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How to predict a winner

07 March 2012

Scientists have used information from more than 3000 horse races to prove what seasoned jockeys have known all along – that tucking in closely behind the frontrunner is the best way to win a race.

The research, published in Biology Letters, demonstrates that just as a Formula One driver might sit in the slipstream of the car in front, jockeys who deploy this tactic are most likely to have an advantage on competitors when it comes to winning a race.

Dr Andrew Spence and colleagues at the Royal Veterinary College’s Structure and Motion Laboratory used a unique data set from thoroughbred horse racing to find out which race tactics work best. They determined the position and speed of 44,803 racehorses, once per second, in 3,357 races ranging in length from 1006 to 4225m using a validated radio tracking system, discovering that aerodynamic drafting had a marked effect on horse performance and hence racing outcome.

Dr Spence said: “Athletes and pundits the world over speculate as to the best tactics to win races, in a range of sports and species. Our research found that horse racing competitors, just like those in cycling and car racing, gain a significant advantage from what jockeys refer to as "covering up," or "drafting," which means they move tucked in close behind other competitors, reducing aerodynamic drag.

“We found that spending time tucked in behind other horses is correlated with fast race times. On average, spending three-quarters of the race behind other competitors leads to a speed increase worth three to four finish places. Whilst jockeys are taught that “covering up” is beneficial, this study is the first to demonstrate the concrete benefits of doing so. And clever race-goers who pay attention to tactics throughout the race may also reap the benefits.”