Aerodynamic Drafting Benefits Preakness and Belmont Winners
Don’t take this post as any form of slight to the winner; Union Rags went under the wire first and is the rightful 2012 Belmont Stakes champion, accordingly all his connections deserve the accolades streaming in their direction.
Most of us can agree UR had a pretty nice trip around the Belmont oval – above is an image captured during the final turn; UR is near the rail in the yellow silks with a box around him, and my clumsy clipart arrow is added to indicate the principal direction of the wind resistance. Same below with I’ll Have Another in the box during the final turn at Pimlico 3 weeks earlier:
Once more, we see the primary direction of wind resistance in relation to the pack of horses coming around the final turn in the Preakness Stakes. It doesn’t take a PHD in physics to realize that both eventual winners had the benefits of running under cover throughout the final turn in each race, catching a much-needed breather before kicking for home.
Recently a study quantified some of the advantages for horses that draft behind others in a race. Much of the article was too simplistic in its approach, but a few statements shine a light onto the physiological benefits associated with such a practice:
“Contrary to popular perception, the final sprint in fact sees a slowdown, rather than an acceleration, for the horses are tiring. The horses that win are in fact those that slow down the least over the stretch run. Conserving energy prior to this point through drafting is what counts. By reducing aerodynamic drag by 13%, a horse can increase his average speed throughout the race by 2%, an effect that is worth an average of 3-4 finish positions.”
As you can imagine, drafting is common in many sports outside of horse racing. Auto racing, swimming, speedskating, and running utilize the method. The practice is perhaps most obvious during bicycle races, where it is called ‘slipstreaming’:
Drafting to lessen the effects of aerodynamic drag is such an advantage that many races, especially triathlons, forbid the practice during competition, penalizing those that race too close behind a competitor.
Back to the horses, when a horse is running there are 2 major impediments to motion that must be overcome – the friction of the running surface and the dragging forces of the air. Air drag increases as speed increases, and the larger the surface area of the item attempting to move through the air is also a major factor – perhaps one reason why jockeys crouch behind the necks of their horses.
However, humans and horses have many differences that affect the use of drafting. Some horses prefer to run out in front of the pack, and following too closely can result in clipped heels. In order to maximize energy conservation through drafting, a horse must be able to relax while following others for a large portion of the race.
The main disadvantage to drafting is that a horse will often get a ‘bad trip’ and kill any chances of a win due to traffic problems. Therefore most everything has to go right for a colt like Union Rags to make his final run – and that didn’t happen in the Kentucky and Florida Derbies so the jockey took the heat for each loss.
I concentrated on the turns in the 2 screen captures above because I was unable to find a head-on video during the backside. Looking at the final turn at Churchill during the Kentucky Derby, Bodemeister was quite far in front, and the others who eventually came running ended up spread out during the turn itself.
What has been mostly missed in the Triple Crown season is the fact that Bob Baffert trained horses finished second in each race, after leading the entire way. The opposite side of the drafting coin is what happens to the leader, who must cut through the air resistance without any help from others. If drafting behind horses decreases the effects of drag by 13%, leading the field increases the effects of drag by an equal number.
How does Baffert condition a horse to essentially serve as his own ‘rabbit’ in a race? 4-5F breezes?
Nope, Paynter’s last recorded work in the DRF:
7F in 1:25 on 6/3/12 over the Belmont surface
So, it’s safe to say that Bodemeister in the Preakness and Paynter last weekend spent over 90% of both races exerting quite a bit more physiological energy than the eventual winners. To my knowledge, none of the Beyer/Ragozin/Thorograph numbers gurus factor in drafting when computing their figures – instead much of the emphasis is put on distance covered and overall wind speed.
Paynter, in my opinion, in losing to Union Rags by less than a length AFTER leading nearly the entire race, should score better than the winner on these handicapping grade systems. Likewise, he earned the right to shut off the rail during the final furlong, alas pilot Mike Smith did not do so.