The Secrets of Winning a Horse Race

horse race

Behind the romanticized facade of thoroughbred horse racing lies a world of injuries, drug abuse and gruesome breakdowns. While spectators wear their finest outfits and sip mint juleps, horses are sprinting for their lives—often under the threat of whips and even illegal electric shockers—at speeds that cause them to hemorrhage from the lungs.

In the race’s early stages, War of Will, last year’s Preakness winner, held the lead over Mongolian Groom and McKinzie, a small-framed bay. But on the clubhouse turn, he began to tire and a sudden surge from outside brought the other three horses into contention.

As the pack hit the final stretch, it was clear that the pace would be fast, and a jockey’s choice of tactic could make or break a race. A jockey can try to increase the pace by using the whip, but this is risky because it can cause a horse to balk, or stop running altogether. A balk is an indication of a horse’s fear or anger, and it can be fatal to the animal.

To determine what kind of tactics are most effective, EHESS mathematician Anne Aftalion and her colleague Quentin Mercier looked at timed historical horse races, comparing them with contemporaneous human data from similarly elite track events. Their analysis found that horse races are often won by a combination of strategies that maximize the energy output of muscles reliant on both powerful aerobic pathways—which use oxygen—and anaerobic ones, which don’t use oxygen but do generate waste products that lead to fatigue.

The result of this strategy is a reduction in winning times, which are on average 4.2% lower than human track and field times. In addition, they observed that the pace of a race tends to be faster when it is open to fillies and colts as opposed to being restricted to one or the other.

Although the piece in The New York Times that hitches a ride to PETA gives the sport’s legions of apologists an opportunity to dodge, deflect and blame the messenger, it is a mistake to confuse hostility toward PETA with dismissal of its work. Virtually no one beyond racing cares how PETA gets its undercover video of alleged cruelty; they only care about what’s in it. And that video is powerful, as it shows what can happen when a trainer takes advantage of a racehorse.