It’s not the Surface, Stupid: US Turf Runners 300% More Likely to Breakdown

The ongoing ‘synthetic vs dirt’ debate concerning thoroughbred safety is a simpleton’s way of investigating the problem, or perhaps that of a Polytrack salesman. Of course there will be more skeletal injuries on a harder surface that lead to more catastrophic breakdowns. The injuries suffered on synthetic are more soft tissue in nature and have a lower incidence of fatalities.

But all of this misses the main point: even when controlling for surface, the US is abhorrent when it comes to fatal thoroughbred injuries.

According to the US Jockey Club: the US fatality rate on turf over a recent 2 year period is 1.74 per 1,000 starts while a retrospective study finds the Australian fatality rate on turf over a 7 year period at just 0.6 per 1,000 starts. That’s a very statistically significant difference.

The US data is all over the place, most recently the New York Times, so here is the Australian piece for your perusal (if you cannot download email me for a .pdf copy):

Last year in the Eclipse award winning piece from Bill Finley entitled Do We Need a Sturdier Racehorse, one viewpoint addressed the too high injury rate in American thoroughbreds as being the result of a ‘management’ factor, not breeding for speed, not surface composition, etc. This management factor is indeed the culprit, and it encompasses several things concerning how we condition, campaign, and medicate our racing stock here in the US.

variable                                               USA                       AU

Turf breakdowns/1,000                 1.74                        0.60

Avg. daily exercise                           15min                    45min

Avg. weekly breezes                      <1                           >2

Racing frequency                             1x/month            2x/month

Raceday medications                     yes                         no

For once I don’t believe additional biased commentary from myself is necessary, numbers don’t lie – only people do. Hell, elite Australian runners routinely race 2x PER WEEK, even at the top levels of the game. We used to do that in the US, that’s why we have a race at CD the week of the Kentucky Derby called the Derby Trial – now better known as the Preakness Trial.

I’ll leave you with a description of a typical Australian racehorse workout recently gathered from one of my readers:

“I do interval training 7 or 8 days out from the race, with 3 reps at 32kph on a 4 degree incline on my treadmill. Each rep is 2min in duration with a 2min rest between.

Then a hard 800m gallop out (breeze) on a Tuesday before a racing Saturday.

I also walk him for 20 mins in afternoon each day for 2000m at 4 degrees incline, speed 6 to 7 kph.”

Compare to the standard American week of a couple 1.5 mile gallops on the flat, and rarely, if ever a strong blowout 3 days before a race. Who is more fit for the task at hand?

We used to do some of this stuff here in the States in the not too distant past, does the name Carl Nafzger ring a bell?


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on June 6, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Bill, that Australian workout does not look so impressive (but it is more than most NA trainers). If you convert to mph, that IT workout is about 3 reps of 5 -6 f going at a 3:00 mile pace (if I got my math right LOL). Yes he is going at a 4 degree incline but on a treadmill a 3 degree incline is equiv to a flat track. One of my unraced horses just completed an IT workout of 2 x 6f going in 1:28 and 1:23. This was on a very deep sand training track (at my farm) with the last 1/4 of each workout uphill (which was also the fastest part of the workout). This was on the Wednesday before a Saturday breeze at the racetrack. The Saturday breeze was 5f which went in 23.2, 48.2, 1:01.2 and out in 1:15.2. The jock was standing up on him the entire way to keep him beside his company. This horse also gallops daily 4 miles at a 2:40 pace on my farm track. Needless to say, my track trainer would fall over dead if she knew what I had done on the Wednesday before the official “breeze”. I consider the track breezes to be “easy” days!

    • Hello BJ-

      That Australian treadmill interval training work was designed to maximize lactic acid buffering, which is typically taking place at approximately 85% of maximum heart rate, so it is far from a physically taxing move. Your description is amazing, almost like a standardbred! Where is your farm? By any chance near me in Lexington?

    • Phillip Haycock

      With regards to the Aussi bloke walking his horse 2000m per day, I would be interested to hear if anyone has ever done a study of the value of this exercise.
      Its not as if there are many people around who can actually say that they have walked their horses in hand 5km daily, as it’s just too expensive to do so. Treadmills have changed this of course. (I used to walk my hunters 3000m a day in hand but the people on our road started to look at me funny)
      I read that eclipse walked a total of 1400 miles to his races???
      Here’s an IT regime that a small 2yr filly that won’t race until she’s four is getting. I call it High volume, Low intensity work.
      Appropriate work for a young war horse that will need to be very tough to survive. This is a Pre-training regime.

