These 3yo Aren’t a Bad Group, Just Another Slow One

Do we time this year’s Derby and Preakness with a stopwatch, or an hourglass?

In 2010, the combined winning times of the American Triple Crown classics equaled 391.6 seconds, which would have not been competitive in any of the past 5 decades, on average.

Meanwhile, in England the combined 2010 winning times of their triple crown series equaled 430.8 seconds, nearly 7 seconds faster than just the previous decade’s average times.

Those two trends are seemingly continuing as we arrive in early 2011.

Is this merely a blip, or a continuing trend of American horses slowing down while the Brits, at least, get faster? To the raw numbers, where you can draw your own conclusions:

*Times were rounded to the nearest tenth of a second, and averaged over an entire decade in order to control for weather and surface variations. There were no published times for the St. Leger until 1950. (Going through 50+ years of numbers for 6 different races became a blur – until stumbling upon Secretariat’s 144 second Belmont triumph, unbelievable and most likely never to be equaled on either continent, mercy.)

*Green figures are improvements over the previous numbers, red figures are instances were times did not improve. Black figures represent a number that is unchanged.

Since the 1950’s, American cumulative Triple Crown winning times have improved 2.9 seconds while the British equivalent has improved 8.4 seconds.  Please note that the English classics as a group are 13% further than the American versions, which would account for a few tenths of a second in this finding. When that factor is backed out, English horses still have improved at a 263% greater rate over the past 60 years.

Don’t look to the next decade to reverse that trend, if anything it has increased significantly in the first complete year of racing on both continents in 2010, and 2011 thus far is not turning out for the better.

We all know the styles and surfaces differ between the two countries, I just did not expect the Euro turf runners to improve so much more given their deliberate race strategies and the occasional very wet and slow courses. More than a few times the St. Leger was 20 seconds slower than normal, yet I still counted these outliers – or the difference in US vs Euro trends would have been more pronounced.

I’m not going to regurgitate my admittedly biased reasoning as to why this is happening. My angle is the conditioning angle, or lack thereof. You can re-read more of these types of thoughts here from myself and others:

Many quotes in that above link originate from the Eclipse Award winning article entitled “Do We Need a Sturdier Racehorse?” by Mr. Bill Finley of the Thoroughbred Daily News, which I was honored to be quoted within.

Curiously, it is only American thoroughbreds that are slowing down in this country, as our standardbreds are doing just fine as indicated in this earlier post:

I am well aware of all the objections to this overall concept, so let’s tackle the main argument put forth by the handicappers camp: that tracks are systematically being slowed down by the ground crews in order to protect faster horses. Butch Lehr at Churchill disagrees:

At least one well informed source begs to differ, the track superintendent at Churchill Downs, who has been employed there for 38 years, says that the Churchill strip is no different than it was when he started. 

“As far as making tracks deeper now as compared to 20 years ago, I don’t necessarily believe that, If anything, it’s the opposite. I’ve been here a long time and, at Churchill, we haven’t done anything to change the track.”

Over the next few months and years we will witness in public the argument that our raceday drug allowances are either good or bad for the breed. It’s well known that all European countries don’t permit such medications – but they race on turf through a first half in :52 or slower while our stars go through a dirt half in :46 quite often. You simply cannot compare the two scenarios with respect to the forces that they exert on the equine skeleton and soft tissues of the lungs.

That being said, I still submit that our raceday drugs are not helping our horses perform to their optimal level. OK, let’s forget Great Britain – what about another European country, like France? Turf courses and no drugs, but are their horses faster now than in 1950? Yes:

So when you read back to my previous posts where I attempted to handicap the Derby and Preakness, and failed miserably, keep in mind I only have a very few instances to choose from where a trainer practices more than the ‘4F breeze every 7 days’ routine.  The odds are very much stacked against me. This method of conditioning in 2010 gave us a Triple Crown season in which no colt was able to start in all 3 races, so here’s hoping Animal Kingdom and Shakleford make it to NY next month.

Sure, the scorecard now is 2-0 in favor of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of conditioning in this Triple Crown season – but Animal Kingdom and Shakleford are still turning out performances inferior to those over the past 5 decades of American racing.

