Harnessing the power of technology
In the fast-paced world of horse racing, technology has emerged as a powerful ally, revolutionising various aspects of the sport. From breeding to training and welfare, cutting-edge advancements are enhancing the performance and wellbeing of these equine athletes, reshaping the industry and paving the way for a more efficient, compassionate, and successful future.
Dr Grace Forbes refers to it as her ‘layman’s example’. She is explaining the significant and essential impact of new technology being used in the racing industry. Think of the horses as footballers, she says, finely tuned athletes who need their training regimes, diets, and game-day performances constantly monitored and occasionally adapted. “In football, their aim is to pick up a hamstring injury at an early stage, and that way the player might miss one or two games and then they’re back,” says the General Manager of Veterinary Services at Racing Victoria. “Whereas if they miss the signs at an early stage and they suffer a really serious injury, where they tear the hamstring, they often will be out for longer and maybe even require surgery. The horses are really the same. The aim for us (as industry vets) and for the trainers is to detect an injury at a really early stage.”
This is where the technology kicks in – like in the AFL, new equipment and computer software are constantly evolving to keep equine athletes ‘on the park’.
For several years, certain trainers have been using GPS devices and big data collection to fine-tune training techniques. In real-time, they record distance travelled, stride lengths, acceleration, speed, sectionals, heart rate, and recovery. One model even measures hoof pressure and nerve data to identify any shortcomings. “We did 50 gallops on Tuesday morning and by lunchtime, I have got a summary of every horse’s data,” trainer Danny O’Brien said. O’Brien, who has stables at Flemington, Geelong, and 13th Beach, says the system can identify horses with potential and horses with superior cardiovascular systems, but it’s also vital in ensuring his gallopers are meeting certain thresholds. “That 90 seconds from the time they ease down is generally the best indicator of exactly how fit they are,” he said. “If a horse still has a heart rate of 150 or something after a couple of minutes, it has got an issue. If the horse to the eye looks fit and well but its heart rate is still up at 150 two minutes after a gallop, you have got to go looking as to why.”
O’Brien says the technology does help streamline the training process, but there is still no greater judge than race day. “There’s nothing like the winning post. It’s the best data point you can have,” he said.
The onset of AI technology is looming as the next step in the training evolution.
Using cutting-edge algorithms to analyse data and spit out feedback within minutes. Lindsay Park is the latest stable to enter the realm of sports science. They have employed Romy Borrione, who has a Masters Degree in Equine Science, to help analyse training data from their Flemington and Euroa facilities. Having a large sample size tells the stable what a good recovery looks like, what a good action looks like, and how they can improve a horse’s fitness without increasing the risk of injury. Borrione emails daily reports to the Hayes brothers. “We look at how we can make the horses better,” Borrione says. “Should they go up the hill twice a week or once a week, or should they do three laps on the sand or two laps? That helps to personalise the training for each horse, within their objectives, within their genetics, and within their abilities. Obviously, Ben, JD and Will are the ones who make the decisions. They are closer to the horse. They see them every day. They are the horsemen. But I can suggest to them, ‘why don’t you try something like this? If they want to, they do it. If they don’t, they don’t.”
Race strategies also come into play. The stable can overlay the horse’s data on time and form ratings to optimise race plans – the best distance, the right class, and even suitable track conditions. “It really is teamwork,” Borrione said. “There are bits to take from the data for every part of the stable.”
Dr Forbes says key veterinary equipment has become smaller and faster. Race day vets can now perform respiratory scopes at the track using portable endoscopes – something not possible in the recent past. They can even record high-quality ECGs on their smartphones if they hear an arrhythmia. They’ve been able to wipe out time-consuming paperwork by using smartphone “sampling” apps as part of their anti-doping programs – triplicate handwritten receipts have been replaced by emails.
Dr Forbes is also looking forward to two new developments taking place at Racing Victoria. At the start of next year, the industry will begin operating the country’s first equine PET scanner. Designed in the United States, it is like a high-definition 3D bone scanner that provides functional information such as increased bone activity. Based at Melbourne University Equine Centre in Werribee, the high-tech machine will complement Racing Victoria’s two standing CT scanners, which provide high-definition structural information (like high-definition X-rays). “Humans lie down in a PET machine. But they have reconfigured it so that the machine can move around the horse,” Dr Forbes said.
