I’m not talking about Shires or Percherons, Belgians or  Clydesdales, the Suffolk Punch or American Cream.

I’m talking about a different kind of draft.  The aerodynamic kind.  That’s the kind that wins horse races.

Did you know that when a horse is running approximately one horse length (2.5 meters) behind and 10 degrees to either side of another horse that it reduces aerodynamic drag to a significant degree?  Reduce that drag by 13 percent and a horse can increase its average speed by 2 percent.

It might not sound like a lot, but that 2 percent can mean the difference between fifth place and first place, according to a study conducted by Dr. Andrew Spence at The Royal Veterinary College at The University of London and published in the journal Biology Letters.

Jockeys and trainers have known about drafting for some time, but now it’s less savvy and more science.  Dr. Spence worked with colleagues at the Structure and Motion Laboratory and had access to a considerable body of data gathered by TurfTrax Racing.

TurfTrax ingeniously placed radio frequency chips in jockeys’ saddles, which enabled the position of competitors to be tracked at any point during a race.  Data included the position and speed of 44,803 racehorses, measured once per second, in 3,357 races ranging in length from 1006 to 4225 meters.

“When measured over the entire race,” said Dr. Spence, “the average speed of a horse goes up the more time it spends tucked in behind other horses.”  Of course, he added, “You have to manage not getting stuck in the pack.”

Horse races are commonly decided in the last 200 to 500 metres, depending on the length of the race.  And based on the data, it appears that our perception of horses as “front runners” or “chasers” is true and that horses perform best when they run in a way that makes best use of their nature.  No surprise there.

Jockeys who are skilled drafters may now engender even more respect.  And, as Dr. Spence noted, “…clever race-goers who pay attention to tactics throughout the race may also reap the benefits.”