Giddy up and go, by the numbers

Given its subject matter, a newly released study’s opening line may be among the year’s most useful when it comes to gimcrack double entendre: “Very little is known about the optimal strategy for a Thoroughbred horse to run and win a race.”

Quite without effort, thoughts of equine doping, substitute runners and a candyfloss-coloured silken panoply of small men and women perched atop thundering quadrupeds springs to mind.

And with them, the dark and light shades of organised racing and punting: the almighty stewards that govern and apply the rules, and the trainers, “connections”, professional punters and sundry others that seek to make a living from the caper.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study bears the jaunty title “Optimal speed in thoroughbred horse racing”, and here’s the rub: its authors, Quentin Mercier and Amandine Aftalion, are French mathematicians, not colourful racing identities. More’s the pity.

“Because the racing career of a Thoroughbred horse is not so long, and therefore the number of racing opportunities is limited, any information that can help to determine a horse’s ability according to the race distance or to optimise how to regulate its speed along the race can be crucial,” they write in the paper’s opening paragraphs.

What follows is a fascinating diversion into the absence of equipment and opportunity that would allow for comprehensive, in-situ acquisition of data regards large thoroughbred horses running on flat racetracks.

Undaunted, the authors combine existing information about equine VO2max (maximum oxygen uptake), horse physiology, energy expenditure estimates and other factors to achieve their aim: “to provide a mathematical model able to predict how a Thoroughbred horse should regulate its speed over the course of a race in order to optimise performance”.

Their model – based on one developed for human races and adapted to fit horse data – accounts for variables including the distance to run and the shape and topography of the track.

Their track model is the Hippodrome de Chantilly – Chantilly Racecourse – about 50 kilometres north of central Paris; they consider in detail the track’s topography and curvature but discount its banking as not meaningful for data.

Mercier and Aftalion use video of three races – a 1300-metre event for two-year-old horses, 1900-metres for three-year-olds and 2100-metres for four-year-olds – in which they identified a single runner “which seemed to be close to have run a race which would have been similar if they were alone, and could be qualified as their optimal race”.

The different races provide the precise velocity for their mathematical model, which yields information on how horses have to regulate their speed and effort on a given distance.

The authors conclude that “horses have to start strongly and reach a maximal velocity. The velocity decreases in the bends; when going out of the bend, the horse can speed up again and our model can quantify exactly how and when. The horse that slows down the least at the end of the race is the one that wins the race.”

Just in case there are any mug punters thinking that this research might be the answer to their trifecta-picking dreams, Mercier and Aftalion end the paper on a suitably prosaic note. “To maximise an individual horse’s potential for winning, it should be entered in races appropriate for its racing ability.”

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