Since changing barns things have not gone so well for this old chap, no longer at Woodbine but making the South Florida circuit, losing yesterday in (I think) his first outing for a tag, $25k:
Had a lot of fun with this one a few years back, may not be a bad claim for any interested parties. A bit beyond my budget, but if he shows up here in KY this spring for around $15k I will grab him because I know he loves the STORM!
First, the NBA Developmental League begins to institute in-game HR/GPS monitoring:
Pretty cool, I know at least one of these devices also records vertical leap, one of my prime interests for 30+ years. The soccer teams at the University of Louisville instituted some of this stuff years ago and promptly became regular Top 10 squads. From what I recall; the trainers showed the coaches how hard the players worked in practices and how that impacted their legs during games. Players had been complaining of feeling ‘dead’ in the legs, but coaches ignored the protests until confronted with hard data.
Same could be done with basketball: “Hey coach, your guards have lost 3″ from their vertical leaps during the past 2 weeks as you bumped up practice time. Small wonder we are getting out-rebounded and losing 50/50 balls more often.” Interesting to see how/if the coach will react.
Then we see some in-race HR data from Hong Kong…but its from the damn jockeys:
Astounding how hard those guys work when it appears to the untrained eye that they are merely sitting on top of horses.
Why oh why does no one seem to understand how valuable this stuff would be from actual horses? Not vertical leap of course, but GPS and HR data from the warm up through the race and on through the gallop out/cool down. Trainers, spectators, bettors, etc. – everyone would have a new data stream to help improve their experiences.
Some ‘stiff’ penalties indeed were handed down this week in the quarter horse world as a New Mexico trainer was given a 16 year suspension for dosing his racing stock with Viagra. In what is believe to be a first; several owners were also sanctioned. Details here from the Paulick Report:
The puns aplenty throughout the Twitterverse reminded me of a day long ago at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky where I met the great Curlin just beginning his stud career. I snapped the above picture of ‘Curlin Jr.’ who appeared ready for his close up.
Viagra sends increased bloodflow to one specific area; which has very little to do with performance outside of the bedroom, at least in humans. It’s doubtful that human size dosages of the drug have the same effect on horses, especially given the fact that several drugged horses were female.
I think if the drug testing labs used my HR/GPS gear to ascertain if these illegal drugs actually increase performance in athletic horses they would find that 75% of what is illegal simply doesn’t work as hoped for by the cheaters.
Nevertheless, it’s good for the game to send these boneheads to the sidelines.
(Okay, I am out of puns.)
I wasn’t let down by the book, as it was very insightful with extremely interesting anecdotes, but more by the conditioning commentary throughout. Like all the other greats of yesteryear, I expected to find confirmation of my theories on conditioning, but instead found the opposite, to my disappointment.
Also, I am in complete agreement with author Steve Haskin, Dr. Fager’s career was not as profound as was that of Damascus, yet nearly everyone ranks Fager as superior. But we’ll analyze that later.
First, the BloodHorse Legends series has been on sale lately: I paid $0.99 for my Fager book, and ordered others at a mere $2.50ea (regular price is $14.99 or higher). Here’s the link:
Like always, I need to read 150 pages of a book simply to uncover roughly 15 words on conditioning, but it’s well worth the insight provided. Perhaps the key quote is on page 42, when trainer John Nerud sought advice from the legendary Ben Jones on conditioning:
“Now son, listen to me,” Jones said. “You ain’t got enough sense to train these horses, so I’m gonna tell you what to do. You keep ‘em fat, work ‘em a half-mile, and they’ll win in spite of you.”
Ergo, the trainer of Dr. Fager earned the nickname: ‘half mile sonofabitch’ from the clockers in New York. As in: ‘How are Nerud’s horses doing? How the hell do I know, that ‘half mile sonofabitch’ – you can’t learn anything from him!” Today? All these ‘half mile sonofabitches’ are hailed as geniuses and clockers claim to accurately grade the 8F prowess of stakes horses going 4F in the mornings. What a load of crap.
