Battaash: how does the fastest thoroughbred in the world run so fast?
The title of “World’s Fastest Thoroughbred” is not an officially recognised one, but perhaps it should be. In the promotion of sport, nothing sells quite like raw and brilliant speed. Just ask anyone from athletics about the impact Usain Bolt had.
In horse racing, it is usually more difficult to identify which horse fits the bill, due to the use of different distances, tracks and goings, and the geographical separation of different horse populations. But there should be little doubt that Battaash holds the title currently.
The six-year-old has won most of Europe’s top 5f races, and along the way recorded some hugely impressive times. Timeform, whose methodology stands closer inspection than the official World’s Best Racehorse Rankings (at least where sprinters are concerned), has Battaash rated as the best horse in the world at any distance on 136.
The most credible challenger to him as The Fastest Thoroughbred on The Planet, the Australian-trained Nature Strip (Timeform 129), is at least as good at 1200 metres (nearly 6f) as the minimum trip. Nature Strip’s Challenge Stakes win on an easy surface at Randwick in March came in 56.87s, equivalent to 57.20s for a full 5f.
Battaash has broken course records on three of his last five appearances, showing blistering speed and twice breaking 56.0s. If they had 4f races, Battaash might be spoken of as one of the all-time greats. Arguably, he should be anyway.
As anyone could tell you, and many frequently do, course records in horse racing are a function not just of superior ability but of conditions on the day.
Few of them were achieved on anything other than genuinely quick ground, and nearly all of them came in races run at true paces. Even a brief let-up in the gallop is likely to punish the overall time sufficiently that a record will be missed.
As with all times, course records need to be viewed in context, then. Specifically, they need to be viewed in the context of what time might be expected under the conditions.
That is not to say that course records count for nothing. In particular, certain course records, at certain elite courses, have proven beyond very good horses even when the ground was fast and the pace sound.
One such was the York 5f record held by one of the best sprinters ever in Dayjur, who streaked to a time of 56.16s from a standing start in the Nunthorpe Stakes in 1990.
That record remained out of reach until 12 months ago, when Battaash knocked fully 0.26s, or nearly two lengths, off it.
Conditions were fast, for sure, but Battaash himself was very, very, fast even with that in mind. Timeform awarded the gelding a 130 timefigure, a figure he has now achieved three times, and which is the joint-fastest (along with 2013 July Cup winner Lethal Force) of any older sprinter this century.
York is a good track for a horse as sensationally fast as Battaash to be seen to good effect, as it is almost perfectly flat. Ascot, which rises by 12 metres over the last 5f, has caused him a few problems, but he still managed to win the King’s Stand Stakes there this year, paced more efficiently than the year before.
Goodwood is an even better track for Battaash to strut his stuff, as it drops slightly until the final furlong, and he managed to break the 5f course record there in each of the last two King George Stakes, running 56.20s in 2019 and 55.62s last month.
That point about course records reflecting conditions, and not just good horses, is underlined by the fact the second and the third in the latest King George Stakes – Glass Slippers and Ornate – also beat the old record. Both received weight from Battaash, incidentally.
Sadly, the absence of official sectional timing at many of Britain’s racecourses means that anyone wishing to establish just how Battaash ran so fast has to do the digging themselves. Fortunately, video footage and advanced editing software makes this possible.
The following show the sectional times, speeds, strides-per-second, stride lengths and course topography for Battaash in isolation for each of those recent course records.
What seems to have gone largely unremarked upon is that Battaash broke 10.0s for a furlong in the second furlong of each of his last two record-breaking wins at Goodwood, and that he ran even faster for that section – 9.90s or 45.5 mph for the whole furlong – this year than last.
I have no record of any horse having run that fast in British racing, anywhere, though if we had comprehensive official sectional timing we might know for sure. Remember that Battaash then ran the next two furlongs in 10 seconds and change also.
How does Battaash do it? Well, those stride frequencies and stride lengths tell us how. Battaash has neither an enormously long stride nor a remarkably quick one, but he has a long stride AND a quick one, and is capable of sustaining both for almost all of a race, something which makes him an unstoppable force when on song.
It was the ability to sustain quite a long stride and a consistent stride frequency which made the US great Secretariat unbeatable in his prime, while Frankel’s ability to repeat a long stride and a medium-to-quick stride frequency was one of the things that set him apart.
Battaash goes for Nunthorpe win number two at York on Friday, and it is difficult to see what will beat him, even if he fails to lower his own track record further. To manage that, he will need not only to be at his very best, but for the ground to be firm and his pacing to be ultra-efficient.
That will be difficult, but not impossible, for a horse of Battaash’s rare calibre and unique attributes. Providing the rain stays away.