surprised to see that speeds had gone up (peaking in the 1920s), then down (bottoming in the 1960s) and then steadily rising since then (see Figure 1):
Figure 1. Loess curve in blue, least squares line in red.7
What had happened? Was there some issue with this race causing the horses to slow down for awhile only to regain it recent years? And, was this something common to all Triple Crown races or just St. Leger’s? The next logical step in my mind was to check out the other English Triple Crown races5,6,7 to see if they followed a similar pattern* (Figure 2).
*Note: These graphs start at 1925 to match the timeframe of the American Triple Crown races.
Figure 2. Similar patterns.5,6,7
Indeed, in all three races the speeds dropped in the same time period only to rise again recently (although this pattern is less pronounced in the Epsom Derby and more pronounced in the 2000 Guineas Stakes). Was this a phenomenon limited only to England?
The horses gallop around the front bend as they make their way to the front straight, their heads bobbing forcefully. The roar of the crowd becomes deafening to the riders and horses alike. The jockeys are yelling at the beasts, urging them on. Green turf is spotted just to the right of Six as an opening grows larger. His mane flailing in the wind, he begins to pull around the main group, inching his way to the leader: a filly, number “8.” The pack stretches into a long line as the pace heats up; some fall behind, but Six and Eight pull away.
For comparison’s sake, I gathered similar data2,3,4 for the American Triple Crown races which revealed something remarkable (Figure 3):
Figure 3. The American horses are getting slower.2,3,4
At nearly the same time that England’s winners have been picking up speed, America’s winners have been losing it – now that’s a real mystery warranting further investigation!
At first, I thought this might have something to do with the length of the races. But one quick look at Table 1 tells me that, while American races are shorter, they aren’t that much shorter. In fact, the shortest race out of all six is an English race – the 2000 Guineas Stakes – checking in at just over 1600 meters.
For a more direct comparison, there is one American race is about the same distance as one English race – The Belmont Stakes and the Epsom Derby, respectively, each being about 2400 meters in distance. Each shows the opposing patterns mentioned earlier, so we can toss out distance as the key variable which might explain these opposing trends.
There has been much discussion, rumor and innuendo regarding doping in all sports; horse racing is no exception. Therefore, I decided to investigate.
The last one hundred meters are a flat-out sprint; hooves violently pound the turf as the jockeys snap the reins wildly, willing the steeds to go faster. Six’s rhythmic bobbing becomes labored under Eight’s relentless pace. As the pair near the finish line, a wall of sound explodes from the crowd as if from the thunder god himself.
Doping horses became a widespread practice in the 1930’s9. However, getting access to hard data has been impossible for obvious reasons – nobody wants to be associated with it. Therefore, since no hard data can be correlated with these specific horses, no credible conclusion can be constructed. That being said, there is a major difference between England and America when it comes to doping horses; it’s illegal in England and legal in America.
English horse racing is governed by a national authority (The British Horseracing Authority) with a set of rules for drug usage in the sport. Interestingly, there is a ban on “doping” (performance enhancing drugs) while allowing for “medications” (those that aid in recovery or for treatment of health issues)8. In spite of this, horse trainers continue to break the rules – including last year’s (2012) St. Leger Stakes winner, Encke10.
Conversely, in America many drugs are perfectly legal and are openly administered to the horses on race day (such as Lasix, a popular diuretic) – even to very young horses11. Unlike England, America has no national governing body for horse racing, therefore drugs which are permitted are left up to individual states (and sometimes the racetracks themselves). While there has been a public outcry to limit or ban doping altogether, there hasn’t been a structured effort with enough impetus to create nationwide change. Ergo, when it comes to doping horses in America, the rules which govern this activity vary wildly from track to track.
Six and Eight burst to a speed in excess of 60 kph, careening towards the finish line. Unable to close the distance, Six loses the race to Eight half a length. The crowd roars and the Eight’s jockey thrusts his hand into the air, victorious.
It turns out that maintaining a consistent and safe dirt track is resistant to all but the best parks (like those racecourses hosting the American Triple Crown races). Often, they are too slippery from the rain or too hard from the lack of same. In either case, horses tend to suffer more injuries (and fatalities) on dirt than any other surface (see Table 2)12. Additionally, if the tracks are unfit for racing, the result is a loss of revenue for the racecourse facility as well as the horse owners.