Nerud himself already preferred slow, and relatively short, works – so this advice must have sounded heaven-sent. But are we really to believe that Jones trained 6 Derby winners and 2 Triple Crown winners (including Whirlaway) with that philosophy? I remained crestfallen for the rest of the book, only afterwards realizing the key part of that ‘advice’ from Jones: “you ain’t got enough sense” – likely Jones was merely giving Nerud a simple prescription for ‘one size fits all’ conditioning, rather than imparting his own personal methods, which he learned through a lifetime on the backside.
Nevertheless, throughout the book we still see 5-6F works in blazing times, some of which were of the public variety in the afternoons between races. We also see pre-race blowouts. Neither practice is common these days. I seem to remember watching Curlin in a public workout at Churchill Downs a few years back – and I know both Carl Nafzger and Rick Dutrow blew out their 3 Derby winners within 12-36 hours of post time.
We also see mentioned that Fager worked essentially every 5 days. Nothing like Preston Burch and the others going every 2-3, but a bit quicker turnaround than today’s customary 6-7. Remember, the Maryland Bucked Shin Study done by Nunamaker and Fisher pinned bone remodeling to take place every 2-3 days, concluding if someone waited 5 days or longer to stress bone again, overall cumulative development of density would suffer. And, if bone takes under 5 days – everything else goes quicker; ligaments, tendons, lungs, etc.
The book spends quite a bit of time on the Dr. Fager vs Damascus rivalry, and the story is truly amazing. Fager seems to represent our modern conditioning/racing style: weekly works at 5F or less, and well spaced out races. Damascus is old-school in his approach under Frank Whiteley. My Damascus book from the Bloodhorse Thoroughbred Legends series has not yet arrived, but everyone knows he raced 16 times at age 3, versus just 9 for Fager (still more than today’s ‘greats’).
Funny, before one of these matchups Nerud sent Fager through another public workout: 5F in :56.8.
So much for going slow!
Dr. Fager vs Damascus was a draw, each winning twice. Whiteley’s entry of a rabbit muddies the picture, as does the various weights carried to post. Both greats often carried 130+ in these matchups. Fager himself carried 134 in setting a long-standing mile record in 1:32.2.
Later on at 4, Fager had one of the greatest years of all time in 1968. His regular exercise rider tipped the scales at 150 and weather was no hindrance to workouts, as is often the case today. During a deluge at Saratoga, the good Doctor went 5 panels in :59, under no pressure whatsoever. Today’s conditioners merely move the work back – 6,7,8 days since last breeze, who cares, right?
As I hinted at above, Mr. Haskin also prefers Damascus, even though he was commissioned to author the book on Dr. Fager’s magnificent career. Great post from him in the Bloodhorse here, from 2009:
Damascus and Dr. Fager rarely lost, and those they lost to were Hall of Famers in their own right – as well as several of their conquests: names such as Buckpasser and In Reality. Compare the Past Performances of these 2 vs. our modern day heroes, such as Zenyatta. Blame, her lone conqueror, will be a mere footnote to history, and no one can remember who she beat now, much less in 50 years.
At stud, both had quite notable careers, but yet again Damascus outshone Fager through his offspring.
Lastly, Fager seemed to be willing to rate early in his career, but later on was known as a wildman on the lead. Surely all those brief 4-5F works contributed? I think too often that trainers fail to separate the two: TRAINING for behavioral factors, versus CONDITIONING for physiological fitness. Longer, slightly slower, works of a mile can teach horses to relax on the bit moreso than dozens of quick 5F sprints. Will we see that from Damascus under Frank Whiteley?
Up Next: review of Damascus title from the Bloodhorse Thoroughbred Legends line, currently priced at $2.50 – but I must warn you it seems to take 7-10 days to arrive, even when shipping here to Louisville.
Just random thoughts today:
I must get to South Africa someday; pristine beaches, horses, varied altitudes for training/racing, and some of my favorite trainers. Many in the US don’t realize: Mike de Kock takes bloodstock from SA and NZ, spends months in quarantine – and still wins on the Sheikh’s homecourt in Dubai. Every year.
