For once in my life, I’ll try to stick to the facts and keep my opinions to myself, at least until a later date.
The fact is that harness racing times have improved markedly over the past 70+ years, while thoroughbred times have lagged well behind.
To keep things simple, I decided to use the winning times in the Kentucky Derby and the Hambletonian – the two feature races for each discipline, please see above table:
Both races feature a landmark effort to break the 2:00 barrier; first accomplished in the Derby by the immortal Secretariat in 1973, with the corresponding harness racing effort coming from Emily’s Pride in 1958 – both carding a 1:59 (for the purposes of this piece, I have rounded off all fractional times downward to the nearest second).
From the above chart, starting in 1930 standardbreds have improved winning Hambo times by 7.9%, while thoroughbreds of the same period have improved Derby winning times by just 1.8%. If you start analyzing the data at the time of the breaking of the magic 2:00 threshold the differences are even more striking – 7.0% for trotters vs. an imperceptible 0.08% for thoroughbreds.
So, we have seen a roughly 500% greater improvement in Hambo winners versus Derby champs. Those of you who have read my work before know of my interest in the training aspect of the game, so let’s take a look at all the variables that may hold some answers to the above discrepancy.
Training and racing frequency
Thoroughbreds these days are lucky to get 6 starts per year on average, yet standardbreds often race weekly – even needing to qualify prior to racing. Thoroughbreds, taking into account a few weeks off from speedwork after a race, may see 12 sec/furlong paces for a half mile every 10-14 days. Standarbreds train in an interval fashion, working miles each week at race pace of 14 sec/furlong.
Use of technology
Thoroughbred trainers are avid users of the stopwatch, and sometimes the scales. Standardbred practicioners have utilized heart rate monitors, lactate analyzers, resistance carts, etc. for long before I entered the picure.
The first standardbred trainer I met was training a thoroughbred here at Churchill Downs, a former $5,000 claimer. After a few interval sessions at 1 mile with the HR/GPS monitor, his horse went on to win his next two route races by a total of 29 lengths – and was eventually claimed away for $50,000. Now with a new trainer and using the same old methods, that horse has done very little since.
A Lexington-based equine rehab center with a modern hyperbaric chamber reports that after harness races at the Red Mile, she gets a line of vans with sound candidates for post race treatment in order to enhance recovery. Despite being closer to Keeneland, thoroughbreds never make the trip unless a horse is injured.
Drugs, namely Lasix and Bute
Lasix became raceday legal back in the 80’s for thoroughbred racing, and starts per career numbers have fallen ever since, while Derby winning times have remained stagnant. The Hambo outlawed raceday Lasix and Bute in the early 90’s, yet times have continued to improve at the same rate.
Nonexistent for most US thoroughbreds, their pre race routine consists mainly of walking in the post parade followed by a gentle trot next to the pony before entering the gate. Standardbreds often warm up a few miles prior to completion, with several furlongs of race-pace efforts.
All thoroughbreds start from a standstill, while trotters get a rolling gate, which is much easier physiologically on the Hambo competitors.
Thoroughbreds also travel much faster than the trotters, which can cause more skeletal and soft tissue problems.
In US racing, most thoroughbreds have to start quickly and come home dead tired, while trotters actually often complete final quarters faster than the first ones.
Add these factors together and you can see that thoroughbred racing is probably tougher on the equine athletes, which can explain a higher injury rate – but not a lack of performance improvement.
I have one client, a self made millionaire here in the US, who insists to me that all big time TB trainers have a very good grasp of equine exercise physiology – but the numbers just don’t bear that out.
Somewhere, someday a thoroughbred owner/trainer is going to copy the training methods of the standardbred guys, instead of the thoroughbred elite, and make history. Only then will everyone else copy his practices and we’ll see Derby winning times in the mid 1:50’s on a consistent basis.
Maybe it will be us in 2020?: