Monthly Archives: September 2011

Can So You Think Run the Fastest Arc ever on Sunday?

Peintre Celebre holds the record at 2:24.6 set back in 1997, when he smashed the previous best mark by nearly 3.5 seconds, and on a course with a long, uphill backstretch climb to boot.

However, since that remarkable run – winning times have averaged a sparkling 2:29.7 over a variety of turf conditions – yet So You Think(NZ) is no average horse, and Aiden O’Brien is no average trainer.

Add in the fact that most weather forecasts put the grounds at Longchamp as relatively quick this weekend, which should greatly hinder Workforce’s chances at a repeat and play right into the hands of wondrous filly Snow Fairy and Coolmore’s stable star.

As noted before in this space, Mr. O’Brien is keen to condition So You Think along the lines of the work put in by Bart Cummings in his native Australia – where the colt TWICE won Group 1 stake routes within a 2 week window at ages 3 and 4. After two early wins under the Coolmore banner this season, So You Think enjoyed a nice picnic at the Ballydoyle facility – but he then came up quite short at Royal Ascot in the Prince of Wales:

Back to the drawing board at Ballydoyle, where O’Brien began to aggressively condition SYT in the manner for which he had been accustomed to Down Under – and he was in top form for his recent duel with the brave filly out of Ed Dunlop’s stable at Leopardstown. We just may see a repeat of that on Sunday, and off of a relatively stout early pace.

Please keep in mind that winning times in the Arc are 12.7sec faster over the past 80 years, while American classics are only 2.7sec quicker over the same time frame:

What the hell are they doing down in Australia to give the world great stayers like So You Think as well as champion sprinters along the lines of Black Caviar and Hay List?

I detailed that in a post just yesterday at


Pedigree is Merely Potential on Paper, Lactic Acid Dictates Class on the Racetrack

Federico Tesio: “It is difficult to predict the race career of a young unraced colt just by looking at it, and without actual measurement.”

Now I’m not talking about biomechanical and heart size measurements, I’m talking about precise measures of athletic ability taken from an exercising racehorse. All of these trainers nowadays who condition their horses based on the latest Beyer, Sheets, or Thorograph data are missing a key piece of intelligence – what is going on INSIDE their horse during a typical training morning? How does this info impact how far/how fast/how frequently one trains, and, perhaps even more importantly, how does that data impact racing strategy?

I am talking to owners and trainers out there – leverage your access to your horses and create an advantage that handicappers will never have – you can tilt the playing field in your favor by physiological monitoring of your equine athletes.

The above graph is a representation of the Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation (OBLA) in an exercising racehorse – see the arrow? How fast your horse is galloping when the lactic acid levels in his blood reach this threshold is the key metric, and here is how a real life trainer uses that knowledge to his advantage.

For a bit more detail on the subject, let’s head to The Thoroughbred Magazine, Autumn 2008 issue, and an article entitled: ‘Michael Kent – Science Lurks Behind the Dark Glasses’: (story starts on page 42)

“I was always open to alternatives, better ways to train horses. In a lot of ways, the quality of training has deteriorated with the economic constraints of having a high staff to horse ratio, and most rely on having big numbers in order to unearth the stars these days.” – Australian conditioner Michael Kent, unwittingly describing the typical American Supertrainer scenario. There is nothing wrong with this method in my opinion, as long as you have the money to burn – otherwise you are merely playing the lottery.

Almost every time I hear mention of blood lactate testing, the practice is paired with a high speed treadmill, but you can also accomplish this with good old fashioned work in the field. Thoroedge utilizes extremely affordable HR/GPS equipment under tack during routine morning exercise in order to quantify ability and prescribe ideal conditioning paces. In this US on dirt, for reference, the number 4.0 mmol/liter is crucial – if yours is 2 minute licking at this intensity level, that is indicative of stamina, genetics be damned.

What this article doesn’t detail, but what is vitally important to realize, is that exercising at this pace is the best way to improve this measurement, and therefore, staying power. A claimer may need a mile in 2:20, while a graded stakes horse needs that same mile in 1:50 or thereabouts. More here if you want further detail:

Kent goes on to detail an experience with blood lactate testing that sold him on the concept: a horse he had purchased, and raced in the traditional European ‘sit and sprint’ style, had performed in a most disappointing fashion. After several starts, he simply appeared to be a poor racehorse, with no closing speed to speak of. However, via the treadmill testing, this one exhibited superior stamina – or what I term a ‘high cruising speed’ – he just had no extra gear when it came to closing against a bunch of closers. Something had to change.