The second product that “looks really promising” according to Dr Forbes is an advanced lameness locator called Sleip. Still in the validation phase, Sleip is a mobile app that uses Artificial Intelligence to analyse a horse’s gait straight from a video recording. It removes the need to place sensors on a horse to track its movement. “When we see horses at multiple time points, it gives us a reference – a reliable reference – as to how that horse moved last time we saw it, rather than relying on our memory,” Dr Forbes said.
NO MORE PAPERWORK
Another product eliminating cumbersome, time-consuming and unreliable paperwork within training ranks is StableWizard.
The platform, created four years ago by an Australian start-up, has digitised and automated the workflow related to horse welfare. It enables trainers to bid farewell to recording methods like pen and paper or whiteboards and embrace the convenience of computer screens, mobile phones, or iPads. With essential information in one centralised location, trainers can easily access a horse’s daily temperature, feed history (morning and night), and weight, and oversee vet work and medications – all without leaving the screen.
StableWizard takes a proactive approach to horse care. It promptly generates alerts for temperature spikes or incomplete feeding, ensuring trainers stay one step ahead of potential issues. The software is complemented by dedicated hardware, including iPads and 55-inch LCDs, designed to replace outdated feed boards. However, the true gem lies in the company’s temperature wand.
This cutting-edge device identifies each horse through a radio frequency identification chip located outside the box. By simply tapping the wand on the chip, the horse's temperature is instantly read and stored, eliminating the need for manual recording – a seamless process that saves valuable time and effort.
Company director and head researcher Mark Kay explains the efficiency of StableWizard, stating, “Stable staff might do one horse, they might do 40 horses, and once they are done, they just walk up to a docking station and drop it on, as you would a phone charger, and it uploads all the information into StableWizard.” Keeping track of feed, bloods, medications, and treatment results is equally effortless, as staff and vets can quickly scan a QR code with their mobile phones or iPads and input the relevant data.
Kay emphasises the platform’s visibility in ensuring tasks are completed as intended, stating, “It is a visible way of showing all of these events and making sure that tasks are actually completed as set out.” He further underscores the transformative impact of StableWizard on stable welfare management, envisioning the elimination of treatment books and a resulting increase in transparency and audibility.
StableWizard, developed with the input of several trainers, offers its services at a reasonable cost of $1 per horse per day, along with an investment in hardware. It comes as no surprise that many trainers across the country, including Chris Waller, Nick Ryan, Tony Gollan, and John O’Shea, are embracing StableWizard.
“The power of StableWizard is that trainers can make these real-time decisions – whether they have 20 horses, 100 horses or 250 horses.”
Dr Forbes believes industry-wide access to this big data and the ability of AI algorithms to analyse information “instantaneously” could help accelerate their understanding and ability to prevent injuries. She said they would be able to constantly refer to and learn from “the amount of work that horses are doing, the surfaces that they’re working on, their speed, the distance covered, the time they are taking and then overlay that with their racing program as well as any injuries that they sustain.”
"The point we are trying to get to is what is a safe training load before you get into a period where you increase the likelihood of injury,” Dr Forbes said. “Where we would love to be is that a horse’s work is recorded, and using the knowledge that we’ve got, there could be something that tells the trainer, ‘you’re in a pretty safe workload area’ or ‘you're pushing up into a higher load’ or ‘you're entering a period where you are at a potentially increased risk of injury’, and that they could use that to help modify their training program. That’s the dream to get to that position, and I actually don’t think that is that far away,” she said.
But while Dr Forbes says technology will continue to play a huge role in horse welfare, she believes there is nothing like the hands-on approach. “In my opinion, nothing can replace good horsemanship, watching the horse, or running a hand over its legs,” she said.
Another area Racing Victoria is looking at developing is a baseline data system for trainers that are struggling in the digital space. “It would be a starting place – to get everyone into that digital space for recording their treatments and medications, reporting injuries, simple things like lodging veterinary clearances, scratchings certificates, something that could make it more efficient and easier for trainers,” said Dr Forbes.