A new study shows racehorses have gotten progressively quicker over the past 160 years, and in sprint races, especially. But given the startling number of race-related deaths each year, it’s nothing to be proud of.

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University of Exeter researchers Patrick Sharman and Alastair Wilson analyzed a dataset of 616,084 British flat races run by 70,388 horses. A host of factors were considered, including the year of the race, horse speed, timing method, distance, racecourse, ground conditions, age and sex of every horse, and so on. Results showed that elite race-winning speeds have improved greatly since 1850, especially over shorter distances. The results of this study were recently published at Biology Letters.

Above: Patterns of temporal change in speeds of elite race winners since 1850. Circles, squares and triangles represent average speed predicted from model 2 at 6, 10 and 17 furlongs, respectively (bars indicate ±1 s.e.). (Image and caption credit: P. Sharman et al./Biology Letters)

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Horses and their riders appear to be reaching a kind of fitness peak for middle and long distances, but sprinters are getting faster. The researchers write:

Ongoing improvement in sprint performance...is much more rapid. Between 1997 and 2012, winning speed for elite 6-furlong races [0.75 miles, 1.2 km] have increased by an estimated 0.110% per year, corresponding to an improvement in predicted winning time from 72.92 to 71.74 [seconds]. On good ground, a difference of 1.18 [seconds] corresponds to over seven horse lengths, a distinct margin given that we calculated the average winning distance of 6 furlong elite races between 1997 and 2012 to be just 1.28 lengths.

Explanations for the improved speeds include innovations in jockey positioning (i.e. crouching and shorter stirrups), and advances in racehorse breeding. Unlike the United States, the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), such as pain-relieving drugs and anabolic steroids, is strictly forbidden in British horseracing, and as such was not a factor in the analysis (though cheating has been known to happen).

Speed Kills

There’s a dark side to all this. The recent study only considered British races, but it probably applies to the U.S. as well, especially considering its laissez faire approach to PEDs and other interventions.

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Horse racing is one of the most brutal sports in the world. Back in 2012, a scathing series from The New York times revealed that 24 horses die on U.S. racetracks every week. According to the Jockey Club Equine Injury Database, at least 583 thoroughbreds died within 72 hours of their races in 2014. The numbers from Britain aren’t much better despite the ban on PEDs.

The Dodo explains the connection between drugs and equine fatalities:

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Some drugs, like painkillers, are used to mask pain. “If a horse is running with an injury but can’t feel pain due to the drugs used, that injury can be exacerbated, leading to breakdowns,” [says Keith Dane, vice president of equine protection at the Humane Society of the United States]. “A pain-masking drug known as phenylbutazone is given ubiquitously to racehorses; it’s the equine equivalent of aspirin.”

And others drugs are used to enhance performance. “The drug furosemide, commonly known as Salix — formerly Lasix — is believed to be given to over 90 percent of racehorses, whether they need it or not,” Dane explains. “It’s purported intended use is to prevent racehorses from bleeding in the lungs, but it’s also a diuretic which causes horses to lose water weight and run faster.”

There are other drugs as well, says Dane, including including steroids, cocaine and cobra venom.

Lasix is banned as a race-day medication in the UK, but it’s allowed during training.

“If a horse is a really bad [lung] bleeder we might try to dehydrate them, take their water away the morning of a race, something like that, but that’s as far as we go,” noted horse trainer Alan King in The Guardian, who added that less than 10% of his horses bleed.

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Another problem is that horses are being bred for speed, not durability. These days, the average number of races run by a horse is 6.37. Four decades ago a horse could be expected to run 11.31 races. Racing breeds are becoming more brittle, and more prone to a catastrophic injury, with each passing generation.

The only consideration at breeding time is selecting for speed and a horse psychology that says “run like hell” (or what industry folk call “precociousness”). As equine surgeon Wayne McIlwraith told ESPN, “We’ve evolved a super-fast athlete.”

Read the entire study at Biology Letters: “Racehorses are getting faster”.


Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image by Jeff Kubina/Flicker/cc