Posts Tagged ‘Gait speed’

Men’s 200 metres final – what a race! What athletes, and what a beautiful ‘freak’ Bolt is. Jamaicans 1-2-3.

And that’s where my interest lies – what makes them so good at running so fast over short distances? It’s easy to point to the things about Bolt which make him stand out – his height and hence the length of his stride being the obvious ones. I heard him quoted as saying that if he is in front with 10 metres to go no-one can catch him because he covers that 10 metres in 3 strides. It is awesome to see. He reminds me of those beautiful big racehorses with extended loping strides that seem to effortlessly cover the ground. They (like Bolt himself) are often not the quickest out of the gate, but once they get into their rhythm they are glorious and fast.

Yes, all things being equal, size and length of stride are winning assets. But not enough on their own. If the horse (or the person) doesn’t have the physical strength and balance or the mental maturity to match, size can be a handicap. Often those qualities come with age, if we are patient enough to wait. Sometimes precocious talent can be spotted in a big, lanky young horse (or person) and they can even perform well as a youngster, but time is their friend. Bolt is 30 (sorry, incorrect) 25 years old and at his peak, but he was showing huge talent as a much younger man, winning junior world titles. In a much closer to home comparison, you can see some amazing precocious talent in some big young trotters and pacers, and will hear their trainers, owners or commentators referring to them with affection (“big, dumb thing with heaps of raw ability”) knowing that time and experience will add the physical and mental strength they need.

Blake, Bolt and Weir – Photo Reuters

What really interested me and surprised me most was the physical difference among those 3 wonderful medal winning Jamaicans:

Bolt, tall, long limbed, running with a fluency and natural balance that takes your breath away.

Yohan Blake, broad, very muscular upper body as well as powerful legs.

And then Warren Weir, the surprise package – small and wiry, flying into 3rd.

Three Jamaicans, yes, but three completely different body types. All very fast.

Usain Bolt – in the harness racing world we know of many 16 plus hand horses who perform superbly as racehorses and as sires – Western Ideal was 16.1, Artsplace and Rocknroll Hanover, Art Major all 16h, Panspacificflight 16.2h and what a stride! I think he is the one that reminds me most of Bolt. We have had some great examples in New Zealand too – very big horses with massive strides, although several of them have battled soundness problems.

Yohan Blake is more the Christian Cullen style of champion horse – broad chest, big muscular shoulders, strength in his heart to pump very strong (but not exceptionally long) legs.

And then Warren Weir, a Tintin In America type – lean, speed machine. We are not short (if you excuse the pun) of smaller horses who did the job themselves and can rise above the perceptions of their size to become top raceshorses and sires – currently Courage Under Fire (not even 15h) and Bettor’s Delight (15.1h), and in pacing’s history we find ones like Good Time who were so small and so good.

Speed and greatness comes in many shapes and sizes.

I’ve talked before about what I call “gait speed” – the advantage of having a very good gait. This includes a very efficient and clean action, good balance, the strength to reach out in front and to push from the back, and just the sheer length of stride. Great gait delivers speed and soundness – and it is a precious thing to find in a horse. It too comes with all sizes. But as with Usain Bolt, all things being equal the length of stride does give a tremendous advantage.

Right at the start of this blog, I mentioned genetics. I’ve listened to a few discussions on whether the success of the Kenyans in distance running and the Jamaicans in sprinting has a genetic factor. One view I heard on the Jamaicans is the those more recently coming from Africa can tap into a much broader and deeper gene pool with potential for more mutations that can lead to standout variations on the main theme, while those of us who migrated away from that original gene pool a long, long time ago took with us a certain limited range of genetics and thus have been playing in a much smaller pool ever since. I can’t say what truth lies in that – but there are interesting similar discussions to be had on the genetic history of the horse and particularly for us, the standardbred, such as  the mutation theory for the development of the X factor/big heart gene, and the issue of whether we are breeding ourselves into a genetic cul de sac (see the recent blog about cross-breeding, and one I will do over the next month or so on dominant pedigrees in a small breeding population).

The same academic/commentator who talked about the African gene pool viz Jamaican runners, also made the remark that many other factors must play a part in the Jamaican excellence at sprinting, including the “glow” effect of success breeding success, and the sporting culture in Jamaica that makes this and cricket “theirs” in much the same way we might see rugby and rowing, and therefore there are greater numbers of children involved in those sports to start with and talent is spotted at an earlier age, cherished and developed.

My hope is that our increasing emphasis on 2yo racing and on speed is done in that context too – identifying, cherishing and developing talent. Rather than a ruthless way of testing which horses are going to meet the grade or which can show up early for quick gain regardless of the long term cost to the horse.

Getting onto the podium makes all the time and effort worth its weight in gold.

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