The Sport of Kings. The kings are not the owners, not the trainers, not the vets, not the breeders, not the fans, but the horses. And the horses are suffering. Threadbare conditioning. Legalized drugs. Ever slowing times at distances past 8F. Fewer starts per year. Yuck.
Briefly to drugs. I’ll not call them ‘performance enhancing’ because they aren’t. They may allow a lame/sore horse to run well, but they don’t result in faster race times. Every other sport rife with drug use ‘sports’ faster times, more home runs, bigger/stronger athletes, etc. Not horse racing. Why? Well for one; those other sports are full of Type-A personalities who take drugs to train harder and more frequently. It’s not a race day thing for them – it’s an adjunct to their conditioning regimen. But for horses it’s just a way to make it into the gate held together by duct tape. Big difference.
I’ve also developed a personal philosophy on the topic: Calling a successful trainer a cheater (when he is not) is worse than cheating itself. And cheating is rotten as hell.
What we have now can be termed ‘wild animal’ conditioning, vs. the old days when we had true metabolic/physiological conditioning that obeyed the rules of exercise science. A few quotes on the training of 2 year olds:
-Preston Burch: “After a few weeks of long, slow gallops not less than 2.5 miles daily, the youngsters are ready for a bit of breezing.” (It must be noted that Burch’s yearlings breezed 2-3x per week in December.)
-Graham Motion: “I certainly breeze some of the 2-year-olds on Lasix, even if they haven’t been bleeding previously,” said Motion.
Great. That’s just wonderful insight.
Of course, every ‘horseman’ blames the breeders for the fragility of the breed. In spite of the fact that even expert geneticists admit that heredity accounts for only around 30% of performance, with the rest due to environmental factors. Breeding for speed may surely get you horses with ‘blueprints’ that include weaker bones at birth. But conditioning them like Hall of Famer Preston Burch will still develop them into iron horses.
The genesis of the current ‘wild animal’ style of training can be traced to the influx of previous Quarter Horse trainers into the thoroughbred game. Baffert, Lukas, etc. and their mentors believed (rightfully so) that long gallops in a QH sprinter served to lengthen stride, which may take away from early speed leaving the gate. And that gate break is everything for a race lasting just 220-440 yards. But importing that philosophy to thoroughbreds was a mistake, in my opinion, and I believe the statistics bear that out.
Yet, Mr. Lukas also made another change, this one brilliant: he became our first supertrainer, with strings of 25-40 horses in multiple locations every season. One horse goes down, another fills in immediately. Conversely Woody Stephens rarely had more than 25-40 horses in training at one time vs Lukas’ 150+. Horseracing became a numbers game, not a conditioning game. Two vastly different business models.
So we head into another Triple Crown season where a 3yo will win the Kentucky Derby in 2:02+ and/or the Belmont in 2:30+. Even on fast tracks, those times would have been losers decades ago. From 1972-1996 no winner of the Belmont went 2:30 or slower. Who ended the streak? Lukas and Thunder Gulch. Now from 2010-2013 every winner went slower than 2:30.
A sorry state of the Union, indeed.
Under-conditioning of our thoroughbred starts is not only producing ever-slowing Belmont Stakes times, it is also slowing the progress of the breed as a whole. Exercise affecting genetics? Impossible, you say? Current research is full of examples where intensity of exercise programs has been shown to influence genetic expression. I’m not qualified to expand on that point, but I can certainly draw comparisons between AEI and the conditioning programs of any given racing era.
The stallion stars of the 21st century, even the immortal Storm Cat, are not passing down their racing genes to their respective progeny as often as was the case several decades ago. At least that is the story told by the Average Earnings Index.
If you know full well the definition of AEI, please skip the next 2 paragraphs and get to the ‘good’ stuff, well maybe not so good if you are a breeder in today’s marketplace.
What is AEI?
