Racehorses Haven’t Reached Peak Speed Yet

By Carl Engelking | June 23, 2015 6:00 pm

horse racing

Scientists may have settled a long-standing debate in horse racing: Are thoroughbreds still getting faster, or have they reached their maximum speed?

Past studies examining this question concluded that racehorses have hit their biological speed limit, but researchers from Exeter University in the United Kingdom say those findings were based on data that didn’t tell the entire story. And although American Pharaoh wouldn’t stand a chance racing against 1973’s Triple Crown winner Secretariat, a new analysis of race times from 1850 to 2012 shows that racehorses, on average, are getting faster every year.

Getting the Whole Picture

In the latest analysis, scientists wanted to fill gaps they believe past studies failed to address. For one, the studies only analyzed winning times of a relatively small number of elite middle- and long-distance races. Other studies also didn’t factor in outside environmental variations, such as ground softness.

So researchers started by building a mathematical model to account for a variety of factors, including distance, number of runners, age, course and so on. Then, they compiled a massive data set of 616,084 race times ran by 70,388 horses between 1850 and 2012 in the U.K. Unlike prior studies, they didn’t limit their study to elite races, and their data set included short sprint races, as well as middle- and long-distance races. Scientists also accounted for number of runners, timing method, age and sex of the winner.

Going for Speed

After sending their collection of race times through the mathematical model, researchers found that horses were indeed getting faster, but speed increases were most significant in short races and tapered as the distance got longer. In other words, horses are becoming faster sprinters, but may have reached their max speeds in distance races. Here’s a look at how race times have improved over the years:

Race Length % Increase from 1850 to 2012 Average Annual % Increase Average Annual % Increase from 1997 to 2012
6 furlongs 12.9 0.08 0.11
10 furlongs 10.6 0.065 0.02
17 furlongs 9.7 0.06 -0.009

However, speeds didn’t increase consistently over time. Rather researchers found that speed improvements came in rapid bursts, rather than steadily year over year. For instance, times improved quickly from the late 1800s to 1910s, then remained steady until the 1970s. This finding could be explained by improved riding styles or other outside factors. Researchers published their findings Tuesday in the journal Biology Letters.

Speed Boost

Scientists can’t say with certainty why horses appear to be getting better at sprinting but not at longer distances. Racehorse performance over long distances could be reaching an evolutionary limit. Or, researchers posit, breeders could be more focused on producing sprint horses. Changing jockey tactics over time could also affect race times, such as a new jockey posture pionerred by Lester Piggott three decades ago.

But if humans are getting bigger, faster and stronger every year, why not horses?


Photo credit:  Cheryl Ann Quigley / Shutterstock.com

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  • John David

    I don’t care how many “studies” are done or how many years, decades or centuries go by, no horse will EVER be as good, never mind better, than Secretariat!

    • grackle1

      Um…I’m a bit puzzled as to what sparks this response…nobody was saying anything about Man o’ War. And the Triple Crown didn’t even exist in Man o’ War’s time. The 3 races weren’t linked together as “The Triple Crown” until the 1930s. Sir Barton was granted his title as a Triple Crown winner retroactively for winning all 3 races. So Man o’War not running in the KY Derby certainly doesn’t condemn him to also-ran status.

      • John David

        I did not mean it to take away from Man O’ War. Since the win by American Pharoah, the argument of who is the greatest race horse has stirred the old argument that no one could compare to Man O’ War and that all other horses paled in comparison. This has been posted by a number of people, in many different articles and opinion pieces for many years, even before this year’s Triple Crown.

        After years of listening to this, I wanted to go on record and state the facts. Wether the Triple Crown existed before is not the issue for it is the one thing that all race horses are judged by, fairly or not. Man O’ War does not get relegated to also ran status, he was unquestionably a great horse. I just show that Secretariat is in a class of his own. He has the records, the times and the longevity to prove it.

        This article now states that some researchers think that horses will in fact go faster in the future. Well that maybe,but I’m talking about now and what has come before. I also think it won’t happen any time in the near future either.

        I just thought that comparing him to what many have thought for years as the best in Man O’ War was in reality, not in the same league, because the Triple Crown did not exist then, so therefore, he could not be compared to any of the horses who did win it.

        I guess that after many years of reading and hearing some of the arguments against Secretariat, I just wanted to put it on record how I felt, for I have not done so in the past.

        In the end, this all comes down to my opinion, but I base that on the facts I presented. Nothing more, nothing less.
        I’m sure many will disagree and thats fine. This article motivated me to get my voice heard and I know that many feel the same way I do.

        • grackle1

          Gotcha! I can’t imagine why people would feel the need to downgrade Secretariat…clearly a great horse. Too bad he can’t come back from the Pastures Beyond and give ’em a good kick with a metal-shod hind foot. That’d learn them. Cheers!

  • Rochelle Strowder

    These scientists clearly had a lot of time on their hands, especially to not come to a clear reasoning why the horses are getting faster. Unfortunately there are many factors as to why these horses are getting faster, and many factors that can slow them down. If I was a jockey I would train my horse to be a sprinter rather than a distance horse, because particularly I think sprints would not only help the horse last longer in a race, but also not so much pressure on the horse. It’s just like humans, we might not be the best runners, but if it came down to it and we had to run from a dangerous situation we could run faster at a shorter distance opposed to a longer distance. These studies did prove interesting to say the least.

  • Alan Ward

    Man ‘O’ War was truly the best in my opinion. Even his name is superior. Not to take away from Secrateriat. Man ‘O’ War has to be counted as the finest race horse in the history of horse racing.

    • brenda

      what R­alph said I’m shocked that some one able to earn $9720 in one month on the computer . visit here

  • Alan Ward

    What’s with the fake replies? Spam is not wanted here.


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