I Told You So: Uncle ‘No’ Mo

January 29th: “My two cents: a 50% chance that Uncle Mo will get injured during his prep for the Derby. He’ll only breeze 4F a few times, he’ll only race twice – and I think he comes up lame in the process. I hope not, but that is what I forsee.”

http://www.paulickreport.com/blogs/best-of-the-blogs/the-science-of-horse-training-uncle-mo-vs-comma-to-the-top

Now it’s Saturday at 6:08pm, just after the Wood Memorial debacle, and it hasn’t been announced yet that Mo is hurt, but after that performance it’s obvious the threadbare conditioning regimen failed this wonderful colt greatly, just as the same concepts did in Eskendereya roughly 365 days ago to the hour.

I was eviscerated in message boards for suggesting that Uncle Mo was anything less than our next Triple Crown champion. Noted ‘experts’ in the industry fell over themselves, acting like 12 year old schoolgirls in proclaiming Mo the next greatest thing.

Pletcher and the other supertrainers condition these horses like wild animals: soft 4F rolling breezes once a week, 2 weeks off fast works post race, 2 mile gallops 3-4x weekly, and close them up in the stall for 23+ hours a day – in the hopes they will run their eyeballs out every 5-6 weeks. This gets you your black type with one great performance, but it also gets you an injured horse quite often in the long run.

Stronger gallops at 2 minute lick pace, speedwork 2x a week, etc. – sounds funny – but more work creates stronger athletes who are less likely to get hurt. They still get hurt, but not as often. Instead Uncle Mo is treated like a weekend warrior: sits in a cubicle/stall all week, and is asked to compete on the weekends. It doesn’t work for humans and it will not work for horses.

It is our duty to protect these wonderful equine athletes from themselves, making sure their insides (bones, ligaments, lungs, muscles, etc.) are sufficiently developed to match up with their outsides (fight or flight adrenaline fueled nature). Not so for Mo, but perhaps down the line a big name trainer will make the necessary adjustments.

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About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on April 9, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. Sunday morning quarterbacking notes:

    I must add: many rumblings out there in the handicapping world that Uncle Mo has had soundness issues all along that have not been made public. Personally I doubt this, as Pletcher has been over the top in his praise for Mo at every opportunity – would he really do this if he was worried in the least bit, or would he be furiously tempering his owners enthusiasm, instead of feeding it?

    So, perhaps Pletcher’s desire to have a ‘fresh’ horse come TC season is some sort of smokescreen – possibly Mo has been lame since last fall and is being held together by duct tape, hence the powderpuff 4F breezes and light prep schedule.

    If this is true the same must be said for Eskendereya and Quality Road in years past. So either Pletcher has the misfortune of being gifted with 3 possible legendary athletes in a row who just can’t stay sound – or, it’s his (lack of) conditioning protocol that is causing these issues.

    Once more: horses get hurt, we know this, it happens. But do we regale Pletcher as a god and submit to the fact that his 35% injury rate is the best anyone can do – or do we attempt to make changes to cut that number to 25% or better?

    Finally, it is precisely the athletic brilliance of Uncle Mo that has done him in, lesser horses cannot run fast enough, nor far enough, to put themselves into so much trouble physiologically. If sound, and that is a big if, an athlete like this is the exact kind that can benefit from more, not less, conditioning in the beautiful early mornings at Palm Meadows.

    Spare me the garbage that Secretariat also ran 3rd in his Derby prep season. We are talking apples and oranges here. Secretariat, and Seattle Slew for that matter, were breezing miles in 1:40 weekly at this point in their careers. Those horses were tanks and today’s colts are 10-speed bicycles.

  2. Sorry, but your doubt and fanciful analysis are both misguided. Uncle Mo had a problem after the Breeders’ Cup, which is why he was sent to Ocala, rather than directly down to Palm Meadows. This also accounts for why he started his training later than would be ideal, and why his training pattern may seem suspicious. Pletcher has been attempting to hold damaged goods together, so any analysis of his training of the colt can only be meaningful in that context.

