Science says racehorses are getting faster and haven't hit their limits yet

Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images

Racehorses, despite an industry consensus that they have hit a speed plateau, are getting quicker, according to the latest research.

More work needs to be done to determine whether the increased speeds have a genetic basis or are the result of improved training, jockey tactics or other environmental factors.

But the study from the University of Exeter in the UK has determined that the horses are running faster than ever and haven’t, as previous studies indicated, reached the limits of their abilities.

The fastest official recorded speed of a racehorse during a race is 70.76 km/h by Winning Brew trained at the Penn National Race Course, Grantville, Pennsylvania, in 2008.

The researchers analysed a large data set of racing records which gave a detailed overview of elite thoroughbred performance since the mid-1800s, and at both the elite level and in the racehorse population as a whole since 1997.

The full data set of 616,084 race times run by 70,388 horses shows that race winning speeds have improved greatly since 1850 and increases in speed have been greatest in shorter distance races.

Data from 1997-2012 shows that the improvements in performance are on-going, despite increases in handicap weight, and continue to be driven largely by increases in speeds of sprinters.

The slower rate of contemporary improvement in speed over middle and long distances could indicate that horses are reaching a performance limit at these distances or could suggest that breeders favour speed over endurance.

Patrick Sharman from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall says there’s been a general consensus over the last 30 years that horse speeds appear to be stagnating.

“Our study shows that this is not the case and, by using a much larger dataset than previously analysed, we have revealed that horses have been getting faster,” he says.

The study, “Racehorses are getting faster”, by Patrick Sharman and Alastair J. Wilson, is published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.

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