Determining distance preferences

Determining distance preferences

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By Judy Wardrope

If we watch an international athletic track meet, we can easily discern structural differences in the athletes for various events. The body proportions differ (e.g., the shot putter has a much lower center of gravity than the high jumper). And, as we get more specific, we can even see that the sprinters differ from the middle-distance runners, who also differ from the long-distance runners. This is especially true at the upper level of sport. While all are built efficiently for their particular distance, those efficiencies differ from distance to distance.

We would not expect a marathon runner to win a sprint at the Olympics, would we? Why not? Likely because that marathon runner would be at a mechanical disadvantage for short distances no matter how athletic or how fit he or she was. Like humans, horses are best at the distances in which they are mechanically efficient. The more fitness a horse has, the better it will do, but horses, like humans, are always best at the distance that suits their underlying structure.

In this article we will look at horses that are built to run classic distances, horses that are built to be milers and horses that are built to sprint. We will not only examine them for distance preferences based on structure, we will also look at points for athleticism and soundness because those are also important factors in being a superior racehorse.


Although only started six times—all as a three-year-old—he was undefeated, earned $3,798,000 and won the Triple Crown. Many race fans were looking forward to him running in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but that was not to be.

The 16.3+ hand stallion was photographed in November 2018 at Ashford Stud in Kentucky, where I was told that the injury that halted his race career was to his right hind fetlock.

He is an imposing figure, and it is obvious that he is built to specialize in classic distance races. His lumbosacral (LS) gap, which is just in front of the high point of croup, is bisected by a line drawn from the top of one hip to the top of the other. This means he was able to transfer his power upward and forward without undue strain on his back. In other words, he is strongly coupled or had a good transmission, which is a definite factor for athleticism.

The rear triangle is of equal length on the ilium side (from top of hip to point of buttock) and the femur side (point of buttock to stifle protrusion), meaning that his rear spring matched and did not impede the natural range of motion of the hind leg. And what gave him such a great range of motion? A stifle protrusion that is well below sheath level. His hind leg was capable of reaching well under him and extending well back through the natural range of motion, providing a ground-covering stride.

A line extend up and down through the naturally occurring groove in his forearm (a.k.a. the pillar of support) emerges well in front of his withers—a factor for lightness of the forehand—and into the rear quarter of his hoof—a factor for soundness.

Considering that all parts from the top of the scapula to the knee function as one apparatus, we can see that when the top of his scapula rotates back, his point of shoulder rises, his elbow comes forward and his forearm follows, giving him excellent reach through the forequarters. This means that both his hindquarters and his forequarters had matching ranges of motion. That equates with efficiency of stride.

The rise of the humerus from elbow to point of shoulder gave him another factor for lightness of the forehand, and a base of neck well above the resulting high point of shoulder added yet another factor for lightness.

From a structural perspective, he was designed to excel at classic distances and stay relatively sound. My only knock against him, and it is a purely personal one based on observation regarding longevity, is that I tend to avoid horses whose fetlocks have a roundish appearance.

California Chrome

He won the first two legs of the Triple Crown among other Gr1 wins and was third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at three. He was second in the Dubai World Cup (Gr1) at four and won it at five, then was second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that same year. His racing career ended after a lone start at six. His totals: 27 starts, 16 wins and $14,752,650 in earnings.

He was photographed at Santa Anita Park the day after the 2016 Classic as he was preparing to ship out, which is why his legs are wrapped.

Although most people may not see California Chrome as resembling Justify, when we examine the underlying structure, we find that the two horses are remarkably similar.

Both have an LS gap that is in line from hip to hip, both are equal on the ilium and femur sides of the rear triangle, both have similar stifle placement (classic distance), both have a pillar of support that goes with lightness and soundness, and both have a humerus of similar length as well as a base of neck well above the point of shoulder. There is a slight difference in the rise of the humerus, with Justify having a steeper rise from elbow to point of shoulder.

I Want Revenge

He won the Gotham Stakes (Gr3) by 8 ½ lengths in record time plus the Wood Memorial (Gr1) as a three-year-old and was angled towards the Kentucky Derby, where he was the morning-line favorite; but injury to the right front fetlock forced him out of work for over a year. His final start, as a six-year-old, was in an ungraded stakes race that saw him finish second. His best races were at distances just over a mile, and he earned $928,000 from 14 starts.

He was photographed at the Keeneland Sale in November 2018, shortly before his untimely death due to a virus.

His LS placement provided him with strength and athleticism, and like the previous two horses, he displayed equal length in the ilium and femur sides of the rear triangle. However, his stifle protrusion is not as low as either of the classic winners. The level is just below the bottom of his sheath, which equates with a slightly shorter range of motion and a slightly quicker stride rate.



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