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Fast Horses: Racing Steeds Up in Speed

Jun 24, 2015 05:35 PM EDT
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There might be added evidence that racehorses are doing crunches and eating power bars instead of oats, because researchers at the University of Exeter say they're faster now than ever before.

While scientists and the racing industry have seemed in agreement that racehorse speed has plateaued--no more Seabiscuit, although American Pharoah is pretty good--the Exeter research says otherwise.

Previous research only analyzed the winning time of a small number of middle and long-distance elite races, the University of Exeter researchers point out in their report. Their new research took into account ground softness and other factors not included in earlier studies.

Researchers focused on a data set of racing records that gave an overview of thoroughbred performance at the elite level since the mid-1800s and at both the elite level and in the racehorse population as a whole since 1997.

They pored over a full data set of 616,084 race times run by 70,388 horses. The set shows that race winning speeds are really up since 1850, and increases have been most significant in shorter distance races.

Improvements in performance are ongoing, as proven by the data from 1997 to 2012. This is the case despite increases in handicap weight. Also, the data continues to be defined largely by increases in speeds of sprinters, especially at the elite level, as Science Daily wrote.

Researchers have some theories: The slower rate of contemporary improvement in speed over middle and long distances could indicate that horses are reaching a performance limit at these distances. Alternatively, it could mean that breeders favor speed over endurance.

Here are a few more interesting bits: Things improved rapidly in the early 1900s, then from 1975 to the early 1990s. The earlier improvement might have been because jockeys began crouching and rode with shorter stirrups. The later jump likely occurred when jockeys adopted Lester Piggott's style of riding with further shortened stirrups. At the same time, in the later period, commercialization of breeding occurred and could have brought about genetic improvements.

Researchers used data from British flat races that took place on turf.

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