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Monday, May 5, 2008

Reality Check

For those truly curious about mixed gender racing (as opposed to those blinded by bias, not science), take a look at the fascinating 2002 study done by Dr. Pauline Entin, Associate Professor of Exercise at Northern Arizona University (PhD in Physiology from Cornell), entitled “Gender Difference In Running Speed: Humans Versus Horses And Dogs”:

“This study sought an empirical answer to the question of a gender difference in running performance in horses and dogs by comparing actual racing velocities. Given the observation that horse races, both flat racing and harness racing, are segregated by gender whereas Greyhound races are not, the research hypothesized that a difference between the sexes would occur in horses but not dogs.”

You can read her methodology, results and conclusions for yourself, but the most striking result of her study:

"When compared to the approximately 10 percent gender gap in peak running speeds of humans, the difference in the animals was small—no greater than 1.2 percent. The relatively small difference between the genders in both horses and dogs agrees with the lack of evidence of relevant physiological dimorphism in both species. Although the difference in the horses was significant, the one percent gender gap could be explained by training methods or psychological factors as well as physiological attributes. It is a widely held belief among racehorse trainers that female horses should not be trained as hard as male horses, and trainers are loathe to enter female horses in races that are also open to males. Greyhound races are not segregated, presumably signifying that Greyhound owners and trainers believe that females can compete successfully with males."

Her conclusions:

"Given the evolution of the horse as a prey species and the ancestors of the dog as a predatory species, both dependent on running, it is tempting to speculate that natural selection operated on the running ability of both males and females of these species. In contrast, archeological evidence suggests that human ancestors were tool users and may have had gender-specific tasks at least as much as one million years ago, possibly lessening the importance of running speed particularly in females. This analysis is strictly speculative, yet it is clear that humans have selectively bred both racehorses and Greyhounds for speed in both genders for several hundred years, whereas humans do not select their own mates based solely on running ability.

In conclusion, although male horses and dogs do hold a slight speed advantage over conspecific females, the difference is an order of magnitude smaller than that seen in humans (one percent versus 10 percent). Factors other than physiological differences may explain why horse races are traditionally segregated by gender."


In America, it is viewed as an anomaly when fillies or mares race against male horses, but this is not a world-wide phenomenon. In fact, if you watch Australian racing on any given day, you will find female and male horses raced together with great regularity. To demonstrate this point, let’s take a look at a typical day of Australian racing—this evening (May 6 in Australia).

Two tracks are featured. At the low-level country track of Ballina (akin to Penn National here), only four of the 9 races are single-sex. Race 3—a maiden handicap with weight assignments based on performance, not sex—there are 18 entries (9 geldings, 1 colt, 1 mare and 7 fillies) ranging from age 2 to 4, racing 6-5/8 furlongs. Race 5 (another handicap race, this time going 1 mile) has 18 entries (10 geldings, 8 mares) ranging from age 3 to 7. Race 7 (a higher-level handicap race going 6-5/8 furlongs) features 13 runners (7 geldings, 3 colts, and 3 mares) from age 3 to 7, while race 9 (a handicap race over 5 furlongs) has 15 entries (8 geldings, 1 colt, 1 filly and 5 mares) aged 3 to 7. The “feature” $10,000 Carlton Draught Cup (6-5/8 furlongs) has 13 entries, with 1 mare and 1 colt against 11 geldings.

At the provincial track of Sale (think Fair Grounds or Monmouth), every single race is mixed gender—7 races in all, ranging from a 5 furlong sprint to a 1-1/16 mile route. EVERY SINGLE RACE!

In a previous post I argued this point about mixed-gender racing, ironically making my argument for why Eight Belles belonged in the Kentucky Derby. Her second-place performance—clearly much the best of 18 other (male) three-year-olds—proved her mettle. Tragically, after the race she suffered a catastrophic injury that is extremely rare and yet one that could have occurred to any race horse on any given day. Unfortunately it occurred after the most watched horse race in America, if not the world. Perhaps the necropsy will discover some unpinning condition or event (such as a heart attack) that caused this tragedy. Perhaps not, and those of us who care about racing will once again have to mull over important issues facing the health and well-being of the Thoroughbred—namely, perilous and ill-advised breeding practices that produce speedy yet fragile horses that don’t stack up against their sturdier predecessors of the 20th century, and the proliferation of drug use necessitated by the weaknesses of both beast and man.

What we need at this time is real science. However, science and critical thinking never satisfy fanatics and the ignorant, so rave on PETA and moronic commentators. Sad that so many will blindly agree with them. Unfortunately, inflammatory rhetoric does nothing to address the very real issues, nor can it bring Eight Belles back.

6 comments:

dana said...

This is great and exactly what is needed... REAL DATA. Nice work!

baileyh said...

I respect you as an intelligent and a real horse lover but disagree with you on the female racing male factor.
The Arc de Triumphe as well as most
racing in Australia is on turf.
On this surface 3 year olds also
can compete well against older horses evem before the fall so it
appears to have that equalizing
nature. Young fillies chasing the males on dirt although some have succeeded it is not worth the end
damaging effects on their soundness.
I argued this on my forum list for weeks the moderater still has the posts, I dont pat myself on the back I am deeply saddened by
witnessing this filly run out of life. We can all argue and debate
but why even test the waters when it took so much out of others.
I care too much about our female horses so beautiful in evry way but
they should beheld honorably by us even if they do not win a classic race against males. Few of our great female retirees are taken care of and pensioned but so many more fall through the cracks.
That said for all she had accomplished Coolmore and the Jockey Club has no idea what happened to Davona Dale I urge you
to attempt a search its a dead end.
and no one cares.
I bring this up only to let you know how much I adore our great female stars. It really hurt watching her along with my daughter
and her four daughters on Saturday
leave this world in agony for the world to see.They were well aware of Barbaro even though they were so
young, but I cannot exlain to you what they feel about the fataloutcome of Eight Belles life.
Helene

Superfecta said...

Great work. Male and female horses run together everywhere else in the world (just look at the UK, France, Germany, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Dubai, etc.) and it's no big deal.

With respect to Helene's comment, I agree that turf tracks are usually safer and more forgiving (and are the norm just about everywhere else), but I don't believe it confers any sort of advantage to either gender. The difference is that we breed for it, and few other countries do so.

John said...

Nice work as usual Val but you are not addressing the developmental point of view.

Very few would say that fillies and mares of a certain age can not compete on equal footing.

I saw All Along and Dahlia in their hey day.

But European style turf racing is one thing and the running style of the Kentucky Derbys is quite another.

I look forward to your thoughtful reply :-)

Sharon Crute said...

Thank you for the excellent post, Valerie. There are so many factors involved, and we're all still hurting, that it's difficult to be intelligently objective. I've been an advocate for drug-free racing for years. The competition for top horses amongst trainers warrants that they maintain an "edge" by using whatever is the pharmaceutical latest as well as the routine medications (lasix, bute, steroids, etc.). Many vets consider it a challenge to mask these concoctions - i.e. milkshakes, cobra venom, elephant juice, etc. This tragic event will not go quietly into the night. Thank goodness. I know you consider PETA an overwrought pain in the a__, but American racing needs to squirm a bit under the microscope. If Eight Belles' horrible demise is instrumental in implementing change in a constructive manner, then God bless her, she didn't go in vain.

race said...

To Sharon Crute---of course those with Horse racing knowledge would applaud something to come out of the Fanatics demostrating---but be careful for what you wish for--lets let the owners of Race Horses be more vocal instead of the Breeders---race