“I remember sitting bolt upright in bed one night when it dawned on me that the race tactics were all wrong; he had fantastic stamina values yet we were not exploiting these strengths. I told the jockey, when the pace slackens, no matter how far out, just go – pour it on. He bolted in. We did the same thing in his next start and he won by a huge margin. This technology gave us the answers.”

I had the exact same experience on a trip to Buenos Aires a few years back. Although the jock spoke no English, I kept hearing him utter the Spanish word for heart, ‘corazon’, to our liaison. Finally, we were able to ascertain that he wanted to know if our heart rate equipment could help him with race strategy. You see, the owner had a filly named Rima Gaucha(ARG) who continually missed the money in her races, but the race rider felt she had more in her tank after the wire. We collected HR/GPS/lactate data during her next training session, and sure enough, she showed the stamina to be started a furlong earlier than the rest. Next time out Damian rode her perfectly, she won by a nose, and 2 strides past the wire was in fifth. Success!

Same thing here at home in Kentucky, where a 5yo named Delta Charlie had poor breaking habits and was running off the board for a $4k claiming tag. We gathered the necessary physiological data here in Louisville at the HighPointe training center, then followed a similar tactic as that of the Argentinean filly. Boom, several top finishes and he was running for $17k several weeks later.

Similarly, trainer Lee Freedman accidentally stumbled upon this same concept with Benicio, stablemate to 3 time Melbourne Cup winner Makybe Diva. Benicio was bred to sprint, but simply couldn’t. Being a son of US sprint star More Than Ready out of a brilliant sprinting mare, genetics dictated this horse had no chance of being a stayer, yet blood lactate testing showed otherwise. Freedman changed tactics, and won a top race for 3yo stayers when Benicio romped home the winner of the 2005 Victoria Derby.

Mr. Kent even seems to be making an impression on the legendary Bart Cummings, the famous trainer who has always applied a decidedly ‘non-scientific’ approach:

For his part, Cummings, 81 this year, believes that technology can be harnessed to improve training, even if he still relies on the methods he learnt from his father in the 1940s. ”When I was in Japan about 10 years ago they had around 200 horses all wired up to measure their heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. I think they were able to get some use out of it. After all they came over here and finished first and second in the cup.”

Training methods the key to Australian Ascot success

As indicated elsewhere in this blog:, Australian sprinters have had much success on the European stage, namely the meet at Royal Ascot. Even without superstar Black Caviar this year, horses from Down Under will contest two Group 1 sprints.

Remember Takeover Target? The AU sprinter won top races in Australia, UK, Japan, and Singapore. He is a perfect example of how heart rate/GPS/blood lactate testing during and after exercise can uncover an athlete at the very start of his career: But it was too early in the technology to use this knowledge, and a cab driver purchased Takeover Target for AU$1400, before going on to earn millions worldwide. Maybe sellers should know what they have under the hood before agreeing to such a deal?

Back to Mr. Willoughby’s article; He doesn’t believe its drugs, or superior breeding, that has given Australia the worldwide lead in producing high class sprinters:

“Guess one major difference between the Australian approach to training and that prevalent in Europe? While trainers in Britain and Ireland are just waking up to the full implications of lactates and using them only sparingly for treadmill tests, Australian trainers tell me that many of their best horses have lactates measured routinely at the end of every gallop.”

So, whether it be identifying a horse meant to stay a route of ground and altering race strategy, or conditioning world class sprinters with utmost precision – science and technology has been proven to be quite useful Down Under, and is beginning to impact Euro racing at Godolphin and Coolmore, but will the US follow suit?

Baffert vs Pletcher – Head to Head

Before I anoint Mr. Baffert as the landslide victor in this matchup, let me remind everyone of the class exhibited by Mr. Pletcher after this year’s running of the Kentucky Derby.

