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Sci-Tech

How horse racing bets on science, and wins

From CNET Magazine: Some trainers and breeders think tech can give them better odds at finding a winning racehorse. Not everyone agrees.

Alex Williamson

The odds were against the filly.

So it wasn't too much of a surprise this past May when the horse got off to a slow start at the Kembla Grange Racecourse in New South Wales, Australia, and settled into the back of the pack. But at nearly the last possible second, So It Is shot forward — a blur of horse pulling past her competitors.

From the grandstands, her trainer Mary Bray watched her AU$30,000 investment beat the other horses by a length and a half. Bray kissed the stranger standing next to her and then bolted through the crowd, knocking people out of the way.

"I've actually got a crook hip, but I didn't even feel it," Bray says. "I moved faster than I've moved in years."

The 3-year-old filly was Bray's first win as a trainer. Her success validated the idea that trainers can wring results out of even the smallest advantages when preparing an animal for a thunderous go around a track. In Bray's case, the advantage came by way of a saddle blanket equipped with a GPS and heart rate monitor. Called the E-Trakka, it continually monitors a horse's speed, heart rate, stride length and position — and helps folks like Bray understand how to better train their horses.

"You've just got that extra little bit of info that can give you the edge over someone who's not using it," Bray tells me over Skype, moments before a chicken strolls past a window at her 100-acre farm in Braidwood, New South Wales.

Across the $25 billion global horse-racing industry, breeders and trainers are on a constant hunt for a horse that will carry them to fame and fortune. They rely on what's been handed down for centuries about pedigrees and training methods to produce what they hope will be a champion. But now some are adding fitness monitors, massive amounts of data and even genetic testing to give themselves — and their horses — an extra edge. Not everyone in this tradition-steeped industry approves. Some see tech as the sport's future, while others view it as a potentially harmful fad.

Let's just say the general opinion isn't exactly stable.

Horsing around with data

Jeff Seder started analyzing human athletes in the late 1970s, working for what would become the US Olympic Committee's Sports Medicine Division. That's also when the East Germans and Swiss were killing it in bobsledding. To find out what those countries were doing right, Seder decided to film their bobsled teams in slow motion. That eventually led to a complete shakeup in the kinds of athletes the US recruited and how they trained. The US started winning medals, too.

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A muddy track posed a challenge for 20 horses racing this past May at the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, at Churchill Downs. 

Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

In 1977, Seder decided to apply the same principles of biomechanics, exercise physiology and sport sciences to thoroughbred racehorses, a passion since his college days. He founded EQB, which brings together huge databases and analytics — evaluating everything from hearts, lungs and spleens — as well as patented technologies like the portable ultrasound device. Based about 50 miles outside of Philadelphia, EQB works with most of the top 10 racing stables in the US, Seder says, helping them breed and train thoroughbreds.

Seder's team, for example, uses cameras that can shoot at 10 times the frame rate of a normal camera to analyze a horse's gait. Those images reveal everything about how the horse runs, including potential problems, like a wobbly ankle.

"These are horses that weigh a thousand pounds going 40 miles an hour, and they're doing that every stride," Seder says. You want to know where that ankle is going to land.

EQB advised on the breeding of a mare called Littleprincessemma and a stallion called Pioneerof the Nile, who finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Those two horses begat American Pharoah, who won the US Triple Crown in 2015.

"He had everything we wanted," Seder says. "And that's a long list." 

Numbers tell the story

Andrew Stuart started off as a jockey in the mid-1980s before weight gain forced him to try something different. That's when he began working with one of Australia's most notable trainers, Bart Cummings, while also studying the principles of modern sports medicine.

He knew he needed something that could measure a horse's fitness and speed. Such information could help trainers provide a safe, effective workout, track the horse's recovery time and figure out its strength (sprinter versus a distance runner, for instance). Stuart invented the E-Trakka, the device Bray used to train So It Is. E-Trakka has made its way into prominent stables across Australia.

Stuart and Seder both say data doesn't lie. But they also run into skeptics who believe tradition outweighs data every time.

"I still see at the major auctions [people] spending $300,000 or $2 million on a horse that I wouldn't spend 5 cents on because they refuse to use anything except traditional stuff [like pedigree or eyeballing the horse]," Seder says.

Dive in the gene pool

In 2006, a group of researchers from around the world revealed they had mapped the approximately 2.7 billion DNA base pairs in the horse genome. Since then, researchers and companies have used this body of knowledge to push horses' potential.

Seven years ago, Emmeline Hill — then a genomics scientist at University College Dublin and co-founder of UCD spin-out Equinome — published a study that traced the so-called speed gene to a single British mare that lived about 300 years ago. That gene indicates the distance a horse is best suited to run, be it short (sprinters), medium or long. The study showed how selective breeding over the centuries has continually played with the balance between speed and stamina.

"Pedigree essentially is genetics," Hill says. "Anytime anybody is looking at a pedigree, they're trying to best guess the genes that have been passed down."

Equinome now offers genetic tests that spot the speed gene, tell you the conditions and distances a horse is best suited to run, identify ones most likely to become elite racers — and even help owners decide whether to race an untried horse, and at what age.

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Alex Williamson

It can also tell trainers when not to run a champion, as it did last year when trainer Hugo Palmer wanted a second opinion on whether to pull Galileo Gold from the Epsom Derby, considered the greatest leg of the English Triple Crown. The colt had already won the mile-long 2000 Guineas Stakes two months earlier, but the Epsom track is nearly half a mile longer, and Palmer feared the horse couldn't go the distance. Eqinome's test confirmed that Galileo Gold is better at running a mile or less. Palmer pulled the horse from the race.

Still, it's important to note that there isn't always a direct correlation between a trait and a gene.

"We recognize that genetics is not a silver bullet," says Hill. Instead, genetics is a way to place a first bet on what a horse will become. Knowing that shifts the issue to "how you manage an animal to maximize that genetic potential."

Neigh sayers

I'm at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, just a few days before the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.

The white barns, green roofs and hanging flower pots by each stall create a picturesque scene that would be downright sweet if not for the fact that I'm looking at millions of dollars' worth of horse flesh.

Around 11:30 a.m., the horsemen begin to clear out and the mood shifts as guards show up to watch the horses.

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Mark Mann

"This is serious," says Leandro Mora, assistant trainer to trainer Doug O'Neill, who has brought nine horses to the legendary track. One of them, Irap, will finish 18th in the Derby that first Saturday in May.

O'Neill and his team don't use genetic testing. They don't use heart monitors and they don't collect data. Six years ago, they started using nasal strips — the kind that are supposed to curb snoring — to help their horses breathe. They've also adopted PAPIMI magnetic pulse therapy machines to soothe sore muscles. And that's pretty much it where technology is concerned.

"It's just the natural stuff," Mora says. "You've got to learn wisely and step by step because the horses are fragile. They're live animals. They're not cars; they're not motorcycles."

Dr. Bryan Waldridge, a veterinarian with Park Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, tells me most of his clients are suspicious of technology. Few want to talk about it even if they do use it.

But Waldridge believes tech's effectiveness depends on the individual horse. You can't test for how hard a horse is going to fight during a race. There's no test to show a one-eyed horse named Patch could make it to this year's Kentucky Derby. There's no test for coming up from behind and winning the whole thing, So It Is-style.  

This story appears in the fall 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.

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