Developed by long time BloodHorse editor Joe Estes, the Average Earnings Index is a statistical method to compare stallions across different eras. One can’t simply compute earnings, as the value of the dollar changes over time. Nor should crop size distort the picture. Mr. Estes simply computes the average racetrack earnings by age group each year, terms this figure 1.0, and compares how a stallion’s offspring performed vs. that average. If the average earnings for Storm Cat 3 year olds in 2000 was $20,000, and the breed average for 3yo that season was $10,000 – the AEI would be 2.0, for example.
The primary complaint is that AEI can be skewed by one big runner, but isn’t that part of the joy of breeding – hitting the Home Run Horse? Furthermore, when we compare stallion careers in this manner – the sample size becomes quite large and this ‘fault’ is mostly remedied.
In his time, Mr. Estes considered an AEI of 4.0 or greater as an indicative of an outstanding sire. Sadly, today’s breeding stars are only able to post figures just over 2.5.
Leading Stallions by AEI from 2013-2001:
2013: 2.74 War Front
2012: 2.68 War Front
2011: 3.03 Storm Cat
2010: 3:09 Storm Cat
2009: 3.26 Street Cry
2008: 3.15 AP Indy
2007: 3.38 Storm Cat
2006: 3.50 Storm Cat
2005: 3.57 Storm Cat
2004: 3.66 Storm Cat
2003: 4.32 Danzig
2002: 4.42 Danzig
2001: 4.53 Danzig
The past decade plus has shown us the end of the line for both Storm Cat and Danzig, and although both were breed leaders in their respective years, the AEI distinguishes one from another quite distinctly. AEI also seems to decline with age, which I think can be expected due to nature. However, Storm Cat finishes at just over 3.0 and Danzig in the vicinity of 4.3 – a huge level of statistical significance. I cannot find lifetime AEI data on these 2 since they are no longer active at stud. But, I did find a mention of Danzig’s AEI in 1999 at a robust 5.17, so it can be safe to assume his lifetime AEI performance to be vastly superior to Storm Cat. (EDIT Found it: Danzig 4.53, Storm Cat 4.11, not as big a difference as suspected, but still remarkable). What is also somewhat curious as I look at the data is that Storm Cat’s AEI fell off more drastically than that of Danzig.
Danzig’s not the only stallion who can claim AEI superiority over Storm Cat, not by far, but I’ll save that for a bit later in the post. The suspense is whether or not Storm Cat will make the All-time Top 20.
Here is a quick window into other stats indicative of breeding success for these two taken from a 2005 summary that briefly backs up the concept of the AEI indicative of superior breeding success:
% of stakes winners: Danzig 18%, Storm Cat 13%
% of grades stakes winners: Danzig 10%, Storm Cat 6%
% of G1SW: Danzig 5%, Storm Cat 3%
And here is a graphical representation of the top 5 in AEI for each of those years which further illustrates the increasing decline of stallion performance measured by offspring race earnings compared to peers:
In 2013 you can hit the Top 5 list with an AEI of 2.2, but back in 2001 it took a 3.27. The last 2 years (2013 and 2012) no stud (of several hundred) broke the 3.0 barrier, yet in 2001 the average of the top 5 was 3.9. Remember, Estes talked of superstars in the shed at 4.0 back in his day. Talk about lowering the bar. That graph looks familiar, where have I seen that trend before? Oh yes, recent Belmont Stakes winning times:
My apologies for this terribly primitive chart from an earlier post. The Y-axis is the winning time in seconds, averaged for each decade to control for equine gods such as Secretariat and also for varying track conditions at Big Sandy as well as different pace scenarios which can effect final times. The X-axis represents each decade, with the 1 corresponding to the limited data set of the 2010’s – 4 years, and the 9 representing the 1930’s – the first full 10 year span where the race was run at its current 12 furlong distance.
So, the number 4 on the horizontal axis is the fastest decade (1980’s) when you average the 10 winners’ times and come to a value of 147.94, or 2:27.94.