As we all know, big time favorite Uncle Mo was a late scratch, and regular Pletcher jock Johnny Velasquez picked up the mount on eventual winner Animal Kingdom. To add insult to injury, another highly touted Pletcher star, Stay Thirsty, was an immense disappointment on Derby day (which has since changed significantly). Anyway, the first man I see congratulating Mr. Velasquez on his Derby triumph was none other than Todd Pletcher, who slapped Johnny V on the leg, gave him a handshake/hug, and expressed such joy for JV’s win – even in the face of a most disappointing week for his own stable.

Hell, I rarely seem him that excited for himself when he wins big races! We often talk about racehorses displaying class, but that, my friends, is what a classy trainer looks like. Now, unfortunately, I have to explain why I believe he loses the conditioning battle to Bob Baffert.

The Factor vs. Uncle Mo

An easy place to start: how has each trainer handled his best horse coming off a forced layoff? The Factor came back in the Pat O’Brien Stakes out at Del Mar and scored a 7F victory after battling early for the lead. That 7F was covered in 1:21.56, the fastest of the meet. Smiling Tiger, the colt he battled early? He’d won 3 graded stakes for sprinters this year, he was no pushover. Not too shabby coming off a hairline fracture. Baffert himself exclaimed: “I’d forgotten how good he was until the last few times I worked him from the gate.” What? Working from the gate, twice? Sure enough, here is the worktab:

Horse Name Date Dist Time Cond. B/H
The Factor 09/21/2011 6F 1:11.20 Fast H
09/14/2011 5F :59.60 Fast H
09/07/2011 5F 1:00.60 Fast H
08/20/2011 6F 1:10.00 Fast Gate
08/14/2011 6F 1:10.80 Fast Gate
08/08/2011 6F 1:13.20 Fast H
08/01/2011 5F 1:00.40 Fast H
07/26/2011 4F :49.00 Fast H

That makes four separate 6F works, two from a gated start, prior to his comeback 7F effort.
Contrast that with the routine for Uncle Mo prior to his comeback race, the 7F King’s Bishop:

Horse Name Date Dist Time Cond. B/H
Uncle Mo 09/18/2011 5F :59.44 Fast B
09/11/2011 4F :48.30 Fast B
08/21/2011 5F :59.95 Fast B
08/14/2011 5F 1:00.34 Fast B
08/09/2011 5F 1:00.22 Fast B
08/03/2011 5F 1:02.80 Fast B
07/28/2011 4F :50.49 Fast B
07/22/2011 3F :38.40 Fast B

And this is aggressive for Pletcher, before the Wood Memorial disappointment last spring, Mo was fed a weekly diet of 4F breezes.

Small wonder why Uncle Mo had a perfect trip in his return engagement, yet still looked mighty tired down the lane and was unable to hold off Caleb’s Posse. This is a common pattern for these two trainers: Baffert actually works his horses into shape, and Pletcher prefers the old horseman’s adage: ‘He needs a race’.  For stakes horses of this caliber, 5F means almost nothing in terms of fitness – it is, and should be, quite easy for them. It is only after this 5F where any true stamina is developed, and Pletcher doesn’t push his past the wire like Baffert does. Which segues nicely into my next point.

West Coast Gallop Outs

Just this morning, Coil worked a full mile in 1:38 at Santa Anita, coming off a poor effort in the Travers. A week earlier, Game On Dude similarly worked a mile in the 1:38 neighborhood. Even when the clockers mis-judge the work length and turn in a standard 5F/1:01 – Baffert’s west coast brigade often maintain 12-13sec/f paces around the turn and onto the backside. Meanwhile, back East, Pletcher puts his minions through 4F works 90% of the time, a few select ones travel 5F – with much less aggressive gallop outs. Keep in mind, Pletcher’s lone Kentucky Derby champ, Super Saver, never had a recorded work over 5F in his career.

‘Baffert breaks horses down’

I hear this one quite a bit from those who prefer Pletcher’s methods. Look, when you are more aggressive in training – you are gonna get more injuries in the mornings. But, when you are more conservative in preparation, you will suffer more injuries on raceday. Horses are athletes, and athletes get hurt. I’d prefer getting hurt while trying to get better with 6F breezes from the gate, rather than going into a race ‘short’ and struggling home the last furlong. Both of these guys start with 100+ 2yo each season in order to get a handful to the graded stakes level.

