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.


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on June 12, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. In retrospect: Baffert knew he would go to the lead with Paynter, so he conditioned him accordingly.

    Matz knew that Union Rags would really only ‘run’ the last few furlongs, hence the 4-5F works.

    Dullahan, however, was all over the place – it seems Romans panicked a bit in sending him 8F at CD considering he had never breezed further than 5F in his life.

    Fast-forward a week and Dullahan breaks off the now infamous 4F in :45 and change – maybe Romans should have done the reverse – knock out the 4F at CD 2 weeks before post, then send him the 8F over the Belmont strip a week prior?

  2. I have often considered if drafting benefits horses and I don’t think so. I think the benefits of drafting are negated by dirt in the face. A horse has huge nostrils that are open wide at racing speed. I don’t believe its possible for them not to breathe in some dirt. Maybe a lot of dirt. Include the ‘unpleasant’ factor and I feel the disadvantage outweighs the advantage.

    As for the race itself, I expected more from Union Rags. Yes, he did win, but not in any definitive fashion. In fact, he got very lucky. Johnny V. clearly has nerves of steel as he sat there counting on Paynter to move over enough to let him through. If Paynter hadn’t moved over, he wouldn’t have won. Add in the slow time and it was hardly a distinguishing performance.

    I believe, given the way the race played out, I’ll Have Another would have won. I can only feel great sympathy for all his connections

    • It does benefit them physiologically, that is proven science – based on physics. But, does the discomfort from the dirt bother them enough to wipe out this advantage? Figuring that out is an art and predicated on your individual horse. The fact that something like 75% of races are won off the pace seems to favor that the aerodynamic advantages of drafting in most cases outweigh the disadvantages of difficulty of breathing – plus there is no dirt in the face on turf.

      • How many of those 75% of races are won from off the pace *because* of the pace, though? I’m willing to believe that aerodynamics have some influence, sure, but as they say pace makes the race and I’m sure that’s a much larger factor.

      • Surely that’s a factor Nick. But even given the easy 1:14 for 6F of the Belmont, only Union Rags seemed fit enough to make a closing push past Paynter. You can have the easiest pace scenario and the benefits of drafting – but you are still a loser if you can’t close. Same in the Preakness, other than I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister, no one else threatened at all.

        My main point was that in losing by a half length while leading the whole way, Paynter did much more work that UR and handicappers should recognize that. Paynter made his own way, UR had to have several things break in his direction in order to have a chance at the win. If he loses again then new rider JV would get blistered like LeParoux did after the Derby.

        Probably my other point is that horseman look at all the behavioral factors in a race, but never the physiological factors. Both play significant roles. I’ll give it: 40% genetics and behavioral ability, 40% diet/conditioning and physiological development, and 20% luck/surface/trip. Agree?

      • I agree with your ratios of genetics, conditioning, etc., and luck. And I agree that pace makes the race. However, pace is created by jockeys – for better or worse. It is a fact that if a horse can run 12 second furlongs, he need never hit maximum speed (which means maximum effort and subsequent risk of fatigue and injury) and still run a mile in 1:36. If he runs seven 12-second furlongs and runs at maximum effort the final furlong, he should be able to better that by at least a second.

        It doesn’t take too many observations of stakes races running slower than lower level claiming races at the same track on the same day, to know that pace indeed does make the race. For my own part, I would love to find a jockey who has a good clock in his head and is willing to use logic. My horse would certainly benefit.

      • Agreed – you want to see an A++ ride?

        Select Saturday 6/9/12 and go to Race 6. Luckily this is for one of my valued clients.

        The horse in question, Color Cam, had never run further than a mile in his life. The jock gets him to the lead, first quarter in 25, gives him a breather as the others catch up, first half in 51 – then just hangs in with the group as they enter the turn, 3 quarters in 1:16, comes out of the turn in the lead (but doesn’t panic) and urges with his hands. Then halfway down the stretch he goes to the whip only when needed.

        Result: easy 4+ length win and a horse allowed to give an even effort throughout.
        Jock is Carlos Marquez, Jr.

        Even the best rider clock in the world won’t win you a race with an under-conditioned animal, however, or one who is entered several levels above his ability – either of those 2 situations apply to all but a handful of horses this (and most) TC season.

