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Its all About Power

While I was on one of my usual bike rides this weekend, I started to think that there is a significant factor in horse racing that I have never seen addressed.  In a sport where any slight competitive edge could me the outcome of a race, one key variable is being severely overlooked.  Look at the world of professional cycling, where teams and bicycle designers invest millions of dollars to make the bike and ride as aerodynamic as possible, and where even a 1% gain of efficiency can mean the difference between victory and defeat.  It puzzles me why horse racing has not yet adapted the techniques applied in so many other competitive racing sports.

 

 

As I watch horse racing, one key thing stands out to me that I have not been able to answer.  A good example is Gary Stevens on Silver Charm in the 1997 Belmont Stakes.  Why is it that some jockeys stand so much higher than others while their mount is running?  Is it to get a better viewing angle, to keep balance, or is it simply the most comfortable position?  In reality it is probably all of these things and more.  But when I watch a jockey stand tall on a horse vs one that is in a tight tuck, I wonder how much of a difference this really makes in races that usually last less than two minutes.

 

I decided to actually calculate the aerodynamic losses of a horse and jockey for different “stand-over heights.” The force of aerodynamic drag is made up of the following variables:

 

Frontal area

Coefficient of drag

Fluid density

Velocity

 

The frontal area represents the actual projected area that is passing through the fluid, or in this case the horse and rider travelling through air.  Frontal area would be increased for a jockey that stands taller because less of his body is “masked” by the horses head and neck.  Now, the force of drag is just a number, and what really matters in racing is power.  Power represents the rate of energy usage needed to overcome a force.  Therefore, the higher the aerodynamic force, the more energy that will be need to be consumed to overcome it.  Horses are not machines and we need to remember that they have a finite amount of energy.  Only so much gas in the tank, so to speak.

 

When converting force to power, the one variable that has the largest influence is velocity.  This is because it does not scale linearly like the other variables.   This means that to compensate for small increases in speed, the other variables must be reduced significantly.  Looking at the other variables, we cannot change air density and unless we start changing the shape of racehorses, the overall coefficient of drag will also remain constant.  This only leaves frontal area.  It is to the race team’s advantage to keep the frontal area as small as possible.

 

But what does this mean in real numbers?  If we assume a horse is running at a constant speed of 35 mph (and neglecting any potential effect of drafting), the horse will be outputting approximately 2050 watts (just under 3 horsepower) to overcome the aerodynamic drag force.  Now if the jockey stands 10 inches taller at the same speed, the horse will be outputting 2550 watts (about 3.5 horsepower).  This is a 16% increase in power output just to overcome the increase in frontal area!!  Alternatively, if the rider were to stay tucked down, the horse outputting the same 2550 watts could theoretically travel about 37 mph.

 

This was very surprising to me.  A horse can travel an average of 2 mph faster using the same amount of energy only if the jockey stays tucked down rather than standing up higher.  These energy values are small considering the largest amount of energy used by a horse is during acceleration.  Sir Isaac Newton was a pretty smart guy and according to his theories, to get a horse to accelerate for the last stretch drive takes anywhere from 8,000 watts (11hp) to 12,000 watts (16hp) of power.  This is because horses are heavy and they are already traveling pretty fast. 

 

Pending the responses to this article, I can run the numbers on how much extra energy is required to carry that extra pound or 2 in a hanidcap but I wanted to separate the scopes here.

 

The aerodynamic forces are only a fraction of the total during a stretch drive, but in a game of inches, every little bit counts.  So the next time you see a jockey standing tall on a horse on the backstretch, take note and see how much kick that horse has left at the finish.

 

My inner nerd would love to get a horse and jockey into a wind tunnel, but until that day, I’ll just keep my eye on jockeys who like to stay as crouched as they can during a race.

 

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Older Comments about Its all About Power...

You need to read Blink or Thinking Fast Thinking Slow....Paralysis by analysis...Throw in Fooled by Rndomness
The bug boy crouch was designed to reduce resitance + keep you from getting blown off your horse.
Interesting article ... I could not help but think about European riders versus their American counterparts. They are almost without exception riding much higher across the pond.

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