In 1973, a familiar thoroughbred horse named Secretariat, encumbered by a 126-pound jockey, ran 1 1/2 miles on a dirt track to win the Belmont Stakes in 2:24.00. Earlier that year, he had won the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby in 1:59.4. Those remain records for these events, and coupled to Secretariat’s victory at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, made him the first U. S. Triple Crown winner in 25 years. (There have only been two since–Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978; there have been only eleven Triple Crown winners in all.)

Secretariat’s Derby record works out to an average of 37.6 miles per hour, and his even better run at Belmont Park has him at 37.5 for a longer distance. Seemingly, these racehorses, often doped to the gills (OK, they don’t have gills, but bear the metaphor) would kick the shit out of any wild horse if forced to cover large amounts of ground, right?

Wrong. Or so I think.

Welcome the North American feral mustang. These roaming and self-sufficient animals, introduced to what is now the U.S. by the Spanish Conquistadores, have been beleaguered, dwindling in population from a high of two million in 1900 to 33,000 or so today (most of them inhabiting the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia). They used to be routinely poisoned and slaughtered from airplanes, mostly for food. Thanks to a 1971 act of U.S. Congress, this is not permissible anymore, and if you fuck with at least this form of free-roaming wildlife, you risk a stint in federal prison.

My (admittedly limited, at this point) understanding of these horses is that they can survive anything. They can cover huge amounts of territory at once and take care of each other. I’ve seen mustangs in action, when I was out West myself a few years back and doing some runs in canyon land. You want to talk about strength and grace? Watch a mustang in full flight. They go and go…

My point here is musing about what would happen if you pinned a trained racehorse against a wild ‘stang in a race at some intermediate distance–say, five miles. This would take at most 11 minutes for the winner, I am guessing. I’m sure the typical reader’s instinct would be “sure the racehorse would win.” But I wouldn’t count on it. From a physiological standpoint, we’re talking about a two-mile race between 800-meter world-record-holder Wilson Kipketer (who has the sweetest stride I’ve ever seen in a human being) and Kenenisa Bekele (the owner of the fastest-ever 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters). It doesn’t take a track scholar to figure out who would win that one.

Still, I may be making a few too many assumptions about mustangs. I doubt it, though. I’d be interested to hear from people who actually know something about the racing milieu and horses in general, since I don’t. And don’t even get me started on the sordid dog-racing industry, which I would abolish in a flash if I had the power to do so.

6 thoughts on “Speculation”

  1. I think you’d have to stretch the distance out a bit before the mustang got a look in – thoroughbreds in Europe regularly race up to two and a half miles on the flat and 4-4.25 miles in steeplechases. The Newmarket Town Plate is 3 miles 6 furlongs and all horses carry a minimum weight of 168lbs (that includes the weight of the rider and his/her saddle). The Prix du Cadran is run at Longchamp over 4,000 metres and usually takes about 4 or 5 minutes, while the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Royal Ascot is run over slightly further (2 miles 4 furlongs) and takes abouth the same time.
    All thoroughbreds developed in a closed stud book from a very small number of foundation animals – if you ever want to study inbreeding the various Thoroughbred Studbooks would make a great place to start. Horse races (in the 17th and 18th Centuries) were originally run in a series of heats over varying distances, with older animals asked to run 3-4 miles twice or three times in a day – so the stamina to cover 5-10 miles very rapidly is definitely there.
    Where the mustangs would probably suffer most is if they were asked to carry weight – as I understand it most mustangs are quite small, around 14-15 hands, whilst thoroughbreds are larger – 15.5-17.5 hands is the norm. If they are asked to carry level weights the thoroughbred will find it easier, simply because the level weight would constitute a smaller proportion of its body weight.
    I would suspect that if the race were over a longer distance, maybe 20-25 miles, the mustang would be closer, especially if the race were over broken ground – the simple act of hauling its larger bulk up and down steep hills would be a major handicap for the thoroughbred.
    Funnily enough, if you go back, mustangs and thoroughbreds have a shared heritage, since both breeds have ancestors in the ‘Barb horse’ from the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Thoroughbreds were developed from several Barb stallions crossed with English hunting and war horse mares, developing into a larger animal of more use to heavy cavalry, whereas the mustangs, descended from Iberian horses which also have a large Barb influence remained small, a legacy of the Spanish preference for irregular cavalry.
    Endurance racing – 50-100 miles – is very popular in UAE, and at those distances the Arabian horse is preferred, probably for the same reasons that mustangs would do better over further, and why Usain Bolt wouldn’t beat Haile over 10 miles, which is that, at extreme distances, economy is preferred over power generation.

  2. I forgot to mention that the Grand National Steeplechase, which is a handicap run at Aintree in April, is contested over 4 miles 856 yards, involves jumping 30 fences, and the horses carry between 140-168 pounds . The record time is 8 minutes 47.8 seconds.

  3. I remain amazed that you know so much shit about so much shit. But I thank you. I find this a fascinating thought game even if it is “resolved” in my disfavor.

  4. John D Fitzgerald had an interesting take on this in one of his “The Great Brain” novels. I don’t remember which one, but they’re good reads. I have to get them for my kids when they’re a little older.

  5. Sven–that book was exactly what got me thinking! I loved those Great Brain books. They had to be rooted in some kind of reality.

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