The Science of Horse Racing: It's All About Time

November 16th, 2023

Of all of the data we collect for assessing a horse’s performance, time remains among the best metrics for measuring how well they ran at a particular racetrack at a specified distance on a given day. The methods for timing races have evolved with the sport, but like other sporting pursuits with a multitude of variables, accuracy can be elusive at times. To that end, racetracks remain in constant pursuit of accurate timing to provide bettors with the data they seek ahead of a horse’s next start.

From stopwatches to GPS tracking, the methods racetracks have employed over the last three centuries have sought to capture race times accurately for posterity and for punters.

A History of Time

Though horse racing in England dates back to the 16th century, timing races did not come along until 1731. The practice continued to evolve, prompting watchmakers to innovate and produce increasingly precise stopwatches. By the late 19th century, standard practice was to hand-time races using a stopwatch, with as many as three clockers standing in the judge’s stand to compare and record race times. They would start their watches as soon as the starter dropped the flag to signal the race’s start and then stop when the first horse hit the wire. However, factoring in that the average person’s reflex time is about 250 milliseconds, or 0.25 of a second, hand timing is an imperfect system to be sure, and one prone to controversy as Whisk Broom II’s 1913 world record demonstrates.

On June 28, 1913, Harry Payne Whitney’s Whisk Broom II faced a field of five others in the Suburban Handicap, carrying the high weight of 139 pounds to a half-length victory. The Jockey Club’s official clocker W.H. Barretto caught the six-year-old running the 10 furlongs in 2:00, a world record. However, other unofficial clockers on hand that day posited that Barretto not only had missed the six-furlong time because he was unable to see the field hit that mark, but he also had stopped his watch at the wrong finish line; the wire for 10 furlongs at that time was farther up the track. Their times for the 1 1/4 miles varied from 2:00 3/5 to 2:03 1/5, effectively throwing Whisk Broom II’s record into doubt — unofficially. Barretto’s status as the Jockey Club’s official clocker meant that the time stood. That 2:00 record stood until 1948.

Why does time matter when it comes to racing? Bettors only get paid when a horse finishes in the money, which is not dependent on the time that they run. Aside from the obvious conceit behind the sport, that this horse is faster than another, handicappers use time as one of the data points they collect to compute speed figures and other metrics used for determining which horse to bet.

Tracking Time in the 21st Century

As early as 1934, the "electronic eye" timing systems started appearing at American racetracks. These use a beam across the racetrack located about 4 1/2 feet high, around the height of a horse’s nose, which starts timing a race once the first horse breaks its plane. The sensors are active for only about 20 seconds to prevent being tripped by something other than a horse. The trouble with such systems is that, even with the limited active time for sensors, they can still be tripped accidentally by outriders, birds, or even a runaway umbrella. 

The next generation of timing systems uses small GPS locators placed in each horse’s saddlecloth prior to a race. These transmit the horse’s positional data to a satellite, and from there, those signals go to a receiver at the racetrack. An onsite computer collects the data and then shares that with others connected to the track’s system, including services like Equibase. 

Also used to show real-time racing ordering at the racetrack and on television, these systems can collect a variety of data about a horse’s performance from sectional times to stride lengths to top speed, which figure makers and other handicapping services can use for assessing how fast a horse ran at a particular distance and particular racetrack ahead of their next start.

All races are timed at their listed distance; however, the clock does not start when the starting gate opens. Instead, most racetracks have what is called a run-up, a brief interval between the position of the starting gate and the point where the field trips the sensors that alerts the timing system to begin. This allows racetracks to time horses from a running start, but also asks horses to run as much as half a furlong before they trip the sensor. To know where to start timing a race, the operator must identify the sensor closest to the starting position for that race and then activate it so that the system will start recording the time once that beam is tripped.

Turf races added another complication to beam-based timing systems: because the rail is adjusted to allow horses to run on the best ground, that means racetracks must install sensors in a variety of places on those courses. Since a turf course at any individual racetrack differs in configuration from others, each must be laid out with dozens of sensors to capture all possible vantage points.

Even newer GPS-based systems combine the positional data they collect with beam technology for timing races with the goal of giving a complete picture of the whole race. The GPS sensors on each horse track their location within each race as the beam system times the race overall. Even with advancements like GPS and others, timing a horse race still can be an imperfect task. The technology available to racetracks continues to evolve in search of the best method for determining just how fast your horse was going that day.