This is a bit of a different blog but having been inspired by the Winter Olympics, I am wondering why racing appears to be stuck in the dark ages when it comes to sports technology and science.
The phrase marginal gains was first used by GB cycling chief David Briailsford but is now commonly used across many sports. It’s the small 0.1% changes in training or equipment that can make the difference between first and second. Athletes will look for any advantage, whether that be a change in their equipment, diet or training. Something that can give them an edge over their competitions. Why is it not the same when it comes to racing?
Here are my 3 biggest bug-bears when it comes to racing and its reluctance to use sport’s technology.
Amateur club cyclists understand the benefits of aerodynamics yet the word is never brought up in horse racing. I found this study, which suggests horses can reduce drag by 66% by racing in the pack, which is commonly seen in the sport. However, taking this principle further, why don't jockeys and trainers make more of an effort to reduce their individual drag. Eg. Make themselves more dynamic?
Anyone who has been on a road bike will know the affect that rider position and clothing can have on speed. My old cycling coach told me that as soon as you hit 12mph then aerodynamics become important. That's why professional cycling teams spend hours in wind tunnels trying to perfect their riders positions and employ scientists to create the most effective skin suits to race in. Horses race at around 30-40mph so the aerodynamic affect will be huge.
Many jockeys race low to the saddle but others sit higher. I would love to know how much resistance they add and what its cumulative effect would be, say over a three-mile race for example.
Sam Waley-Cohen brought in skin-tight racing silks (see pic above) a few years ago but they failed to really take off with other jockeys. However it was also only half a job. Jockeys need to get rid of their baggy breeches, baggy silks and their peak caps, which all act as a wind break. Jockeys are athletes in so many ways nowadays yet their riding clothes have hardly changed in decades.
I’m not suggesting skin suits for horses (although think of the branding opportunities!) but the same principles of aerodynamics apply to them as well. Would it be too radical to suggest flowing tails make a difference to speed? Someone please get a horse in a wind tunnel and let's find out!
Race meetings are held during afternoons and evenings. A horse wanting to win the Epsom Derby needs to peak at around 4.30pm. Yet most days that said horse is usually tucking into his hay or having an afternoon snooze at that time of the day. Suddenly it’s been asked to do something totally out of its routine. Why are racehorses trained early every-morning yet on raceday they are asked to perform in the afternoon or sometimes evening? Every horseman knows the importance of routine for a horse. They are creatures of habit so in my mind this becomes even more important when training a racehorse to perform at its best. The argument from trainers will be logistics and tradition:
If a trainer has to go racing in the afternoon then they want to get all their training done in the morning.
Racehorses have always been exercised early – before the traffic is bad (if you have to use roads), before the heat gets up (in some countries!).
Sometimes they need to start early so as just to get it all done within the day.
However, there is now so much technology that a trainer can monitor a horse training from another country and know exactly its heart rate and speeds. Does the trainer really need to be present everyday? Also if a trainer wants to really feel that they have prepared their horse to the best of their ability then training it at the same time as it will race seems like an obvious one to me. It's what the Olympic athletes would do. For example, the GB swimmers changed their routines before the Beijing games.
All athletes use training at altitude to enhance their oxygen carrying capacity. It’s been well documented and it works. Fact. Many athletes can't get to altitude to train so another training method which has been proved to work is using altitude tents.
Why is this technology so rarely used for racehorses? This company use treadmills in an oxygen controlled environment. That's one way as I’m not suggesting building racing stables in the alps but why can’t horses live ‘at altitude’ and train in normal oxygen conditions? Surely stables or whole barns can be made airtight and their atmospheres controlled. It might not make a difference to every horse but if it’s beneficial to some then it's worth a try? I would love to know if any trainer has successfully tried this.
So come on trainers... let's think about those marginal gains and embrace sports science and technology!