    By the way, Eskendereya had also sustained an injury well in advance of the Wood, so in both cases, the dishonesty of connections, coupled with the lack of sophistication and gutlessness of the racing “press”, paved the way for broad misunderstanding.

    • ‘Dishonesty of the connections’ – can’t argue with you there, glad I don’t bet my money based on these connections public statements or I would be upset. On the other hand: how can you blame the gutless press on their coverage if no trainers/owners will speak the truth in an interview? Lastly, Pletcher trains all of his horses in this manner, surely they are all not damaged goods from Day One?

      • I call the press “gutless” because they can’t even muster the courage to ask a high-powered trainer or owner (on record) whether a horse like Uncle Mo has had any soundness issues. That would at least put the connections in the position of having to lie publicly, and in print. Not doing so encourages the ‘managing’ of the message by connections. It is analogous to the insidious symbiosis between the White House and the (mainstream) press that cover it. Don’t ask tough questions, and you gain access; ask tough questions, and expect to lose access.

        With regards to Pletcher’s training methods, I can assure you that he does not train all of his horses like UM. I am not defending his training, but making the point that he is not as mechanistic as you apparently believe.

  3. Going by the DRF I cannot remember ever seeing a Pletcher horse with a published 6F work, not once. Especially not Super Saver. Perhaps you have the edge of being able to watch him live in the mornings with a stopwatch in hand – as I will be doing at CD all next month.

    Otherwise, to the betting public with only access to DRF/Equibase, all appears to be the same. I don’t think you cannot show me one instance where he publicly worked a horse in less than a once every 6 day window, nor can you tell me you witnessed a morning gallop further than 2 miles. Please prove me wrong Tinks. He may be astute enough to keep such exercise off the record – as no doubt the media would crucify him for such an ‘aggressive’ manner. Nafzger fought this battle too.

    If you’ve seen otherwise in the mornings, I need to know so I can stop attacking the guy on a weekly basis.

    If you have a graded stakes horse that you are afraid to work 6F in 1:12 in the morning, yet you intend on filling him full of Lasix and Bute in an effort to get 9F+ from him on raceday – you are part of the problem in this industry.

    • At least you recognize that you are at a distinct disadvantage, having to rely on published works. But to the crux of your point (and theories, apparently), what percentage of winners trained by all trainers in the U.S. do you imagine work more frequently than once every six days? And what on earth gives you the idea that such a schedule would be helpful to most, let alone all racehorses?

      With regards to works longer than five furlongs, I’m all for them. Would I prefer to see a slowish six or seven furlong breeze to a fast five furlong breeze? Yes. But once a horse has reached an acceptable level of fitness (i.e. any horse with a race or two under its belt), there is no evidence to support the notion that it is necessary to breeze them beyond five furlongs in order to maintain fitness. If that were the case, then the vast majority of winners would not show such (sub-six furlong breeze) profiles.

      Most importantly, your arguments appear to be based on a very mechanistic view of horses, which in turn suggests a real weakness in your perspective. Horses are obviously individuals, and as such require rather different levels of training in order to reach and maintain peak fitness. There are no magic formulas, nor hard and fast rules.

  4. All graded stakes horses during the triple crown years were routinely going fast 2x per week. They still do so in many other countries outside of the US. Not until the arrival of QH trainers headed by Lukas did we get to the widely spaced half mile works so common today. Correct, neither approach is ideal 100% of the time for all individuals.

    However, you still fail to show me that Pletcher varies in his work schedule, I guess I just have to take your word for it that he gallops some in 15 sec fractions for 3 miles, others in 17sec fractions for 1.5 miles, still others in 19s for 2 miles, etc. His speedwork fails to show any such individuality so I have a hard time thinking he is so varied in his ‘slow’ days.

    In fact, I have the exact opposite of a mechanistic viewpoint of conditioning. I consult on dozens of trainees around the globe, and each one exercises with an onboard HR/GPS monitor. I never prescribe what to do on Thursday until I see how much work the horse did on Tuesday, and his physiological response to said work.

    In summary, yes I do believe the better horses can benefit from a stronger work tab as compared to claiming stock. There is also no evidence to show that 5F weekly works are the ideal solution to maintaining fitness in every single athlete.