Baffert and Usain Bolt

As you can see in the above image, this is the old white guy’s version of the winning pose often struck by human sprint star, Jamaican Usain Bolt. The fact that Baffert trots this pose out occasionally leads me to believe he pays some attention to human track events, and possibly has a passing interest in the exercise physiology that underlies all performance, human and equine. Working a horse from the gate is like weightlifting for a horse – as he gets to jump off the first few strides from a standstill he stresses the hind end musculature much more than if he rolls into the breeze.

If you want to test your trainer’s knowledge about this stuff, ask him a simple question: “What does a horse’s spleen do during exercise?” Be prepared for a blank stare in most cases. Look elsewhere on this blog for the answer.

Zipse: Classic performances and earnings per start

I had contemplated writing this post for weeks, and in the meantime Brian Zipse beat me to the punch with this excellent point/counterpoint article at HorseRacingNation:

Mr. Zipse sides with myself, and here are the stats he used to illustrate his argument:

Pletcher has won 2 Triple Crown races while Baffert has won 9. He doesn’t mention the number of starts, but I believe it’s safe to say that Pletcher has had a larger number of entries. Again, Pletcher’s stable numbers overpower most, but when success is defined as ‘doing more with less’ Baffert wins the Earnings Per Start battle comfortably: $27,815 to $17,785. Two of Baffert’s Derby winners: Real Quiet and Silver Charm, could have both been had public auction for a combined total of just $102,000.

On a personal note, my beloved Aunt Pearl passed away last holiday season at age 58 due to a blood cancer named Multiple Myeloma. This November I am running the NYC Marathon in her memory – one day after the Breeder’s Cup here in Louisville, and she sure loved the ponies. The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation is a major cancer fighting group, and I am proud to raise money for their cause in honor of my dear aunt.

Anyone who wishes to may donate securely here:

Training Thoroughbred Horses, by Preston Burch: Book Review

“Back in 1953 when Preston Burch first authored this little book, the Kentucky Derby was won in 2:02. At that time, horses which bled were the exception rather than the rule. Things have changed but not for the better. By 1992, the Derby winner took a full second longer to cover the fast track than did the 1953 winner. It is as if the courage and heart which once resided naturally in the Thoroughbred has evaporated, only to be replaced with chemicals injected into the veins of these elegant animals. It’s possible that the problem lies not in the quality of the horseflesh we have today, but in the manner that we care for and develop it. Perhaps we need to look back 60 years to see how tough, sound racehorses are trained, fed, conditioned, and cared for; back to an age when Master Horsemen built champions from the ground up, day by day, mile by mile.” – Preface

Normally I try to come up with some smart-alec opening hook to a post, but this was too perfect. All of you Lasix Lovers out there can direct your vitriol to the publisher/editor at The Russell Meerdink Co., rather than myself. Here we are another two decades after this Preface was penned, and just coming off another colt winning the Kentucky Derby in 2:03 or thereabouts, never having worked further than 6F (once, the week prior to the race) in his young life.

Hall of Famer Preston Burch was born into a horse racing family in 1885, and became an accomplished trainer by the young age of 21. Although he never won the Kentucky Derby, Burch won major races around the world and even trained winning steeplechasers. This book was authored by Burch in response to an inquiry from Blood-Horse magazine, who requested that he divulge his ‘secrets’ to success. These very same words of wisdom were passed on down to his son, Elliott, who became a Hall of Famer in his own right. Elliott also had a son become a conditioner, but unfortunately the Burch bloodline is no longer with us in the training game.

Chapters include: Selection of Racing Material, Breaking Yearlings, Training 2 year olds, 3 year olds and older horses, the condition book, stable management, feeding, racing strategy, and several others. Keeping in the spirit of this blog, I will concentrate on the 2 chapters concerning specific conditioning regimens for 2yo as well as older racers, although it is important to note that Mr. Burch advocated the start of breezing yearlings in December of the year prior to turning 2. It is prior to this stage that he advocated exercising young horses the opposite way on the track as well, to get them accustomed to responding to cues from both reigns.

