x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Jet lag can make a horse fly

Over the next 3 months, hundreds of horses will converge upon the UAE from all over the world for the Dubai World Cup Carnival. But, according to Dr Domingo Tortonese, it will be the jockeys, trainers and owners who will suffer most from the long-haul journeys.

A Meydan outrider makes his way on to the main track.
A Meydan outrider makes his way on to the main track.

DUBAI // We all know the perils of jet lag. Take a long-haul flight across a few time zones, and the chances are you'll spend a day or more feeling tired and out of sorts - and certainly not up to running a professional-level race.

Be jealous, then, of horses. Scientists have now confirmed what many trainers have believed for some time - that racehorses adjust very quickly to new time zones.

In fact, they can even perform better after a long flight. That's a kind of jet lag we could all sign up to.

Jet lag occurs when there is a mismatch in the day-to-day rhythms, known as circadian rhythms, of an individual and their sleep-wake cycle or their given time zone.

Unlike humans, horses do not have a primary period of sleep; they snatch sleep in any 24-hour cycle.

And their circadian rhythms are also suspended in darkness, whereas those of humans continue at a rate in tune with the solar cycle. That means that compared with us, horses do not have such rigid day-night cycles, and are much less easily fazed if they are disrupted.

The findings are the work of Dr Domingo Tortonese, a scientist at the University of Bristol in England. He found that a day after a simulated flight, a racehorse could run on a treadmill for up to 25 seconds longer before it hit fatigue. The difference lasted for up two weeks.

All that is extremely helpful for a country with a large horseracing industry that relies on animals being brought in for events.

For the Dubai World Cup Carnival, which began on Thursday, more than 200 horses are transported to Dubai for the 10-week series of races at Meydan Racecourse. Many come from Europe, but others are brought from as far away as South Africa and Brazil.

"Horses are the only other species that constantly travel around the world for athletic competition," Dr Tortonese said. "They are extremely sensitive to light and read a change in the light cycle immediately. It would help if the plane they travelled on was darkened or blacked out." Most are not.

Quarantine rules make it difficult to run a horse almost immediately off a plane. Horses that travel for more than six hours, stable to stable, are confined to a monitoring facility in Meydan for 48 hours.

Last season, trainer David Marnane raced Dandy Boy as soon as possible after landing from Europe. And while Marnane had expected his sprinter to improve with each race, instead it broke the 1,400metre track record at Meydan on his first start.

"He ran off the plane within the week and on ratings that was probably the best run of career," said Marnane. "The key is to not run them back quick after that run. It is more important that they have a break. If you run them back quick they don't run well. I reckon around three weeks is perfect."

For his study, Dr Tortonese enlisted the help of several trainers, including Luca Cumani, a Newmarket-based trainer who has been bringing horses to Dubai for 20 years.

Although Cumani broadly agrees that horses run better off the plane, he says the experiments did not take in the practicalities of racing internationally.

"If you leave it too late and something goes wrong you haven't got a margin of error," said Cumani, an Italian who has won Group 1 races in 10 countries.

"As a rule of thumb, if you are going to the States from Europe it's seven to eight days before. To Hong Kong it is eight to 10 days and Japan a little longer at 10 to 14 days. To Dubai we send them out in good time because they have to get used to the climate, surface and they are there for the whole Carnival. If I had just one horse running in the World Cup I'd probably do things a little differently."

Tortonese, whose work was published in the December edition of the Journal of Neuroendocrinology, highlighted several other factors to be taken into consideration when transporting thoroughbreds around the world.

Much like other animals, horses find travelling east harder to adapt to than going west, because the molecular body clock finds it harder to adapt to a time advance, rather than a time delay.

It has been proven in the past that baseball teams in America travelling more than three time zones east have been at a disadvantage, while soldiers have also significantly decreased performance after eastward travel.

Dr Tortonese's research may also go some way to explaining Europe's fine record at the Breeders' Cup in America. The scientist used eight thoroughbred racehorses bought either at the sales or directly from trainers. His team studied the form and bought horses that were neither top class nor no-hopers.

"We bought this horse and he had run well but had never actually won," he said. "We made a deal with the trainer that we would buy it and he could have it back at half price after our studies.

"We sold it back afterwards as his daughter really wanted the horse and the horse went and won for the first time, so we must have been doing something right."