    Secretariat and other legends required weekly miles in sub 1:40 time to thrive. I don’t believe Mo’s weekly 4F moves are sufficient based on that fact. Furthermore, what is enough to maintain is different when you race every 3 weeks vs every 6 weeks.

  5. Hell, he can keep his damn once every 6-7 days work schedule as long as the works are progressive in length: 4-5-6-7F perhaps, instead of 4-4-4F.

    4F is junk for a big time horse, any horse of this level gets nothing from such a metabolic effort in terms of stamina, 3F at speed is within many horse’s nature from birth. I’ll even concede that 5F can maintain fitness once two or 3 races are under one’s belt, but such was not the case with Mo.

  6. If what you mean by “the triple crown years” is the 1970s, then your point doesn’t hold, as the current stock being produced in the U.S. is quite different (e.g. more fragile, bred more for speed, etc.).

    I am entirely sympathetic to your dislike of the fast four and five furlong work template that Lukas, Baffert and many of their protégée use. I agree that it is limited, and am not arguing that Pletcher is essentially in that category. He does, however, tailor different training regimens for different horses, albeit within more narrow parameters than you or I would like to see.

    With regards to the specific UM situation, he has had little choice given the fragility of the horse. And it is important to keep in mind that many horses – especially good ones – can and frequently do perform well in individual races when undertrained. I couldn’t possibly recount the number of times a trainer has told me that he missed a work, or would have liked to have seen a horse do more in an important work, only to watch the horse run out of the screen on race day.

  7. meant to say…

    “not arguing that Pletcher is not essentially in that category”

  8. So which comes first: breeding for speed and losing stamina, or training for speed and ignoring training for stamina?

    Just because trainers can frequently get away with under-training doesn’t make it the correct thing to do by the horse, or for the industry as a whole. I would bet these instances you think of are also the horses that give us the wonderful concept of the Bounce – which is the ultimate calling card of the under-conditioned animal.

    • Fitness is fitness. Whether a horse is intrinsically well-suited to six, or 12 furlongs, either they are fit or not when they race.

      If you are implying that the breed in the U.S. is more limited in terms of distance capabilities than it was 40 years ago because of different training methods, I would say that your position is unsupportable.

      Are there individual examples of trainers who under-train horses? Of course. Is such under-training endemic, in that a different approach to training adopted by most trainers would add a furlong of capability to the broad horse population? No.

  9. Bingo Tink, that is precisely my position and of course it is unsupportable, as is yours. Too many variables in the mix clouding up the picture.

    I simply refuse to believe that American trainers have 100% of the answers when it comes to running 10 consecutive 12sec furlongs. If a colt was to win the Derby in 1:58 next month, I would be proven 100% wrong. But Triple Crown winning times have been stagnant for 70 years while standardbred times and those of the Arc de Triomphe have improved 15sec in that same window. All while we ‘breed for speed’.

    And contrary to popular belief, the tracks have not systematically changed in that time frame to slow ’em down, at least per Butch Lehr at Churchill.

    If I was a breeder or bloodstock agent I would blame breeding, but I view everything through my lens: that of physiological/metabolic conditioning. You are certainly free to ridicule it all you wish, as are others, but I will continue on every morning doing what I do.

    Unlike most others, I have no need to make money at this game, I have another job to pay the bills. I can afford to treat it like a sport, and I believe, ultimately, that will work to my advantage as we get back to the days of the trainers who turned a horse out when he was lame – instead of working him 4F and throwing him out there on raceday to sink or swim full of medications.

    • With regards to the Arc, let’s take the last 40 years or so. Zarkava, an obviously brilliant filly, won the 2008 Arc in 2:28.8, yet 39 years earlier, Levmoss won in 2:29.0. There does appear to be a trend towards slightly faster times of late, but I see no evidence that there has been a meaningful change in how fast the winners of that race have run over that (long) period of time.

      Needless to say, ground conditions also vary tremendously from year to year, and I would bet that the course has been firmer in the past 10 years than before. Also, there are likely to have been faster paces in the more recent runnings of the race, contributing to faster times.