When to begin the fast work in a yearling? Only after they are able to walk, jog, and canter 2.5 miles each day without any discomfort (I define this as a 2:45 pace for one mile with a HR of under 200bpm throughout) should you instruct the rider to allow the horse to pick up the final eighth of a mile down the lane, with nothing too fast until they show the ability to move in a straight line in company. Once a yearling learns to run quickly, his fast breezes should be sandwiched around slower moves. Gallops are to take place 7 days a week trackside, but if stabled at a farm – pasture turnout on Sunday in lieu of a structured gallop is permissible. If only walked on Sunday, the belief is that they will be too fresh on Monday and give the gallop boys problems. If yearlings show undue nervousness or excitement, the speed work must be reduced or eliminated until they quiet down. Every trainer these days tells me his riders cannot pull horses up, so he is wary of too many speedwork sessions. But, his horses never gallop further than a mile and often spend the day before a designated breeze walking – so it’s a no wonder they behave like wild animals when tasting a little freedom on the track.

Bucked shins is now addressed. Burch states he has seen horses race well with sore joints and feet, but never with sore shins. Various treatment protocols are then listed. Burch believes that a yearling able to show speeds of 23-24 to the quarter at this stage is exemplary and fitting of a future stakes performer. This period of ‘trying’ yearlings takes approximately 2-3 months and ends in late winter of the yearling season – and is followed by a ‘letting up’ period where speed work is ceased, but longer gallops are continued. Of interest to some is that Burch preferred to keep his trainees barefoot as long as possible. Gate schooling is ideally introduced at this stage, but NO breaking from this position is allowed – as the practice is meant strictly for behavioral training. Shins seem to be less of a problem these days as in the 40’s perhaps due to many Florida breakers, like Randy Bradshaw, following the Nunamaker Bucked Shins Protocol detailed here:

Training 2 Year Olds

After the ‘trying’ period described above, yearlings are let down a bit from speedwork until February of their 2yo year. Again a period of 2.5 mile gallops consisting of perhaps 0.25 mile walk, 0.5 mile jog, 1 mile gallop, 0.5 mile jog and 0.25 mile walk, faster quarter mile finishes down the lane begin in 26-27second times, or roughly 13.5sec/furlong. Next the works lengthen to 3F with NO increase in pace, and on to half miles in 55sec. Keep in mind, Mr. or Mrs. Conventional Trainer – these moves are not spaced 7-10 days apart, but just 3 days separate breeze sessions. After a few 55-56 second half miles, speed is increased and distance reverts back to quarters and the process begins yet again. Only when Burch sees a half mile in 50 a few times, does he progress to breaking from the gate, again in company from the very beginning. Burch doesn’t rely on gate availability either, if none is around he simply instructs a string of 3 to walk a few steps then break together on cue. He terms this ‘flat-footed’ breaking. Young horses should be broken from the gate as often as their behavior permits – none of this cessation of gate works once a card is earned. Of course, nervous high-strung types need to be handled with more time in-between gate sessions. Breaking in this manner is like weight training for the equine athlete. Additionally, repeated efforts condition the nervous system to improve reaction time – you lose all this if you only wish to earn your gate card.

Now we find ourselves in springtime, and Burch believes in taking those who handle speed well to the track to earn some purse money in the short juvenile races – before the distances get longer and the classier horses make their first appearances. Vital at this stage is placing a horse in a race against suitable competition, or you risk permanent psychological damage. Burch believes in the blowout, and prefers to give a stiff, short work 2 days prior to going to post, however he is careful to note that this pattern only applies to fit, sound horses. Again, Burch mentions that all horses are individuals and should be handed as such – and notes that some require this blowout the day prior to the race for optimal performance. Carl Nafzger was famous for this practice with both of his Derby winners as detailed here:

For those of you interested, here is a breakdown of the physiological benefits to the blowout:

As we move toward the fall and the races over 1 mile in distance, Preston Burch recommends commensurate breezing at distances ranging from 7-8 furlongs. How novel – discovering whether or not your juveniles can stay during morning breezes as opposed to finding out during the race itself. We see the tendency here for the trainer to view his work as developing an athlete, as opposed to relying on pedigree to hand him one. Again, no need for a mile in 1:39 – as you will soon see.