I don’t have enough data on AEI to precisely overlay these two charts. But we can make two general statements:
- 2:30+ winning times over fast Belmont tracks have become the new normal in the 2010-2013 timeframe, performances not seen since the 1930’s.
- AEI numbers of our ‘leading’ stallions are approaching 2.5, versus a historical 4.0 or better.
Now of course these two trendlines don’t overlap precisely. Belmont winning times were on the improve after Bold Ruler’s day, but the sudden reversal in the early 90’s is apparent, coinciding with the legalization of Lasix in New York State around 1995. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have stopped improving over the last several decades as well; but the longer Belmont has actually reversed the trend in winning times. Meanwhile, AEI declines consistently over the entire interval.
Danzig is perhaps the lynchpin in this AEI analysis, before him big AEI numbers, afterwards – not so much. Conditioned by Woody Stephens, although only raced 3 times due to injury, Danzig never won the Belmont – but Stephens did with Danzig Connection in 1986, the last of his 5 consecutive victories beginning in 1982.
Missing from this post is any reference to mares. Many believe, as do I, the majority of good racing genes comes from the female side of the mating. However, billions are tied up in stallions due to the numbers game foisted upon them by nature. I think we can agree that during each racing era; 90% of all elite runners are conditioned similarly. From the mid 1980’s onwards it’s all Lukas and speedwork every 6/7 days, racing with 5-6 weeks rest. Starting with Stephens and running back towards Preston Burch and Max Hirsch in the 40’s – it was 2-3x weekly speed sessions and racing every week or two. Remember the Derby Trial was run on a Tuesday preceding the Derby on Saturday. Nowadays that race should be called the Preakness Trial, because no elite horse is prepared to run twice in a month, much less a week.
So, although AEI only looks at half of the equation, the mares being bred too were also conditioned/raced more aggressively in the days of Bold Ruler, etc. The Comparable Index somewhat addresses this, but I’ll have to leave that for another day, or maybe someone smarter than myself.
Minimal conditioning practices decrease the rate of passing on athletic genes to offspring. When horses were worked long and often, and raced more frequently, they became better athletes and maximized genetic expression which carried over to the breeding shed. Do I have ‘proof’ of this? Nope, but I don’t need to as I am merely a blogger who is biased towards ‘old school’ conditioning practices.
Bottom line: Going to a top stud in Danzig’s day gave you a decent chance at earning 4x the breed average and covering your bills; today the ROI is half that. The importance of choosing a top sire is lessening.
Here is a 99% complete list of all time studs ranked by AEI, I may have missed a few from 1990-2010, but based on recent trends it’s not likely they would have made this list anyway:
Bold Ruler 7.73
Northern Dancer 5.14
St. Simon 4.75
Tom Fool 4.51
Hail to Reason 4.47
Bull Lea 4.37
Mill Reef 4.36
Count Fleet 4.28
Mr. Prospector 4.25
Seattle Slew 4.12
17. Storm Cat 4.11
Round Table 4.01
Blushing Groom 3.97
Hoist the Flag 3.88
*I stopped with Equipoise because I always chuckle at the fact this is also the name of a very popular steroid. Surely not known back in the 1930’s, but used today quite often, not only in horses, but also in humans.
Could I get past the Jockey Club today naming a horse Testosterone? Furosemide? Cobra Venom? Clenbuterol?
Ok, now for the arguments against my primary claim. Most of them will involve other nuances of the AEI, and rightfully so. However, the crux of the Index lies in comparing racehorses to their peers in each individual year. So, the fact that horses started much more often in Bold Ruler’s day than in Storm Cat’s shouldn’t matter. Nor should the fact that purse sizes now are significantly larger due to inflation and casino money. Now, the predilection of today’s stallions to get larger books of unraced mares? Absolutely a valid claim and surely a factor in declining AEI in the modern era.
Let’s think about this yet another way. Assume we have two twin girls who become mothers at age 25. Let’s also assume they married twin brothers. Identical genes all around, or as close as we can get. Mother A and Father A both read books obsessively pretty much from school age on, while Mother B and Father B never read more than a cereal box, spending the rest of their time watching television.