      I obviously agree that breeding practices in this country have been poor for some time. I also believe that one of the great advantages enjoyed by European horses is that they are (mostly) given a break over the winter, so that any developing issues can be repaired naturally before the next racing season begins.

  10. Again Tinky, you and I most likely define fitness in vastly different terms.

    Take two horses each winning a mile race in 1:35. One takes 7 days to regain his weight and another 7 days before he can resume speedwork again.

    The other gets his weight back in 3 days and is keen to resume 12sec furlongs in another 4 days. Both won their respective races in equal times – yet both have very different levels of fitness.

    Quarter horses need quarter horse trainers with quarter horse methods, thoroughbreds will never thrive in that type of environment. Win, yes. Thrive, no.

    In a typical 440yd QH race as little as 10% of the energy comes from aerobic metabolism, yet in a TB 6F ‘sprint’ – 70% of the energy is derived via aerobic pathways.

    I very much appreciate your constructive feedback and I wish you all the luck in the world in your endeavors. Others have not been so nice.

    Come to the Pedigree and Genetics Symposium II here at Keeneland in September and grab me for a one on one meeting. In your genetics textbooks there are quite a few mentions of the metabolic testing that I employ – none of what I preach originates in my tiny brain.

  11. You can’t pick and choose individual races, as in your Arc example, in order to make your point. I took the last 70 years and averaged the winning times over each decade:

    https://thoroedge.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/more-speedwork-plus-less-drugs-equals-faster-horses/

    That seemed to me to be the best way to account for weather, surface, and pace conditions. With the slower paced European races I didn’t expect to see a significant difference in winning times. What spurred me to check the Arc was a French based trainer giving me details on the regimens over there – and how much more they closely resembled my ‘ideal’,

  12. The winner of the wood had a 6f work in 1:15 and change a week out. I have followed the sport a long time. Sound horses work far and close to the race. I heard Allen Jerkens make a comment on a local OTB show last summer at Saratoga that went something like ” how can you expect them to run 6f if they can’t work 6f, much less a mile work if they are going to race more than a mile?”
    Couln’t have said it better.

  13. Perfect example of conditioning level and racing:

    Comma to the Top runs a 94 Beyer on Saturday and looks so good Sunday morning that his connections are now entertaining a Derby entry after previously ruling it out.

    Toby’s Corner runs a 95 Beyer on Saturday and is found lying in his stall like he was shot dead on Sunday morning. Trainer Graham Motion isn’t worried, as all of his look like this after a race. On to Kentucky.

    To Tinky and all other horsepeople this solidifies their perspective that you don’t need 15 races and multiple 6F works IF 4 races and 4F works get you the same outcome: running well in a prep in 1:49 and change on dirt.

    Oh, but they are different when you see these two the morning after such an effort.

    Meanwhile, in Oaklawn The Factor breezes 6F in preparation for the AR Derby, good for you Mr. Baffert – a step in the right direction.

    • The claim that horses which are trained the way that you suggest will look bright and happy the day after hard races, while those trained differently will be knocked out by their races, is ridiculous. And I say that in spite of my being broadly sympathetic to your preferred type of training.

      Both horses that you used as examples are pointing for the same race, and both prepped on the same day. Now, is how they look in the stall the day after those preps relevant to how they are likely to perform on Derby day? Put another way, do you seriously believe that CttT has a better chance in the Derby than TC because of Peter Miller’s training methods? Do you seriously believe that Graham Motion grossly under-trains his horses?

      Finally, using Bob Baffert as a positive example of how to train is hilarious. No active, high-profile trainer in the U.S. has broken down more horses through the employment of unnecessarily fast workouts than him.

  14. Thanks Dakin, Allan Jerkens is a genius and said as much in the Eclipse award winning piece entitled ‘Do We Need a Sturdier Racehorse?’ by Bill Finley:

    http://pdfs.thoroughbreddailynews.com/generic_upload/pdf/SturdierRacehorse.pdf

  15. Tinky-

    As a small time owner myself, I would rather my horse behave like Comma after a tough race than Toby, that is all. I really should stop arguing with people, Allen Jerkens is in my camp and that is good enough for me – the rest of you can hitch your wagons to these QH cowboys and their pharmacists/vets.

