Regular Racing: Is It a Bad Thing?

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Derek Simon

December 5th, 2014

Recently, social media has been all abuzz over the impact of regular racing. In a nutshell, the question is this: Is it hard on a racehorse to compete every 7-10 days, as opposed to every month or two?

Not surprisingly (although I wish I was surprised), many racing fans believe it is, claiming that running a horse like Beeline Express, who is at the heart of the controversy, every week or so is cruel and unusual punishment.

Putting aside the fact that thoroughbreds of yore ran successfully on short rest all the time — Triple Crown champ War Admiral once competed in and won three races in eight days — I fail to see how regular racing is detrimental, in any way, to animals bred to run.

Nonetheless, rather than offer an unsubstantiated opinion (that is a luxury reserved for those who draw up and/or sign petitions), I decided to test the theory that regular racing puts undue stress on our four-legged friends.

Using my database of over 14,300 races, I first looked at horses returning to the races within a week of their last start.

Number: 9,763
Winners: 986
Impact Value (IV): 0.80
Odds-Based Impact Value (OBIV): 0.80

Next, I examined horses returning to the racetrack after a layoff of two months (60 days) or more:

Number: 10,162
Winners: 1,198
Impact Value (IV): 0.95
Odds-Based Impact Value (OBIV): 0.78

Now, before we go any further, I feel an explanation of terms is in order. The impact value, or IV, referenced above is a measurement of the number of times a winning horse shows a particular attribute (in this case, a race within seven days or a last race 60 days or older) compared to the number of times other entrants show that very same attribute.

For example, if our study concentrated on horses between the age of 0 and 99 years old, we would expect the IV to be 1.00, as all race entrants — and race winners — would meet that stipulation. If, however, we were to focus on horses over the age of six, we would get an impact value of 0.84 (I checked). Simply put, this means that horses six years of age or older win fewer — 16 percent fewer, to be exact — than their fair share of races.

The odds-based impact value, or OBIV, follows a similar logic — except that the final odds, rather than the number of entrants, determine each horse’s probability of visiting the winner’s circle. Hence, if a horse favored at even odds wins, the OBIV would be 2.00 (1/0.5). Because takeout and breakage are part of the final odds, a neutral OBIV (comparable to an IV of 1.00) ranges from 0.80 to 0.85 (see chart below).

Simple, right?

So, going back to our study results, we notice that horses coming back within a week do, in fact, win less often than horses coming off a 60-day layoff or greater (0.80 IV vs. 0.95 IV, respectively).

However, the OBIV tells a different story, revealing that the former category of horses (those returning to the races in a week or less) actually outperform the latter one (0.80 OBIV vs. 0.78 OBIV).

Ah, but I can hear the complaints already: Winning or losing a horse race is not really what this issue is about. Rather, inquiring minds want to know if a quick turnaround is detrimental to a horse’s health.

Granted, this is a tougher nut to crack, but I think I found a couple of tests that just might do the trick.

To begin with, I looked at the number of horses that finished — no pun intended — dead last. I figured that these horses were totally uncompetitive and, thus, could have been sore or ailing:

Number of horses that finished last: 1,621
Rate: 16.6%

Number of horses that finished last: 1,635
Rate: 16.1%

Then, I looked at horses that were beaten by 99 lengths or more. In general, these animals were eased or pulled up — which, again, might indicate a horse that was not in peak physical shape on race day.

Number of horses beaten by 99+ lengths: 100
Rate: 1.0%

Number of horses beaten by 99+ lengths: 81
Rate: 0.8%

As you can see, the numbers for both the quick returners and the layoff horses are eerily similar. True, the former category is slightly worse in both instances, but not enough to raise any eyebrows.

In fact, if we really dig into the digits, we find that horses coming off a 90-day layoff or greater have the worst numbers of all — especially in routes (races of a mile or greater) or in events  carded over synthetic surfaces (which are, perhaps, the safest surfaces around).

Still, the lesson here is clear: Before coming to a conclusion, it helps to look at the data. And the data — at least the data I have — simply doesn’t support the notion that regular racing is harmful to horses.

In fact, just the opposite may be true.