Here is the monthly summary of fast works for two 2yo stakes winners in 1948-1949:

Aiken, SC

Dec 1948 – 4 breezes in the first half of the month, ranging from 2F in :25 up to 3F in :40, training then halted due to wintry weather conditions.
Jan 1949 – speedwork started again after 5 week hiatus, 1/2F works in :13 to :28 – all 3 works in last week of month
Feb 1949 – first full month of uninterrupted speed: 8 breezes from 2-3F in :24-:42, with some standing start breaks in the last week
Mar 1949 – 3 works in first week at Aiken, until a coughing epidemic led to strictly gallops the rest of the month
April 1949 – another good full month of breezing: 10 breezes (avg 3 day in between), our first half mile works in 53 and change
May 1949 – ship to Belmont, both horses broke their maiden this month at 4.5 and 5F respectively, while working fast within 48 hours of raceday

Training 3 Year Olds and Older Horses

If a horse shows Classic promise, the 2yo road ends for them in early Fall of the 2yo season as they are spelled. During the winter months speedwork is absent, but long, slow daily gallops are still the norm – 2.5 miles at a minimum, this continues until mid-February. Now, we start back with slow, short 2F works and progress up to full 6-7F efforts. Again, of utmost importance is decreasing pace when increasing breeze distance, this is utterly crucial – you do not increase two conditioning variables simultaneously. The first 6F breeze may be in 1:20 for instance, which would likely not even get picked up by the DRF clockers these days. What you will see in the following chart is the alternation between short/fast moves and long/slower ones. Burch was also a big fan of breezing slow miles in an early 3yo as preparation for the Derby qualifiers such as the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes. You see, the bread and butter 4/5F works fancied these days are neither maximum speed builders nor stamina developers – they give you a half-assed dose of each. There are 7 days in a week, why not limit true speed work to 2-3F and use the 6-8F distances to slowly develop staying power? There is ample time for both in a typical week at the track.

This amazing book now gives us a look at the conditioning regimen of Bold, who won the 1951 Preakness despite being troubled with splints, bucked shins, sore feet, and was an a$$hole to contain during his works. All reasons why today’s supertrainer would do little, to no, speedwork – yet Bold obviously thrived for Mr. Burch and Brookmeade Stable. The detail here is so valuable, that I am going to reproduce it verbatim:

January 1951 at Hialeah Park:

1/3 – 3F/:41
1/7 – 3F/:39.6
1/10 – 4F/:53
1/13 – 5F/1:08.8
1/16 – 3F/:41
1/19 – 5F/1:09
1/22 – 6F/1:23.8
1/25 – 3F/:37.4
1/28 – 6F/1:18.8 – Bold was hard to rate, beared out, and went too fast for his fitness level, noted Burch
1/31 – 4F/:49.4 – again hard to control in spite of a one-cup blinker added

February 1951 at Hialeah/Aiken:

2/3 – 7F/1:31
2/6 – 6F/1:17.2
2/10 – 7F/1:34
2/13 – 5F/1:06
2/16 – 2F/:25 with a runout bit
2/17 – 3F/:35.4, bolted, even with runout bit used
2/19 – bruised feet, shipped to Aiken, shoes removed, daily 2 mile gallops on deep, sandy surface in reverse(wrong-way), bearing out problem cured while going in this direction, speedwork resumes in mid-March – I would venture to say that at this point, every modern day trainer would put Bold into the 4F/week camp, and leave him there forever, which wouldn’t be that long.

March 1951 in Aiken, SC

3/19 – 4F/:56.4, reverse way, barefoot
3/22 – 5F/1:10
3/25 – 6F/1:26.2
3/28 – 4F/:49.6 – considered really fast for such a deep, tiring surface
3/31 – 6F/1:22

April 1951 in Aiken and Belmont, NY

4/4 – 2F/:24.6
4/5 – 5F/1:01.4 – reverse way again, tired badly, was meant to go in 1:03 but exercise rider couldn’t hold this monster – again another point where modern trainers would pronounce him ‘dead fit’ and cease any further demanding exercise, especially considering his fragility.
4/8 – 4F/:50
4/10 – 7F/1:34 – shipped to NY later this afternoon
4/12 – galloped
4/13 – galloped
4/14 – 4F/:48.4, again reverse way – eye on Toboggan Handicap at this juncture
4/17 – 8F/1:45.4 – reverse way, mile was meant to go in 1:50, galloped out 9F in 2:01
4/21 – 4F/:49.5 – reverse way
4/24 – 6F/1:13 – reverse way
4/27 – 3F/:36.2 – reverse way
4/30 – 2F/:24 in the slop – also going wrong way

