The Real Tragedies of the Horse Race

Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred horse racing is a world of drug abuse, gruesome injuries, and slaughter. But the real tragedy isn’t the horses, who are forced to sprint for their lives and endure a series of traumatic breakdowns and hemorrhages. Instead, the tragedy lies in the human industry that treats them as little more than pawns in the game of chasing profits.

To understand this game, mathematicians at EHESS used GPS tracking tools embedded in French racing saddles to collect data on the horses as they ran around the track. A team led by Aftalion and Quentin Mercier, also a mathematician at the school, developed a model that shows how winning horses maximize energy output through muscles relying on two different pathways: the aerobic ones that require oxygen (which can be in short supply during a race) and anaerobic ones that don’t—but build up waste products that cause fatigue.

The study, published today in PLOS ONE, might surprise jockeys who hold their horses back early for bursts of energy in the last furlough. But, Aftalion says, “A strong start is the best way to make a long race more sustainable.” In fact, she adds, horses that race hard from the outset tend to finish faster than those that save energy in the early stages, because their muscles are better equipped to handle the exertion over a longer period of time.

As a bonus, the model might help owners and trainers tailor races to each horse’s unique aerobic capacity. Aftalion envisions a future app that would allow trainers to plug in their horses’ parameters and receive customized racing strategies—from pacing recommendations to ideal race distances. And if a successful version of the app proves popular with fans, it could spur developers to create a similar tool for other sports that rely on data to decide outcomes.

A big part of the answer lies in purses and sale prices. The escalating size of prize money has lead to fewer races held with horses over age four. This has reduced the number of horses who have reached peak ability at that age, which has in turn led to slower winning times for older horses.

The other major factor is the psychological incentive that human athletes have for winning a race in record-breaking time. But the horse knows no such thing; its innate desire to run is modified by a host of human and environmental inputs including the ‘going’, the tactics of other horses and riders, and its weight (which in the Melbourne Cup, a handicap race, is a significant variable). A few studies in the 1980s suggested that insufficient genetic variance caused by generations of inbreeding might explain the lack of change over time. But more recent research has refuted this hypothesis.