      She started on 23/3/11 and for the first 2 months she walked 2000-3000m every day @ 6km/hr 1 degree incline.
      Halfway through the second month she got some 600m trots @ 12km/hr at the end of each walk.
      For the next 2 weeks she got IT workouts walking 600m at 7km/hr then trotting 600m at 12km/hr all at 1 degree incline, during this two weeks the workout distance went from 3000m(5 heats) to 5400m(9 heats) and the trotting speed maxed at 18km/hr
      Then I changed from distance constant, to time constant. (Time constant is IT ideal)
      During the next 10 days she did all heats for 5 minutes. Walk 5mins @ 7km/hr, trot 5mins at 20km/hr @ 1degree incline. Each workout covered 6000m-7300m every day.
      She won’t trot past 21.5 kms/hr so now does one heat per workout at 25kmhr canter.
      Total mileage for 10 weeks almost 200km. (average distance per day for last 7 days =6000m)
      She will continue on until the workouts reach 45 mines (9 heats, time constant) (starting and finishing with a walk) Currently doing 7 heats, then she will go to 2 degrees incline and start back 2-3 weeks prior in terms of volume.
      My intension is to increase the Volume (distance, speed) of the workouts much more quickly than the intensity (incline) so that in six months, having done 1500km or more, she will be well into a gallop and trot IT at a mere 3 degrees incline max. With max speeds up to say 45-50 kmhr. This filly is forging ahead and relishing the work. (Eating lots)

      The every day workouts(7day) are something of an experiment, If the intensity is appropriate then I believe this constant volume will harden her resolve. (Mental fitness)

      This Regime isn’t about building muscle or speed, its about building connective tissue, good joints, respiratory / circulatory system, strong feet, a work ethic and a good head.
      For me, This is about producing a horse that a trainer can make into a racehorse and not break on the way. Caution: ( treadmills don’t produce race bone that I know of.)

      Having Interval trained thoroughbreds before, I found that using the incline to load and unload the intensity worked well. I also found that IT turned a strong puller into real monster and will never waste my time using IT with a runaway again.

  2. Just realized this was you Bernadette, nice to hear from you! I hope all is well up in the Great White North, how is the treadmill working out for you?

  3. Its me Bill. Leonie still needs to come up to acclimate my boys on the treadmill. The track is in good shape now (maybe a little deep though) and everyone is doing very well. I am feeling my way through this IT stuff and we are getting close to our first start. I must say that it was easy to bring the mulitple miles down to :14’s with all of the horses but then moving on to the 3/4’s and increasing speed is a bit like walking a tightrope. But hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it LOL!

  4. Barry Roberts

    Bill :- What confusess me from afar is how The trainers in USA achieve any training affects at all!!
    The normal Theory of training is to add or induce a specific training stress on a system , which if done correctly will cause the organism to adapt and super compensate above the initial state which they were previously at.
    Then by repeating a similar or increased stress (after super compensation has taken place) – usually 1- 4 days
    We start a steady climb of better and better adaption of the components being put under stress.. Looking at the frequency of stresses being applied by trainers in the USA compared to say Australia any second stress is being applied long after Supercompensation has taken place and the Animal has dropped back to its “Genetic Norm”
    Instead of climbing a ladder to fitness they are going nowhere!
    In many blogs here people have looked at whether one particular type of stress has been given to a hporse at a particular time.
    I believe that by itself that is unimportant as repeat sessions at the correct level and timing is necessary to get any improvement above the genetic “Norm”
    Looking at print outs of workouts over time on E Trakka Literature, I note that Australian trainers seems to apply specific training stress about 3 times a week, which to me makes sense.
    I would be very happy to have your comments, criticisms and proof my Hypothesis is wrong from yourself and others on here

    Cheers Barry

  5. I agree Barry. Here in the US no trainer uses any objective measure of fitness like an HR/GPS montior or a blood lactate analyzer, therefore they must always err on the side of caution and do little in the way of work. When speedwork is 7 days or more apart, super-compensation is missed completely. Hell, Nunamaker proved with the Maryland Bucked Shins study that even bone needs to be stressed every 5 days at a minimum, else it looses it’s remodelling effect – imagine how much more often you need to stress muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc. Certainly 2-3x per week as you hypothesize. In the US we need our champions ‘born’ rather than ‘made’ on the training track.

    Mainly, US trainers are training owners to write checks. I have had many trainers tell me that actually conditioning a horse as an individual occupies less than 1% of their thoughts on a daily basis. That is just the nature of the beast here in this country. To their great credit they mostly realize this shortcoming, but until someone does it the AU way and wins races here on dirt, nothing will change appreciably.

  6. Barry Roberts

    Thanks Bill. Not a lot of difference in Attitude with trainers to here in NZ. Apart from a very few trainers what you have said would equally apply here,

    Solution send our hourses to Australia to be trained and raced or train them ourselves

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