northern dancer, usain bolt and the battle of isandlwana
northern dancer, usain bolt and the battle of isandlwana

Northern Dancer, Usain Bolt and the Battle Of Isandlwana

(Photos : Pennlive/SportBlog/BritBattles)


There’s a regular saying among racegoers that a good “big´un” will always beat a good “little´un”, yet history tells us that might not always have been the case in the realm of the racehorse.

To take the debate to the human sphere however, of relevance to our part of the world is the Battle of Isandlwana, the most torrid in the history of the world’s greatest army of its time, that of the British and their arch rivals, the Zulus. This epic was played out on 22nd January 1879, where an eclipse of the sun marked the turn of the tide in what transpired to be a tipping point in the history of the only human tribe whose “Z for Zulu”, is known to every airline pilot on the planet. 

It follows that if it was an epochal moment for the Zulus, it was a disastrous one for the British, yet they still had their day, like the Zulus, just twelve hours later at Rorke’s Drift, where eleven Victoria Crosses, almost as many as were awarded during the entire Second World War, were pinned to the tunics of the men in scarlet.

Significant in the context of this script, was the average size of the Welshmen of the 22nd Regiment of Foot, who attended at Isandlwana that day, a scant 5’4” in the old Imperial measurements, which tells you something of the evolution of the human race in the past hundred and a bit years.

Closer to home for South Africans, given the Springbok saga of the past couple of months, is that when Danie Craven took his all-conquering 1937 rugby team to New Zealand, the biggest man in the side was the tighthead prop, “Boy” Louw, who weighed in at a tad over 100kgs, one of only two in the side to do so.

Take a look at the Springbok tourists who’ve just returned from a triumphant Tri-Nations campaign, and you’ll find only a handful of them weigh in at less than 100 kgs by contrast, and the overwhelming majority stand up well beyond 6 foot. Of course, you can apply these measures to the sporting world in general, where you’ll find the rise of England to Rugby World Cup stardom in this very decade was based on men of equal size, while Usain Bolt is a striking example of what’s happening in the athletics world, and what big men with big strides are achieving in testing the limits.

While we have so many examples in the thoroughbred world of outstanding racehorses of relatively small stature (Northern Dancer, Hyperion, Blushing Groom, Lyphard etc) it seems the thoroughbred sphere is moving increasingly in the same direction as the human one, and bigger is beginning to look better all the while.

Google the pages of any stallion register in countries like the United States, Australia and Japan, and you’ll find the standard size appears to be 16’1 hh.1´ at least, even though there might be times when these numbers are stretched for the sake of commercial expedience.

A recent survey by Avalyn Hunter in the Blood Horse, reveals some interesting numbers. There’s quite a bit to come here, but it’s a matter of such significance to the evolution of the breed (and hence, we think to our readers) that, we’d encourage you to read on, especially as you’ll have noticed some method behind the selection of the Summerhill Stallions in recent times.

Conventional wisdom yields an average range for the Thoroughbred of 15.3 hands (63 inches) to 16.2 hands (66 inches), and this was actually quite close to the sample group, which had an average height shading just under 64.5 inches. The median height (the pint of which half the horses measured less, half measure more) was about a quarter of an inch less, indicating that the sample group actually contained more horses shorter than the average. The skew in favour of smaller horses was not large, however, and was caused mostly by the large group of horses measured at exactly 16 hands (64 inches), the most common height registered within the sample. A statistical  measure called the standard deviation, rounded to the nearest half-inch (since measurements of equine height are seldom more precise than that), indicated that horses within 1.5 inches of the average height can be considered of medium height. In this case, conventional wisdom appears to be right on the money.

As the Thoroughbred has historically been bred for racing performance, its physical characteristics are those that best further speed over moderate distances. Accordingly, a logical conclusion would be that the average height of the breed reflects the optimum range for maximum racing ability. Smaller horses on average have shorter strides, meaning that  to compete successfully, they must stride more quickly; because more frequent strides in a given  time period consume energy at a faster rate, this would suggest that distance limitations are more common amongst smaller animals. Further, smaller horses, while more agile than their larger peers, are more subject than being knocked off stride by bigger horses. Larger–than-average horses, on the other hand, may be slower than getting up to speed and less manoeuvrable, they may also have more trouble than average-sized horses in negotiating traffic.

Stallions used for breeding are generally much better racehorses than a random sample of the population at large, and the statistics of the sample group reflect this. More than a quarter of them (27.14%) were grade 1 winners, compared to about one fifth of 1% of all North American Thoroughbreds. More than half (54.07%) won at least one graded stakes, 71.99% won a stakes at some level, and 93.89% were winners. When one considers that fewer than half of all North American-raced Thoroughbreds ever win a race of any description, it’s obvious that as a group, these horses were exceptional performers.

As might be expected, medium-sized horses were very close to these norms, scoring 27.61% grade I winners, 55.22% graded winners, 71.97% stakes winners, and 93.18% winners. Small horses (those less than 15.3 hands) were at a disadvantage, however. Although they made a higher number of starts per horse (25.97 lifetime starts vs. 22.19 for the medium-sized group), they notched fewer career wins (6.02 vs. 6.33). They also did not achieve the same overall level of performance. Although they had a higher percentage of winners (93.75%) and stakes winners (78.13%), they had a markedly lower percentage of grade I winners (15.63%) and graded winners (39.06%).

As predicted, they also had a shorter average winning, distance for their races (7.41 furlongs, versus 7.62 furlongs for the medium-sized group). And they earned less, bankrolling an average of $359,080 compared to $504,844 for the medium-sized horses. 

Larger-than-average horses (those standing over 16.2 hands) actually fared quite well at the top level, producing 28.57% grade I winners. They also stayed better than their smaller counterparts (average winning distance 7.77 furlongs) and earned more ($535,506 average). They had lower average percentages of 50.42% graded winners, 69.91% stakes winners, and 91.60% winners, however, suggesting that there may be something to the concept that big horses tend to the extremes of either being very good or not of much use. They also had fewer-than-average lifetime starts (19.97) and wins (5.45), suggesting that maintaining soundness may be more difficult for a bigger, heavier horse.