How a Computer Model Can Help Improve the Ethics and Integrity of Horse Racing

When the Kentucky Derby was run just months after Eight Belles’ death, it caused many to question horse racing’s ethics and integrity. Behind the romanticized facade of Thoroughbred races, though, lies a world of injuries, drug abuse and gruesome breakdowns. While spectators wear their fancy outfits and sip mint juleps, horses are being forced to sprint — often whipped with a stinging device that causes hemorrhage from the lungs — at speeds that would make human athletes gasp in amazement.

In their natural herds, horses understand self-preservation, so if they are injured, they will rest until they have healed or are able to join the herd to graze again. But when they are confined on a racetrack, where humans perched on their backs compel them with a whip to breakneck speed, they cannot stop or rest. Even in the rare cases where horses do not suffer severe injuries, they are pushed past their limits by trainers and horsemen who have an incentive to win, not just for themselves but also to get the next horse on the track.

While most horsemen and horsewomen are honorable people, a tiny fraction — a feral group, some might call them — will cheat to win. Then there are those in the middle, the far-too-silent majority who labor under the false assumption that horseracing is broadly fair and honest. It is the third group that must radically change if the sport is to survive.

To help, EHESS mathematician Dominique Aftalion, who studies the behavior of complex systems, created a computer model to analyze horse races and determine what tactics best maximize a race winner’s energy output. She and her colleagues plugged in parameters like the horses’ unique aerobic capacities to find optimal strategies for each one, and they compared those results with actual winning times in elite horse races.

Their analysis shows that jockeys who favor holding their horses back early for bursts of energy will not see as good a finish as those who allow the horses to burn up their reserves more quickly in the final furlough. But it also shows that breeders’ massive breeding programs, which produce 1,000-pound thoroughbreds with spindly legs and necks that fuse growth plates until they are six, have had little to no effect on overall winning times.

Of course, the most important thing is to end horseracing subsidies that fuel the industry’s corruption. But that won’t happen until the first two categories of race fans — the crooks and the dupes — realize that the system is corrupt, and are willing to do what it takes to clean it up. That includes a commitment to impose harsher penalties for serious wrongdoing, like those handed out in the veterinary code of Virginia. Then, the second category will follow suit, and serious reform will finally occur.