Baby A and Baby B are born. Who is more likely to have, or even develop, a strong inclination to read books? Have the reading habits of Parents A altered their genetic expressions to influence the likelihood of passing on the ‘reading gene’ to their offspring. Have Parents B done the opposite? Surely possible, albeit unlikely to ever ‘prove’.
Racing over Polytrack, Cushion Track, Tapeta, etc. is quite a different sport than racing over dirt, therefore it should ‘deserve’ it s own category, at the very least lump them all in with ‘turf’. I will soon show you why, but first a brief summary of the 6 repeat Eclipse HOTY winners:
Horse Years dirt starts/year
Secretariat 72-73 10.5
Forego 74-76 10
Affirmed 78-79 10
Cigar 95-96 9
Curlin 07-08 7
Wise Dan 13-14 0.5
Thoroughbred racing over dirt is more taxing than racing over synthetics and/or turf. Surely turf track conditions can differ greatly, but regardless the pace scenarios are more physiologically friendly. Wise Dan’s BC Turf mile saw him cover the first half in roughly 45.5 sec, whereas Goldencents went a full second quicker in the Dirt version that day at Santa Anita.
That BLEEDS (pun intended) into my next point: the pace of dirt races (with more early speed) is more taxing than races on synthetics. Let’s say you could stop a horse mid-race after the first 4F on dirt vs Polytrack and draw blood for analysis; this is what you would likely see in terms of blood lactate levels:
Dirt runner: blood lactate level of 10 mmol/liter
Poly runner: blood lactate level of 8 mmol/liter
(Blood lactate levels are a common measure of exercise intensity. For reference’s sake horses walking exhibit levels around 1.0. A stakes horse galloping at 30mph (15sec/f) may show a lactate level of 4.0. After a race that number will climb to over 20+.)
This is one reason why dirt horses coming down the stretch often shorten stride and decelerate towards the finish line; while many turf races show a quick ‘turn of foot’ and faster final sectional times.
I chart heart rates on both surfaces, paying special attention to recovery after breezes. A claiming horse going 4F on dirt in :50 will show a similar HR recovery to another claimer going 6F on synthetic in 1:15. Many trainers have noticed this and work horses 1-2F further on the artificial surfaces.
Don’t believe me, how about a guy from M.I.T?
“Horses working on the Tapeta™ surface will experience one-half the impact as compared to horses working on a conventional surface.”
How about an exercise rider for Zenyatta?
“She’s terrific,” added Willard. “She couldn’t be training any better. She loves the dirt. She drives off it. It doesn’t have the trampoline effect like the synthetics.”
Take yourself down the road to your local high school track, as many these days are high quality rubber surfaces, rather than the cinders of my HS times. If you are have old bones like mine; a 400m lap in 1:30 over a nice cushy track feels much easier on one’s body than the same distance/time on the concrete street in front of your house, as judged by the next morning’s soreness. You simply recover more quickly from the ‘synthetic’ effort.
Now, in Wise Dan’s defense – he may very well be the best at what he does: going a mile on the grass, and the dirt runners this year didn’t exactly set themselves up for the award season this time around. Mucho Macho man made only 5 starts, winning 2 and pulling up in 1. Goldencents came out of his BC Dirt Mile win and was routed in his next start in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. However, our other repeat Horse of the Year winners throughout history did not enjoy the luxury of a season of less physiologically taxing races on synthetics – instead they came into season-ending races off of several previous dirt efforts.
Similarly, I don’t mean to come off as a hater of artificial surfaces. Most data shows they have cut catastrophic injury rates as much as 25%, perhaps at the expense of statistically more soft tissue injuries, but good luck finding anyone willing to quantify those numbers. At least the injured horse survives. So the technology has some positive benefits.
Like it or not, there are only 2 true natural surfaces for horses to run over: dirt and turf. America runs its classics on the former, and shouldn’t give its largest award to runners who specialize over the latter. So, don’t compare the top performers of today to the ones of the past because they just don’t make ‘em like they used to; neither tracks nor horses.