      • Agreed. I erroneously assume a conditioned horse, and I should always specify, Nice to see good riding. I do think the great jockeys, if they don’t necessarily have a clock in their head, do intuitively feel when they are at the horse’s best cruising speed, and also know how much horse they have. I believe in gifts and some jockeys do have a gift. There is a reason there are only a dozen or so top riders at any one time. And it’s not just due to the mounts they get.

  3. Hello Bill,

    Very nice article, it’s funny because we talked about this a couple of weeks ago with that runner in Monmouth. There have been several articles on the benefits of drafting in horseracing for decades, every study comes to the same conlusion: You will pass up an edge if you don’t do it. How much this edge comes to, varies from study to study, but not a single one was less then on average 2 finishing places when drafting for 2/3 of the race, compared to no drafting at all. One major study, though I can’t find it anymore, was conducted over I believe 7 years, 40.000 racehorses, and distances varying from 5f to 3m.

    When my horses race, I will always tell the jockey go close behind another horse, when your horse can’t do this because he pulls or gets too excited, you will have to learn him, not to do this and you will see a significant improvement in his racing outcomes.

    • Good perspective as a young trainer Bart, thanks for contributing.

      One must at least ATTEMPT to train his horse to race in the pack in order to take advantage of the physics of horseracing. Some may adapt and thrive under a Union Rags like trip, others are born front runners and less likely to change. Wise trainers for decades have attempted to match race tactics with psychological merits. The flip side is any traffic problems and the excuses fly (bad trip, didn’t fire, stupid jock, etc.)

      Conversely, Baffert seems to select and condition more front runners than most, and is often rewarded by ‘stealing’ a race from the lead.

  4. you’d have to be on a horse to fully understand the amount of wind resistance and the wall of wind that starts to hit u as the horse clicks up through the fractions. stick ur head out the window of a car at 35 mph some time and u get the idea. When horse runs against oncoming wind resistance grows geometrically. Probably a jock Q but i tend to agree with Ms. Tierney that drafting can be a two edged sword. Properly done, particularly early in the race u’d think there’d be some energy savings. Unknown if that’s the top rider priority though. A factor to consider in race strategy probably, would be my take. What would Baffert say, lol.

  5. Seems to me harness jocks pay more attention to the concept, which makes sense in that the front surface area of the cart is much larger than a horse’s chest – which makes air resistance even more extreme YET gives more room to find cover behind it without the risk of clipped heels.

    • While we’re on aerodynamics, what is up with jockey position? I got out of racing back in the late 80’s and now jockeys seem to have no concern for wind resistance. They stand up with almost straight legs until the stretch run. Seems to me that a lower, and admittedly more tiring, position would be better. In fact, I would be happy if jocks rode with a longer stirrup to get lower. And I am not a fan of acey.ducey either.

      • I think this is to create so-called upforce, the wind resistance will make the jockey lighter, at least this is what someone once told me. I’m not a physicist so don’t pin me on it.

      • That is probably believed to be true. This is where science would be of benefit. Upforce is another word for lift. Lift is caused by air passing below something going at high speed. I don’t think lift is occurring with jockeys. I would imagine all a jockey can do is try to reduce drag, but some physics would be interesting.

  6. Maureen that’s a very good point. never considered it, although i was mere exercise rider. would jock might say they need certain position on horse in terms of leg flexibility to stay pinned over the center of gravity If u crouch e.g. there might be less upper body control which might work against efficient striding etc? interesting and wonder if position change could be done within the dominant though on board of self preservation. e.g. how easy is it to eject from a crouch?

    • The crouch was what made American riders famous back in the day. Before that riders were more upright. Here is an interesting link.
      Absorbing the motion of the horse in the legs is the key. But I also believe the low position is important. Look at footage of Shoemaker, Day, and McCarron. No accident they were the best.

      Easier on jockey to have straighter leg – which you know as an exercise rider. Not sure about bailing out.

  7. Phillip Haycock

    I wonder if the horse has a negative physiological response to the dirt and dust inhaled when f
    Its possible that that the net effects could show a bias either way.??

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