Table 2. Fatalities per 1000 starts (average from 2009 -2012)12
These factors have given rise to synthetic tracks which (supposedly) offer an easier time of maintenance as well as a safer (and softer) surface for the horses, reducing the number of injuries (although there is dispute about this). The research13 in this area was so promising that the California Horse Racing Board officially mandated that all major tracks within the state were to be replaced with synthetic surfaces around 200515 (after several years this policy has been retracted).
However, according to some trainers, the horses which train on these synthetic tracks tend to run a bit slower than when they race on dirt. Barry Berkelhammer (a Florida bloodstock agent) notes:
When they’re selling 2-year-olds off of synthetic surfaces, it makes it much more difficult for me and I’m very cautious… The good horses obviously breeze good whatever they’re on, but the mediocre horses can breeze very well (on a synthetic track), so it’s muddied up the waters so to speak. It’s hard to trust what you’re really seeing… I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not that comfortable with it (buying a 2-year-old that works over a synthetic surface).14
Conversely, there has been speculation that training on synthetic surfaces seems to improve the speed of horses which race on turf16. If true, this might explain why there has been a recent rise in winning speeds in England’s Triple Crown series (and vice versa in America). Although this claim hasn’t been substantiated, the data presented here suggests that further investigation is warranted.
The winner’s speed in the Triple Crown series in England has recently been on the rise and in America, the opposite. It has been suggested by me that synthetic tracks may be a contributing factor. While other considerations should be noted (e.g. training methodologies, inbreeding and rule changes), the effect of synthetic tracks on the horses’ racing speed begs for a deeper analysis. Until then, I’ll be anxiously monitoring these trends to see how it all works out.
- Guinness World Records, Fastest speed for a race horse (accessed August 15, 2013); available from http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/records-1/fastest-speed-for-a-race-horse/.
- Wikipedia, Kentucky Derby (accessed July 21, 2013); available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kentucky_Derby.
- Wikipedia, Preakness Stakes (accessed July 21, 2013); available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preakness_Stakes.
- Wikipedia, Belmont Stakes (accessed July 21, 2013); available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belmont_Stakes.
- Wikipedia, 2000 Guineas Stakes (accessed July 21, 2013); available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2,000_Guineas_Stakes.
- Wikipedia, Epsom Derby (accessed July 21, 2013); available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epsom_Derby.
- Wikipedia, Leger Stakes (accessed July 21, 2013); available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Leger_Stakes.
- British Horseracing Authority, Medication and Doping Control FAQ’s, accessed July 28, 2013); available from http://www.britishhorseracing.com/resources/equine-science-and-welfare/medication-and-doping-faqs.asp#1.
- G. C. Clarke and M.S. Moss, A Brief History of Dope Detection in Racehorses (British Journal of Sports Medicine, October 1976); available from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1859700/pdf/brjsmed00274-0006.pdf.
- Godolphin doping: St Leger winner Encke among seven positive tests (BBC Sport, May 20, 2013); available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/horse-racing/22600972.
- Stephanie O’Neill, Breeders’ Cup backs away from plan to expand ban of horse racing drug Lasix (Southern California Public Radio, May 3, 2013); available from http://www.scpr.org/news/2013/05/03/37108/breeders-cup-backs-away-from-plan-to-expand-ban-of/.
- The Jockey Club, Supplemental Tables of Equine Injury Database Statistics (accessed August 1, 2013); available from http://www.jockeyclub.com/pdfs/supplementaltables_eid.pdf.
- Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Inc., Racing Surfaces White Paper (accessed August 2, 2013); available from http://www.grayson-jockeyclub.org/resources/White_Paper_final.pdf.
- The Blood-Horse, Sale Forum: The Effect of Synthetic Tracks (accessed August 2, 2013); available from http://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/57192/sale-forum-the-effect-of-synthetic-tracks.
- Daily Racing Forum, Tracking the development of synthetic racing surfaces (accessed August 2, 2013); available from http://www.drf.com/news/tracking-development-synthetic-racing-surfaces.
- Bill Finley (2008). Book Excerpt: Betting Synthetic Surfaces; available from http://store.drf.com/acb/stores/1/PDF/bss_excerpt.pdf.