A horse race is a contest of speed between horses that either are ridden by jockeys or pull sulkies driven by drivers. It is a dangerous sport that requires expert training and equipment to ensure the safety of both horse and driver. There are many different types of races, including the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup. Some are held on paved tracks while others take place over muddy or sandy surfaces. A horse that crosses the finish line first is declared the winner.
The most famous races in the world are devoted to thoroughbreds, which are bred for speed and elegance. Races are often categorized according to age, sex, or birthplace. These categories are used to produce events that attract the most spectators. A race can be won by a single horse or by a team of riders, known as a stable. The most successful trainers are those who are able to create winning horses by using the best combinations of a horse’s physical traits and its ability to learn.
Horses are bred to achieve peak performance at five years old, but the escalating cost of purses, breeding fees, and sale prices has led to fewer races for older horses. When racing officials realize that a horse is approaching its final years, they usually put it up for sale. A horse that is no longer a top competitor is likely to end up in slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada. The few independent nonprofit rescue groups that network, fundraise, and work tirelessly to save these animals from hell face an uphill battle to make a difference.
Although the ‘wishful thinking’ of horse racing aficionados to someday wake up and realize that the current business model is not in the horses’ best interest has yet to materialize, there are small signs of change. Some trainers and racetracks have begun experimenting with a faster, more sustainable approach to racing, which is better for both horses and humans.
In a new study published in PLOS ONE, mathematician Emmanuel Aftalion of EHESS used a GPS tracking tool embedded in French racing saddles to measure the speed and positioning of each horse in real time. She and her colleague Quentin Mercier then developed a computer model to analyze the strategies that maximize the energy output of a horse’s muscles. She found that jockeys who slow down their horses early, allowing them to conserve energy for a late burst, are more likely to win than those who give their mounts a strong start right away. However, her model also shows that a horse that starts out too slowly can quickly become exhausted in the later stages of a race. Aftalion’s model can be used by trainers to plug in parameters specific to each horse—such as its unique aerobic capacities—and receive customized racing recommendations, from pacing guidelines to ideal racing distances. The results could help them improve their horses’ finishing times and prevent premature injuries. But, she says, it won’t address the issue of cruelty.