Horse racing is a sport that has undergone dramatic changes over the centuries, developing from a primitive contest of speed or stamina to a vast public-entertainment enterprise involving massive fields of runners and sophisticated electronic monitoring equipment. But its basic concept has remained unchanged: the horse that crosses the finish line first is the winner.
A mathematician at the University of Paris, Catherine Aftalion, has developed a mathematical model that shows how horses maximize their energy output during races by using two different pathways: powerful aerobic ones that require oxygen, which can be in short supply during hard running, and anaerobic ones that don’t use oxygen but create waste products that lead to fatigue. Aftalion and her colleague Quentin Mercier, also a mathematician at EHESS, used data from a new GPS tracking tool embedded in French racing saddles to study the movements of horses during races. This provided real-time images of each horse, and Aftalion could see how the different muscle groups shifted during the race.
Her research showed that winning horses use a strategy that alternates between using the aerobic and anaerobic pathways, switching between them as needed to keep their muscles as fresh as possible. She also found that the best horses rely on their anaerobic pathway more than the less-potent aerobic one and that this switch is most effective when it occurs near the end of the race, when the horse needs to conserve its remaining energy for a late surge.
In the United States, horse races are usually limited to distances of a mile or more, but Aftalion’s model showed that a small fraction of horses can perform well at distances up to four miles. She suspects that a similar strategy might work in other countries, where races can be longer than the standard two-and-a-half miles.
The huge breeding program that has produced today’s champion thoroughbred racehorses has arguably brought some improvement to the sport, but it’s not enough to account for the absence of change in winning times. Other factors must be at play.
A horse’s winning time is a complex of its innate desire to run modified by a variety of human inputs including the jockey, post position in the starting gates, the ”going,” tactics and so on. Human athletes have a psychological incentive to win in record time, but that’s not true of horses.
While betting on horse races is a lucrative business, the industry struggles to attract young people and new would-be fans. The sport also suffers from scandals involving safety and doping. In addition, Congress decided in 2020 that it was unwilling to tolerate animal deaths for the sake of gambling. As a result, the industry has adopted new standards and begun enforcing them. The newly formed Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority has now implemented many of these measures, and the rate of fatalities has dropped. The new standards will have to be fully embraced by the industry if it is to survive.