Congrats to the 2yo gelding and winner of 3 juvenile starts by 19+ total lengths. Check out that video above, that box is a Class IV laser and Laserman (Steve Bourmas) is demonstrating a small portion of a photobiostimulation massage session. More here:
Hmm, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer hires this guy to attend to his Hollywood/Santa Anita string and immediately starts having some of his greatest successes in the state outside of No Cal. Could just be a coincidence?
Racing, and training, repeatedly around only left hand turns will imbalance even the most conformationally correct racehorses. Hell, NASCAR drivers need full pit-crews to change tires that wear unevenly during races around the oval, shouldn’t every barn have someone similar keeping racehorses in balance?
I’ve read it somewhere in the past with respect to human athletes; something like a 10% difference in strength and/or flexibility between your right and left sides leads to a 600% increased chance of injury. (I am paraphrasing)
Horseracing is unnatural. Hay, oats, and water alone is not sufficient to develop optimal equine performance. Here’s hoping several more ‘Lasermen’ are haunting the backsides of our great tracks in the years to come.
US thoroughbreds suffer from what can be termed Weekend Warrior Syndrome; and the respective careers of trainers Woody Stephens and D. Wayne Lukas in the Belmont Stakes gives us valuable clues to its origins and the damage it is causing our dirt runners.
Firstly, I define the syndrome as the current propensity to undertake speedwork of 12/13sec/f once weekly, at most. Overall, the frequency is even smaller when you consider 90% of our runners refrain from any speedwork 10-14 days post-race. Our country’s ultimate test of TB stamina, the 12F Belmont, is the most illustrative of this phenomenon.
At first glance, both genius conditioners seem to have similar Belmont success; as Stephens won 5 runnings in a row from 1982-1986 and Lukas triumphed 3 times consecutively from 1994-1996, and added his 4th win with Commendable in 2000. However, when we dig deeper we notice some striking differences in approach.
Mr. Stephens posted works for his Belmont runners 2-3x a week, and raced quite often – while Mr. Lukas was posting weekly 4-5F works and racing quite sparingly; two strategies that his stable of assistants have kept alive over the past 20 years as they began working for themselves.
So, which approach is best? One produced 5 wins and the other produced 4, which I don’t consider to be statistically significant. But there is more…
-# of Belmont starters before first win: Woody 1, Wayne 15
-Belmont Stakes record: Woody 9 starters :5-1-1, Wayne 22 starters :4-0-1
-overall starts during streak: Woody 1348 or 270/yr, Wayne 2540 or 847/yr
-All 5 of Woody’s wins were timed in under 2:30 and 3 of those were on ‘off’ tracks.
-Wayne’s win with Thunder Gulch over a fast strip was the slowest winner in 20 years AND one of the 5 slowest versions of all time.
Let’s examine perhaps their 2 signature wins. Conquistador Cielo won the 1982 version just 5 days after a magnificent win in the Metropolitan. Thunder Gulch enjoyed what has become the traditional 3 week break following his Preakness victory.
Long-time blog readers will recall a post from earlier in 2013 where I documented the Belmont times of the 2010′s were all over 2:30 – which hadn’t happened since the 1930′s:
Sometime between Stephens final triumph in 1986 and Lukas’ first win in 1994 – the ‘less is more’ philosophy of conditioning took root and grew. That had led to slower winning times consistently over the past few decades.
Weekend Warrior Syndrome is something of which most humans are aware. When you begin your working life, you can no longer play sports throughout the week – you begin to compete only on the weekends. Let’s use basketball as an example. The rate of injury for those only playing 1x per week is huge, and the impetus for the development of the $5 billion sports medicine industry. Simply put, the frequency of exercise is key to performance and injury prevention.
