Racehorses are running ever faster, according to a new study that negates the widespread view in the racing industry that racehorse speed has plateaued.
For well over a century, thoroughbred performance at the elite level - particularly in shorter sprints - has been on the rise, with no limit in sight, suggests the new paper, which is published in the journal Biology Letters.
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"There has been a general consensus over the last 30 years that horse speeds appeared to be stagnating," lead author Patrick Sharman from the Center for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter, said in a press release.
"Our study shows that this is not the case and, by using a much larger dataset than previously analyzed, we have revealed that horses have been getting faster."
The consensus that he mentions got a boost recently when U.S. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah had a Belmont Stakes time that was only the sixth best in history.
American Pharoah won at 2 minutes and 26.65 seconds, while the legendary racehorse Secretariat won the race in 1973 at 2 minutes and 24 seconds. Just a tenth of a second can be important in such races, so the differences here are significant.
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American Pharoah is just one horse, however. For the study, the researchers instead looked at the performance of 70,388 horses documented since the mid 1800s in Britain. The full data set included 616,084 race times.
The data from 1997–2012 reveals that the improvements in performance are ongoing, despite increases in handicap weight. Sprinting speed particularly has shown an upward trajectory in these more recent years, according to the researchers. Speed measured for middle and long distance races is going up, they suggest, but at a much slower rate than for sprinting.
Sharman and colleague Alastair Wilson theorize that this could mean one of two things: horses are either reaching a performance limit at these longer distances, which require amazing cardio endurance, or that breeders are simply favoring speed over such endurance.
Another interesting finding is that the improvements have not been linear. Rapid improvement occurred in the early 1900s and then again from 1975 to the early-1990s.
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Other horse experts attributed the change for the better to an altered riding style at the time. Jockeys then began to assume a crouched position and rode with shorter stirrups.
Another period of improvement occurred through the 1970s and 1980s. The researchers believe this was, in part, because legendary jockey Lester Piggott (who is now enjoying his retirement) began a trend of jockeys riding with further shortened stirrups.
Commercialization of racehorse breeding also occurred at this time, though, so the rapid increase in speed could have been due to "genetic improvement," the researchers said.
That could also explain the increases in sprinting speed in more recent years.
Sharman concluded, "The challenge now is to find out whether this pattern of improvement has a genetic basis."