The Horse Race Is Not As Fun As It Seems

When a crowd cheers “Come on Number Three!” as Seabiscuit races to victory, it’s a reminder that horse racing is as much a spectacle of power and beauty as it is a wagering game. The sport’s fans are usually older and loyal, but betting on horses is losing market share to other forms of gambling. The decline is partly due to the sport’s reputation for scandals related to safety and doping. But other factors, such as a changing economy and declining TV viewership, also play a role.

Despite its glamour, horse racing is not an honest business. Behind the romanticized façade of spectators wearing fancy hats and sipping mint juleps, there is a world of injuries, drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns, and slaughter. Most horses are pushed beyond their limits, and they frequently sustain serious injuries and bleed from their lungs (exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage) while running at speeds that are dangerously fast for them. Injured horses are often treated with cocktails of legal and illegal drugs to mask their injuries and enhance their performance.

As a result, many horses suffer and die. In America, the death of Eight Belles in the Kentucky Derby and that of Champion filly Medina Spirit in the Preakness Stakes have triggered a reckoning with the sport’s ethical and moral integrity. Many Thoroughbreds do not live long enough to be retired to pasture, and those who are not sold to slaughterhouses in Canada, Mexico, or Japan are discarded after their last race, or even earlier.

Researchers have tried to understand how horses improve and decline over their racing careers by studying their physiology. They found that the best-performing horses are those that optimize their use of muscles reliant on two different pathways for energy output: powerful aerobic ones that require oxygen, which can be in short supply during a race; and anaerobic ones, which don’t need oxygen but build up waste products that lead to fatigue. Jockeys generally favor a strong start and then hold their horses back for a burst at the end of a race, but that strategy can also leave a horse exhausted. To study this further, Aftalion and fellow EHESS mathematicians used a GPS tracking tool embedded in French racing saddles to track the progress of individual horses over the course of their careers.

The team’s model could help trainers and jockeys better understand how their horses’ bodies work during a race. It might, for example, reveal why a horse may seem to improve with age, when in reality it is simply slowing down. And it might explain why some horses earn their highest speed figures as young two-year-olds while others reach that peak in their middle-aged four-year-old year. The findings are published today in PLOS ONE. The authors hope the model will eventually allow racing officials to develop rules ensuring that horses are not allowed to compete too soon or too late, and that the sport will become more scientifically sound.