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They Scanned American Pharoah’s Heart and You Won’t Believe What They Found

When racehorse American Pharoah won the Triple Crown for the first time in 37 years, it was a triumph of high tech as much as pluck, luck, or breeding. The New York Times explains how science helped out:

[Jeff] Seder and [Patti] Miller are bloodstock agents, innovative ones, who lean on science and databases to pick out fast, big-hearted horses for their clients… When Mr. Seder and Ms. Miller scanned [American Pharoah’s] heart and spleen, when they checked his airways, Mr. Seder saw what he described as a memorable cardiovascular system.

That’s right: the old-fashioned “heart of a champion” is now a “memorable cardiovascular system.” That’s what you get in the new era of scanning a colt’s internal organs for clues to his future speed and stamina.

It makes perfectly good sense, to be fair. 1970s superhorse Secretariat had a heart that weighed 22 pounds, more than double the normal weight of 8.5 pounds, according to the doctor who did the autopsy:

“He was completely out of everybody else’s league… The heart was what made him able to do what he did. It explained how he was able to do what he did in the Belmont Stakes — a mile and a half race (Secretariat won by 31 lengths in track-record time)… It would be impossible for a horse with a small heart to do that.”

Secretariat was far from the only winner with a freak heart. The heart of the great 1930s champion Phar Lap weighed in at 14 pounds, and is now the object visitors ask to see most at the National Museum of Australia.

Going back much farther, to 1789, the racehorse Eclipse also had a heart weighing 14 pounds, in an era when most horses had a six-pound heart.

So it’s not news that heart size helps racehorses. Seder and Miller are just taking it to the logical extreme with their approach, which they explain on their site

EQB’s no-nonsense approach allows us to offer the most affordable and accurate, yet simple, safe, and non-invasive technique using digitizing, computerized, portable 2D echo-ultrasound to measure a horse’s heart size, its components dimensions, and pumping volume (similar to the ultrasound used to view babies in the womb)….

The goal of EQB’s exclusive DATAJOCKEY — a proprietary software service that performs multivariate, discriminate, regression statistical analysis of the cardiovascular measurements — is to apply a reliable, reproducible, specific numerical probability to each horse’s racing success, with ‘success’ defined by distance and level of competition.

Once he saw the size of American Pharoah’s heart as a yearling, Seder urged owner Ahmed Zayat not to sell the colt, even though Zayat was having financial difficulties: “‘Sell your house; don’t sell this horse,’ he said he told Mr. Zayat. ‘This is your get-out horse.'”

He was right. And it’s hard to argue with success! Still, won’t it be a disappointment if from now on the Triple Crown just comes down to which horse can be bred with the largest heart? It does take the thrill and mystery out of the thing, almost as if George Lucas announced that being strong with The Force is just a matter of having enough midi-chlorians in your bloodstream. Nobody wants to root for internal organs.

But that said, congratulations to American Pharoah’s heart — and to his spleen, too!

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