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Sprinting ahead

17 December 2023 Written by VRC

What constitutes a sprinter or fast horse? Is it genetic predisposition, muscle composition, fitness, mental tenacity, or the synergy of targeted training? We take a look at some of the factors that may produce excellence in short-distance, high-speed racing.

Pedigree & training 

While not a certainty of success, pedigree of a horse is of course important for predicting if you have a winner on your hands. Selective breeding practices can enhance the likelihood of producing successful sprinters. Breeding horses with a history of speed and success in sprint races can pass on desirable traits to their offspring. It is not always obvious, however, as Hall of Fame trainer David Hayes once stated, “Horses can surprise you, they keep you thinking and you are always learning about them. They’re individuals and you have to treat each one that comes into the stable as an individual.” The state-of-the-art training facility Lindsay Park, which David designed and his sons Ben, JD and Will now oversee, was created to suit all horses. It caters for stayers and sprinters, and the same methods are involved in training both types of horses, with slight alterations along the way.  

Black Caviar, one of the greatest Australian racehorses of all time, is the ultimate sprint success. Foaled in August 2006 at the Swettenham Stud, the mare came from a strong lineage sired by the winner of the Doomben 10,000 sprint Bel Espirit, out of Helsinge by Desert Sun. Her sire had a notable racing career, with 13 places in 19 races, earning over $2 million, while her dam was a broodmare that didn’t race. Her bloodline is impressive, however, with names like Desert Sun, Nijinsky, Vain, and Northern Dancer making significant contributions from both sides. Bred by Rick Jamieson, she was sold at the 2008 Inglis Melbourne Premier yearling sales for $210,000 to trainer Peter Moody, who would take her on her incredible journey to 25 consecutive wins. So just what did he see in the yard that day? “When I first saw her, I was immediately impressed with her size and the way she carried herself. She wasn’t a giant filly by any means, but she was a strong package and a very athletic filly to go along with it,” Moody said.  

Science 

When Dr Emmeline Hill identified a unique sequence of the equine genome dubbed the ‘speed gene’ in 2009 at University College in Dublin, she was certain the discovery had the power to change the racing industry. 

“With an increasing number of owners also learning about the information that genetic testing can provide, we have certainly noticed a greater interest in and knowledge of what this testing can offer,” said Dr Hill. 

The test itself doesn’t predict how good a horse might be, merely the optimum distance range that their genes say they will perform at. 

Leveraging genetic information can significantly enhance training and race preparation by eliminating guesswork. While many trainers traditionally rely on assessing pedigree, physical attributes, and on-track performance, these methods are not always foolproof. Even full siblings sharing identical pedigree pages can possess significant genetic differences. Incorporating speed gene information provides valuable insights that complement the trainer’s observations, offering a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of the horse’s potential. 

The speed gene classifies horses into three genetic types, a C:C or sprint-miler; a C:T or middle-distance horse; and a T:T or true stayer. By identifying which genetic type a racehorse is from an early age, trainers can train them accordingly and map out the most suitable path for their career. 

Breeding a C:C mare to a C:C stallion will produce a C:C foal, but variation occurs when horses from different genetic types are mated together, with a range of different outcomes possible.  

“I firmly believe that now that there is a much more widespread understanding and appreciation of genetics in our culture, owners, breeders, and trainers will feel more comfortable and confident engaging with genetic information for their horses, and that they will be rewarded with greater success,” Dr Hill said. 

Analysis and observation 

Warren Huntly, expert form analyst, says there are no hard and fast rules to picking a good sprinter, believing each horse is an individual and building up a profile is beneficial. 

“While the pedigree may be some guide, I prefer to develop a profile on the horse, particularly how they parade and race, before I form too strong an opinion.” 

So what does he look for in the yard? 

“In general terms, sprinters tend to be more stocky and short coupled than stayers, with sprinters having more of their strength in the hind quarters, while staying types tend to be more athletic and leggy. You like to see good strength in their hind quarters. It’s generally a positive to see decent muscle definition in that area, but in my experience some horses are able to perform over the sprint trips when not fully ‘wound up’. I don’t see it as a disadvantage if a sprinter is a little ‘on the toe’ in the mounting yard, provided the horse is not burning too much energy, as it can be a sign he is switched on and ready to perform over the short course.”