    Recovery after intense exercise is a hallmark of fitness in horses, humans, camels, greyhounds, and every other living being.

    I have a lot of respect for Mr. Motion in that I believe he is one of two with zero medication violations clouding his record (the other being Jonathan Sheppard) – and his training center in MD is undoubtedly one of the finest around. I just don’t think a well-prepared horse should be knocked on his ass after a tough race. I understand this puts me in the minority, but so be it.

    Neither your nor I will ever be able to prove our hypotheses. Best I can do is cherry pick an example here and there that supports my position, just like you will do if given the opportunity.

    Christ does Pletcher have the best of both worlds: He wins races and everyone calls him a genius, he loses them and its because horses are fragile pieces of crap.

    It’s obvious that should Comma win the Derby in 2:01 in his 15th lifetime start against a bunch of saps who, on average, are making their 5th start – you will still be convinced it is a fluke. Similarly, if Toby gets blasted you will continue to worship at the altar of supertrainers. So what is the point?

    I still welcome any evidence that Pletcher doesn’t condition each Derby horse in the same manner, as does Motion for that matter. Since we can’t point to published data, can you give me anything of note that I can go to school on?

    • bp –

      You haven’t paid very close attention to my contributions around the blogosphere if you imagine that I ” worship at the altar of supertrainers”, as I am one their harshest public critics. I have long supported Sheppard, Motion and many other trainers who are on the other end of the spectrum from the likes of Pletcher and Baffert, et al. I also abhor the reliance on drugs, etc.

      I also agree that it is preferable to find a bright, happy horse in the stall the day following a race. I do not, however, see any evidence that a properly managed horse, such as the vast majority trained by Motion (to use one example), will suffer from what you apparently consider to be a form on under-training.

      With regards to your interest in Pletcher, here are a couple of tidbits for you which underscore that he is not quite as one-dimensional as you imagine:

      “Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Rags to Riches, with Angel Cordero Jr. aboard, took to the Belmont Park main track at daybreak Sept. 8 to work in preparation for a start in the Sept. 15 Gazelle Handicap (gr. I).

      Rags to Riches, one of 14 Todd Pletcher trainees to work on the Belmont main track, covered six furlongs in 1:14 4/5 and galloped out seven furlongs in 1:27 3/5 on the fast track” (the blood-horse)

      “Interactif is owned by two brothers, Alain and Gerard Wertheimer…So who twisted whose arm to go in the Belmont? Said Pletcher, “Two weeks ago, the horse worked very well [6 furlongs in 1:14.1] and I explained to Mr. Wertheimer how good it was and he said, ‘Should we consider the Belmont?’ I said that based on the work, he had me thinking about it. We decided to see how he continued in his training.”

      “But what was so special about the 6-furlong breeze?
      “Well, it was outstanding,” said Pletcher. “And the gallop out, a mile in 1:42, was exceptional and that’s when our wheels started spinning. The way he galloped out led me to believe the mile and a half would be within his range.” (NY Post)

      Now, do I consider him to be remotely as open-minded or old-school as the likes of Allen Jerkens? No. But your sweeping claims have led me, perhaps for the first time, to rise to his defense.

  16. Exactly my point Tinky, only after/during successful campaigns will he stretch out a work.

    Hell, he worked both Life at Ten and Exhi 6F each just last week – but never with a Derby prospect who needs to be in peak condition early in his 3yo season.

    He expects them to race 8-10F, but never will breeze even 6 panels in preparation to do so.

    They are gonna get hurt 1 of every 3 times anyway, so I’d rather the get hurt the Baffert way than the Pletcher way, but to each his own.

    • “I’d rather the get hurt the Baffert way than the Pletcher way”

      Ah, but are they as likely to get hurt the “Motion way”, or the “Clement way”?

  17. Not sure what the Motion Way is, although the last work for Toby was 6F in 1:15 over the Fair Hill Tapeta, according to the DRF. And he has progressed over his career with no bounces thus far. Check mark #2.