Luckily, we also have a comprehensive, multi-year study in the US thoroughbred industry that illustrates/proves that the skeletal system of the horse responds to exercise within a 5 day window. Known as the Maryland Shin Study and documented extensively on this blog here:
It was found by looking at thousands of horses that their cannon bones completed the stress/recovery/supercompensation phases within those 5 days – and if you waited longer between speed sessions; you would lose the increase in bone density from the previous sessions. And believe me folks, the bones are the SLOWEST of the horse’s systems to adapt to exercise. Everything else needs to be stressed in a closer to 3 day timeframe with speedwork.
Back to basketball, of which I have intimate experience. I played competitively during college and up until about age 25 before I obtained a ‘real’ office job. I was also somewhat obsessive about my vertical jump, measuring it often. At age 25 I could take a few steps and leap 37″ off the ground, dunking a basketball with 2 hands quite easily from my height of 6′. Then the Weekend Warrior Syndrome paid me a visit.
At age 27 that vertical leap was only 29″ and I had my first injury in 2 decades of playing: I tore my left ACL one night and its never been the same since. 2 additional injuries/surgeries later, and I haven’t undertaken a 100% vertical leap effort in 10+ years. Age would have gotten to be eventually, but the drastic increase in exercise frequency sped up that process.
All trainers are focused on the length and time of works/breezes, as well as the gallop out behavior – but none of them ever consider the frequency of such moves. This aspect of exercise is critical to performance and soundness. A human cannot exercise once per week at high intensity and expect good things to happen, but a horse can surely get away with it due to his nature – at least a few times.
With all the advances in veterinary science and breeding over the past 20 years, we should never see a Belmont running over a fast track in over 2:30+. The rate of improvement seen from 1930-1985 could not continue forever, but I believe we are the only major sport to see performance times DECREASE in this day and age and I believe the primary culprit is Weekend Warrior Syndrome.
EDIT: a few quotes I have unearthed-
-”The star of the D. Wayne Lukas barn galloped five furlongs in a slow 1:05 this morning, prompting his trainer to explain: “We’re just trying to keep him happy.” – DWL on Thunder Gulch
-Said Stephens: “I had the best three-year-olds in the country, and since Devil’s Bag was all through by that time, Swale was the best and he proved it. In the Preakness, I wanted him to work a mile in 1:41 for the race, and he went in 1:37.
Night and Day. Amazing. And both are legendary trainers. Again, I would argue with vastly different results when you consider the number of trainees under their respective commands.
Above is Noble Moon, 3yo winner of the G2 Jerome at Aqueduct over the weekend. Conditioner Gyarmati, a former employee of legendary Allen Jerkens, breezed this colt a full mile in 1:45 7 days prior to the big win. That cold day at Aqueduct saw 200+ horses breeze, and only 2 went a mile: both were Gyarmati trainees – the other being Street Gent.
That wasn’t the first 8F move for Noble Moon, he also was sent a mile in 1:44 on November 23rd, a few weeks after running 3rd in the G2 Nashua off a terrible gate break. Both races earned an 85 Beyer.
Interestingly enough, she has a lower level allowance winner named Smooth Bert, who’s not recently posted work longer than 6F, completed in 1:15 back in November.
So we are looking at ‘longer than typical’ works, and also perhaps a bit ‘slower than typical’ with roughly 12.5sec/furlongs. But, we finally see a trainer structure the workouts to the ability of the horse, at least in these two cases. (Street Gent is a MSW winner, paying $28.60, who has yet to run back.)
This is the primary point of my conditioning system, tentatively named FIT for Feedback Induced Training. The works are suited to the horse’s ability TODAY. A G2 winner like Noble Moon will go a few more panels than a nice allowance winner. Each horse likely responds to these different workouts in the same manner. Now with FIT – one actually collects HR/GPS on the worker throughout the session, paying special attention to HR behavior during the gallop out and cool down.
Perhaps the mystery of who Leah is and why she works her horses longer than most is best answered by this quote in the DRF revealing her relationship with the Jerkens training clan: “Allen is the first person whose opinion I look for; Jimmy is the second,” she said. “Allen is a father figure, and I want him to be proud of me. I seek advice from both of them all the time.”