Despite improved veterinary care and breeding the ‘best to the best’ over 1 million times, we still have no better equine athletes in 2011 than in 1950, but other countries apparently do not have this problem.


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on May 24, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. jim culpepper

    In a phone conversation with THE thoroughbred geneticist in N. america, I was told that with 25% of the stock “affected” by corrective surgery, along with other alternate realities that return defective horses to the breeding pool, there is no rational basis for selective breeding of thoroughbreds. Indeed, I asked if we would do as well to draw the names of sires from a hat and he said “yes, for the most part.”
    Given near universal use of drugs that cause dehydration and internal bleeding during
    hard exercise and osteoporosis and probably kidney stones long term, a colt will need to be resistant to lasix before any rational conditioning will ever again produce the forgotten iron horse of the cavalry that could race and breed for best three out of five, in four mile heats carrying a warhead of 170 lbs., not that any but Tevis Cup competitors would care to breed to such a blooded stallion.

  2. I think it’s harder to compare the times from the English classics because of improved drainage at course meaning less soft ground classics. Also watering has come in in the last 2 decades meaning less chance of firm ground , logically you’d think that would slow times down but I think good/g-f ground leads to faster times because lots of horses won’t let themselves down on rock hard ground- this is probably harming the breed however because less sound horses with superior ability can win.

  3. Can pure Beta-Alanine be used for race horse supplementation?

    • Aaron, mostly all supplements containing beta-alanine don’t have enough included to make a significant difference in carnosine formation. Beta-alanine is relatively expensive, and if included with other nutrients in a formula – is often short changed. In humans we have this problem with the B-vitamin biotin. Our multivitamins carry 100% or more of pretty much all vitamins, but rarely more than 10% biotin – which renders much of the other B vitamins useless.

      Horses also get some beta-alanine in their diet, but research has proven they can benefit from, and are able to store, much larger amounts.

  4. Hello Mr. Pressey,
    I would really like to talk to you about Equine Conditioning techniques. I’m really interested in implementing a program for my racehorse.

  5. Now that all 3 races are in the books, a summary:

    Animal Kingdom’s final time of 2:02.04 in the Kentucky Derby sounds good, but one of the leading speed figure services, The Ragozin Sheets, had it as tied for the ninth slowest figure in the last 12 editions of the Run for the Roses. The Preakness was slow on anyone’s scale, with Shackleford’s time of 1:56.47 rating as the slowest in 17 years.

    Ruler On Ice’s time of 2:30.88 was the 10th slowest in 11 years. The muddy track probably contributed to that, yet in terms of Belmont winners Ruler On Ice looks more like Da’Tara than Point Given.

    So, what do you get when you train these elite equine athletes like wild animals? You get unpredictable results with performances reminiscent of the 1940’s or earlier – despite veterinary advances and selective breeding. You also get more injuries, as roughly half of the January Derby Favorites never made it to May.

    So is that just the way it is? Are horses fragile by nature and have they maximized their racing ability as a whole? Many horsemen believe just that, and that is certainly their prerogative. But what good does that do you, to assume 50% of your charges will get injured regardless of your actions? Why not strive like hell to attempt to decrease that injury rate by 10%?

  6. “… until stumbling upon Secretariat’s 144 second Belmont triumph, unbelievable and most likely never to be equaled on either continent, mercy.”

    Deep Impact in the 2005 Japan Derby (or the Tokyo Yushun) ran the 2400m (on apparently fierm turf, no less) in 143.3 seconds. Given that 1.5 miles = 2414 meters, that would put Deep Impact about a neck behind Secretariat, if that.

    I mention this 1) to be nonsensically pedantic :^) and 2) to ask if you’ve considered looking at Asian horseracing and training methods?

    • I would LOVE to find into on Asian racing and conditioning methods, but I’ve been unable to do so via the Google Machine. Please, please direct me to any such info you have come across – specifically I’ve been looking for injury/fatality rates on dirt for HK thoroughbreds.

      Thanks for commenting TJ!-

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