Casey Combest: The Human Seabiscuit
I may be the only horse racing fan who has never watched the movie ‘Seabiscuit’, because I aim to read the book first – yet have never gotten around to it. Regardless, I think the above video of fellow Kentuckian Casey Combest is illustrative of quite a few parallels to the 1938 Horse of the Year.
Note that Combest stands roughly 5’7 and tips the scales at 135lbs in this March 1999 video, where he was 17 years of age. Compared to his competitors, and all sprinters, he is extremely undersized and apparently lacks the powerful musculature necessary to propel oneself to near 30mph in less than 7 seconds.
Yet in his pre-race warmup we are afforded quite a hint to what will soon unfold as he completes a tuck jump, a common warm-up for many sprint athletes, and nearly JUMPS OFF THE VIDEO SCREEN:
What the hell is that? I have watched hundreds of hours of track meets around the world and have never seen anything like that. Several physiological studies have shown the correlation between vertical jump and first step acceleration, and not surprisingly a blazing start was Casey’s hallmark.
Olympic 100m gold medalist Carl Lewis once said, “I have been running track for over 20 years, and he has one of the best starts I have ever seen. The sky is the limit for [him].”
On March 14 in Columbus, Ohio, Combest set the national high school indoor mark for 60 meters with a 6.57. It was the 10th fastest time in the world to that point in 1999, and afterward former 100-meter world-record holder Leroy Burrell called Combest’s performance “fundamentally perfect.” Two weeks later, Tennessee’s Leonard Scott won the NCAA Division I national 60-meter title with a time of 6.58.
That’s right: this willowy HS senior ran a faster 60m sprint time than the NCAA champion. Let’s compare physiques, or as horsemen might say, conformation:
Now let’s tackle the elephant in the room; Combest is white and 99.9% of US sprinters are black. This fact brings into the equation the contribution of genetics to athletic performance. Here is a long-winded study concluding that black athletes have a center of mass that is 3% higher off the ground when compared to white athletes, which confers a sizable 1.5% speed advantage in sprinting, which is really a sport of controlled falling due to the pull of gravity:
Paradoxically, this higher center of mass is a detriment to swimmers, therefore white athletes similarly dominate that sport. Good thing no one told Casey Combest he should be in the pool.
So, Combest possessed the greatest start in the history of the sport – which made him nearly unbeatable at 60m. What are the odds this was 100% due to genetics? It has to be infinitesimal based on the data above. Here’s a clue:
From what I understand the hallway in the house he grew up in has a similar pathway worn into the carpet. Combest was known to practice his starts 20 times before bed every evening. Strangely enough, although he practiced his starting form obsessively, he never lifted weights and subsisted on a diet of Mountain Dew and cigarettes.
The world of horse racing focuses too much on pedigree in my opinion, and not enough on conditioning. Once the foal is born, or the hammer falls in the auction ring – any decision based on genetics is finished forever, what remains is the training environment. Constrain the exercise stimulus to 1.5 mile daily gallops and weekly 4-5F breezes, and your odds of DEVELOPING the next Casey Combest, or Seabiscuit, shrink to nil. Rather, you must win the genetic lottery.
61 years earlier Seabiscuit was just as under-sized and knobby-kneed compared to the top thoroughbreds of his day – but that didn’t stop him from beating War Admiral in the ‘Match of the Century’. Sadly Casey Combest never rose to similar heights in his profession. After routinely besting Lexington (KY) high school foe (and 2012 Olympic 100m 4th place finisher) Tyson Gay in 100m races throughout high school, Combest failed to academically qualify for the University of Kentucky and faded into obscurity.
Casey Combest today: