Derby Win Strikes Vote for European Style Conditioning

Out of my 3 Derby picks, 2 exited the race injured. Do I get some kind of award for being the worst handicapper? I really only handicap once or twice a year, and we are all the better for it when I sit on the sidelines. Back to work.

Animal Kingdom is the champ and overcame my long held bias against pure synthetic horses racing on dirt for the first time. There are a few caveats here. Kingdom was raised down in Williston, FL by Randy Bradshaw at Adena Springs South and had multiple early speed works over dirt. Secondly, while many others were tip-toeing through 4F and 5F works at CD on Derby week, Graham Motion saw fit to send Animal Kingdom 6F in preparation for his first race over the strip. Readers may comment: “So what, what is an extra 12-24 seconds?” It can be huge. Derby quality horses better easily breeze a half mile from a rolling start, and do it well. Adding that extra quarter mile on the end allows the horse to experience a very small bit of fatigue in attempting to navigate an unfamiliar surface without losing neuromuscular coordination – which can greatly add to his ability to persevere in the afternoon. It is often said that a good horse can run over anything, and AK sure showed that on Saturday.

Contrast this protocol with that of other trainers of synthetic/turf only horses:

Brilliant Speed: 5F and finished 7th
Derby Kitten: 4F and finished 13th
Twinspired: 5F and finished 17th
Master of Hounds: 0F and finished 5th

Also I would be remiss not to mention Toby’s Corner, who was also sent 6F at Fair Hill over the dirt – and was found to be lame afterwards. A typical 4F move may have not uncovered that problem, which could have spelled disaster on Derby Day. Comma to the Top was only jogged his 3 days over the CD surface, for example.

This morning Animal Kingdom boarded a van here at Keeneland and is off to Fair Hill in Maryland for his Preakness prep – will he be stall bound as he would trackside, or will Mr. Motion turn him out for some paddock exercise as his European roots call for?

Ah, the buzzwords of the week: European style conditioning.

What does that mean exactly? First we need to understand the European trainer, in this case we’ll examine Graham Motion.

Trainer Graham Motion grew up less than 5 miles from where this workout took place at Newmarket, England earlier this Spring for another trainer (click to enlarge):

For the uninitiated, this graph represents the heart rate and gallop speed relationship over 2 big turf hills in England. This is interval training, folks. Focus is not on speed obviously as the fastest this horse gets up to is a 15sec/furlong pace – but he does it twice with a 14min rest period in the middle – not sure you can accomplish that when you have 30 horses to work at CD on any given morning before 10am. More info here on why I believe this is a superior method for attaining racehorse stamina:

Mr. Motion began his career in France working at a stud farm, where became enamored with the training aspect and even met his future wife, who worked for a French trainer. This blog has addressed the French method of training before – giving it much credit to the ever faster race times recorded in the Arc de Triomphe:

So, we have a trainer raised in Newmarket and we see what type of conditioning takes place there. He marries a girl who works under a French trainer, and we have some insight into how they condition in that country where raceday drugs are banned. Drugs, buzzword number two. Guess which US-based trainers have made thousands of starts and NEVER had a single medication violation? None other than 2011 Derby champion conditioner Graham Motion and fellow Euro Christophe Clement. Could just be a coincidence, right? (click to enlarge chart)

On to the training facility enjoyed by Mr. Motion and a few other lucky trainers – Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. Spread out over 300 acres of rolling countryside, Fair Hill currently has 17 privately owned barns (you can’t just rent stalls there), a 7F Tapeta oval, a 1 mile dirt track, and miles of undulating turf gallops similar to those found at Newmarket, England. Additionally, there is world class veterinary care onsite and a hyperbaric chamber. Nearly 30 years ago, Dr. John Fisher DVM got this place rolling through a rough start. Readers of this blog will recognize Dr. Fisher as the guy behind the development of the optimal 2yo training program, along with Dr. Nunamaker of New Bolton fame (my most popular blog post of all time with thousands of hits):

Being away from the hustle and bustle of a typical American track allows you much more freedom, and the horses seem to thrive as well. Now you can turn out your horses in training if you wish, instead of cooping them up in stalls. You can take advantage of uphill gallops which also permit the implementation of interval training methodology. You can gallop more than the traditional 1.5-2 miles over a very friendly Tapeta surface as developed by former Fair Hill resident Sir Michael Dickinson. Barry Irwin of Team Valor moved all his horses here last year and has already reaped some big benefits. Animal Kingdom has yet to visit these friendly confines – should be interesting to see if the next month in this environment can fuel our first Triple Crown success in nearly 4 decades.

The benchmark industry trade magazine, North American Trainer, 2011 Triple Crown edition, hit my desk Monday a.m with pieces on both Mr. Motion and Fair Hill Training Center in MD.

If you have not yet subscribed, you can do so here – and also see a preview of many issues from both sides of the pond:

How prescient! Congrats Giles and crew.


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on May 10, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. “Sometimes, when you can train where the requirements are purely for the benefit of the horse rather than race times in the afternoon, that is an advantage.”
    — Trainer John Gosden

    “I could canter a horse up Warren Hill,” said trainer Jeremy Noseda, who won the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Wilko. “I can get as much of that as maybe an American trainer would need to gallop his horse a mile and a half on a hard dirt surface at a decent clip to get what I’m getting from an easy canter up a hill.”

  2. A gentleman just called me and asked how the hell he can get uphill gallops when he is stuck in the flatlands of Texas? I told him to look into a treadmill:

    I have a partner who has sold and installed dozens of them worldwide. If it’s good enough for Mike de Kock and others, it’s good enough for me. Not only can you specify a variety of inclines, you can also get precise speeds in any weather conditions.

  3. Wow! Just what I was looking for…some place to find an explanation of how other countries get along without the drugs, and I suspected there had to be a different conditioning regimen to be able to do that. How on earth can those who call themselves “horsemen” whine and complain they just can’t get along without the drugs, that the horses will suffer, yadda, yadda! I have posted your links in several places at Facebook among some of my buddies there who have a similar interest in supporting efforts to get rid of the drugs in U.S. horse racing. Thank you!

    • Thanks for the note Ann! In all fairness, Euros don’t have to race on dirt through very fast fractions, so there are variable at play. Nonetheless, if your young American thoroughbred gets a taste of speed every 4-5 days, he should build the necessary internal structures to withstand serious bleeding. Legal drugs are one thing, but a huge problem is the stuff we can’t/don’t test for. In humans those engineered substances ruined cycling and baseball.

  4. One thing I would like to point out about the derby winner,and I think it plays HUGE in his favor,and that is his breeding. There is NO INBREEDING on either side.He is pure,unlike most of the trash he ran against.This horse could run to the sun and back if he wanted.The dam is from Germany also,where horses are not allowed to breed if they had raced on drugs. So,in my opinion,Animal Kingdom is far superior to the other animals he raced against.And I agree with the Graham Motion conditioning method you talk about.It works.Period. Thanks for another great read Boss.Keep up the good work.

  1. Pingback: The Belmont in a Nutshell « PonySpam

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