    Without any insider info I would love to assume that being based off track at Fair Hill allows Mr. Motion to spend more than 11min per day per horse on the track. Is it possible that away from the prying eyes trackside that Toby weekly gallops miles in 1:40-1:50 or thereabouts in the mornings? I would hope so as that would also be considered the Thoroedge Way.

    I imagine he may ship into CD as late as possible, so I probably won’t be able to stopwatch any gallops of note.

    If Motion and Clement keep to their European roots I would certainly expect to see more stamina from their charges. I wish they would stop using Lasix here and really stand out from their peers. First time Lasix certainly appears to be an edge, but I’m not sold on 6th, 7th, 8th time Lasix use.

    I also believe, with no proof of course, that similar bloodlines show more stamina in Europe with their off track training style than in the US. I did notice one big owner (Bobby Trussell) claim his stock routinely stops short of a mile with US trainers while overseas they carry their speed 9f+ with more regularity.

    I do know of a certain blogger who painstakingly traced injury rates for trainers that publicized their worktabs. A European guy topped the list with around a 20% injury rate while Pletcher and the like were 35%+ year after year. But Euros have no dirt and we do, etc.

  18. Ahhh, You have entered the black hole, arguing with Tinky. Great job!!!

  19. Just a question with regards to G Motion & T Pletcher, why do you think they both have a high strike rate off a layoff? (higher than the general strikerate).

    You’d expect if they were under training their horses they would get better for a recent run? or does the run knock them off form because they aren’t fully fit ( known by handicappers as the dreaded bounce)

    • I think they train for one big effort, one black type win. In doing so, they bottle up these horses for 6 weeks hoping to unleash a wild animal on raceday. It undoubtedly works in the short term, but rarely do you see consistent efforts out of such – I’d be curious how many superstar horses these guys have that run more than 5 times a year, winning 3? Plus many lesser trainers use races for conditioning and never intend on winning the first time off the bench. This skews the stats downward. Any thoughts on the prevalence of the bounce today vs 70 years ago? I don’t even know if/how we could research such, but that would be interesting.

  20. I agree that most trainers, Pletcher included, aren’t working horses nearly enough at 6f and beyond. With some trainers, a six-furlong or greater drill happens exactly never.

    I also don’t think Uncle Mo has the pedigree to get 10 furlongs and is severely tested at 9f. So I expected him to flatten out in the Wood (but maybe win anyway because of the strength, or relative lack thereof, of the field), and he did (but he didn’t, if you follow).

    Could be not enough stamina in the pedigree, as his sire’s get’s AWD is 6.5 furlongs and average maximum win distance is just 7.11 furlongs. Could be lack of conditioning. Could be both.

    BUT, I most wholeheartedly agree with Allen Jerkens that you can’t really expect a horse to win at a distance he can’t breeze.

    I own a mare who rarely breezed even 4f while in training. Probably three out of every four works for her was 3f. Then she’d usually be on or near the lead (sometimes in fractions around 22-flat), but almost always cave in the stretch. … I wonder if her body was thinking, “Wait. What? There’s two or three more furlongs left?”

    • I don’t mind the short 3-4F works to sharpen speed, but not to the complete exclusion of longer stuff. Why not have one day per week for targeting stamina also? Only the top graded stakes horses need 12-13 sec furlong paces – others, like your racemare, can get some staying power at 2 min licks to begin with. Once quarter horse trainers invaded thoroughbred racing everything changed, and now everyone copies those guys. Graded stakes horses get almost nothing from galloping 1.5 miles in 2:20 pace. I recall Monarchos 2 minute licking many miles in his daily ‘slow’/unpublished gallops, or faster, before upsetting Point Given.

      Pedigree is merely the blueprint, you can still structure the training stimulus to maximize that natural potential. The Derby is full of winners that, on paper, were not meant for the distance. Please, oh please, let Comma to the Top enter and run admirably!- I cringe every time I hear someone compare Mo to Secretariat, who had 10 races at age 2 – that is foundation/bottom that rewards you at age 3. Pletcher’s never, ever get that.

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