Is It Time to Change the Way Horse Racing Is Done?

horse race

The death of Eight Belles and that of Medina Spirit in America’s most famous race have prompted a long-overdue reckoning with horse racing’s ethics and integrity. But it’s far from clear that the sport will evolve to the point where horses’ best interests will become the dominant factor.

Despite the sport’s best efforts to improve, it remains in the grip of two categories of people who are essentially unable or unwilling to understand how wrong things are for horses. In one, there are the cheaters: a small but feral group that stain the integrity of racing for everyone else. And in the other, there are those who do not realize how wrong it is, either because they have never thought about it or because they do not believe that they can make a difference.

Both groups are powerful enough to keep horse racing from ever advancing to a more humane and ethical level, as it must. It is impossible for the majority to make a difference until these people wake up to the reality that they are being robbed of their souls by a business model that puts profits ahead of the health and welfare of the animals who are the sport’s foundation.

Even then, it’s not clear that many of these people will change their ways. For example, the recent report in The New York Times that revealed equine welfare abuses at a Louisiana track has been met with denial and hostility by racing insiders who blame the messenger (The Times) for publishing it, rather than the message itself. This is a common response to reports of undercover video that exposes cruelty, whether it comes from PETA or a criminal investigation of a large company.

There is no shortage of research that shows that racing is a dangerous, unnatural and stressful activity for horses. But that hasn’t stopped the sport from continuing to operate on the assumption that it is possible to overcome those risks with a few tweaks to the way races are run.

In the past, a jockey could win a race by holding a horse back early on in order to save energy for a late burst of speed. But new research published today in PLOS ONE finds that those strategies may actually be counterproductive.

The researchers, led by EHESS mathematician Quentin Mercier, have developed a computer model of each horse’s unique aerobic capacity. The model allows them to calculate optimal racing strategies for a given horse, from its ideal starting position to the distance it should cover in a race.

The team’s findings contradict the common belief that a horse needs a strong start in order to win a race, but they also found that a slow start can hurt the winner. A good middle-distance strategy, then, is crucial. That’s especially important if the race is a long distance. The researchers are also working on a tool that would allow jockeys to plug in the specifics of a race to get custom recommendations for the most suitable tactics for a particular horse, including what sort of pace it should maintain and how long the race should last.