May 1951 – Showtime in Maryland

5/1 – 8F/1:40.4 going right way – mile was supposed to go in 1:46. Change of plans, way too fit for a measly 6F handicap, onto the Preakness.
5/4 – 5F/:59 – in company, from gate, galloped out 6F/1:12 beating workmate by 6 lengths
5/7 – ship to Pimlico
5/8 – 3F/:35 – goal was :37
5/9 – 1st start of year! Allowance level 1 and 1/16 mile, won in 1:45 by 12 lengths. Is this really a surprise based on the last 6 weeks?
5/13 – 3F/:35 – again was meant to be much slower in light of first big race being 4 days earlier, and another race in 36 hours – Lasix use makes this impossible says Kenny McPeek.
5/14 – Preakness Prep Purse at 1 and 1/16 mile, beaten by a neck in 1:43.6. Rider error blamed for loss by most observers.
5/15 – sore feet, shoes pulled, walked shedrow
5/16 – still barefoot, walked
5/17 – galloped barefoot, shod this afternoon
5/18 – 5F/1:02
5/19 – Won Preakness Stakes by 7 lengths, leading wire to wire.

Bold then returned to Belmont Park, was found to be shin sore and popped a splint. Back at the farm in 1952 he was killed by lightning while prepping for a return to the races. What a shame.
Today’s conditioners are quick to exclaim: ‘I can’t work horses like they used to do, they are too frail nowadays.’ None was a bigger mess than Bold, yet he became a Classic winner with an aggressive training regimen. Hell, consider the club footed comet himself, Assault, as his Triple Crown winning schedule is also included in the book courtesy of trainer Max Hirsch, which I had detailed in an earlier post:

Older Horses, 4 and up

After a grueling 3yo campaign, most require less work and have various soundness issues. Burch addresses the old saying ‘a race is worth several works’ with the caveat: ‘Of course it is understood that horse must be fit enough to stand the pressures of a hard race’ to begin with. Of course – yet impossible to predict based on a rolling 4F breeze effort.

My Closing Comments

Fascinating book, right on my shelf with those by Nafzger and Tom Ivers, who’s book review is upcoming soon – but The Fit Racehorse II is 1,000 pages long for crying out loud. The fact that actual training charts and trainer’s notes are provided is what makes this book priceless, as you cannot get that with Nafzger unfortunately. Neither can you get a classic winning horse’s workout schedule from Mr. Ivers, because he didn’t train any at that level. Preston Burch brings immediate creditability to his methods because of his track record of success. Imagine Preston Burch today with the latest technological advancements and armed with exercise science? He doesn’t even need to ‘train’, but just advise a Mr. Pletcher type – who is probably not going to listen to someone like myself.

Here is the argument in regards to conditioning in a nutshell: Do you condition aggressively with multiple breezes over longer distances in the hopes of developing a racehorse, or do you top out at 4F every 7 days and rely on pedigree to win the day? Don’t forget, American classic winning times have not improved in over 50 years despite breeding the best to the best a million times. Now, you can certainly say that today’s trainers do MUCH less with their horses and still win races in times from the 1950s – which is surely a point in their favor.

So, Ivers and grueling interval training, Burch and alternating short/fast and long/slow works twice per week, or Pletcher and everyone else today with 4F every 7-10 days? Easy, ask the horse in question – he’s got the answer. What I mean by that is: each horse that is getting fitter due to an exercise program will show this improved athleticism through objective, physiological data, which I call his Metabolic Signature.

This ‘signature’ is different for a gallop or a breeze. During a gallop, I want to know the relationship between intensity of effort and amount of work accomplished. What that boils down to is how many feet does he travel with each heart beat? This number will range from 6 to 14 feet per beat, and as long as it is trending upwards, I don’t care how the hell you condition him, paint his tail green if you wish. But as long as this number is moving upwards, he can take more work and is not yet maxed out athletically. Similarly, if stalled out or trending backwards – no more pushing this one right now.

After a breeze, I want to see his heart rate recovery sink to 120bpm within 120sec after passing the wire, during the gallop out. That is the metabolic definition of a maintenance work – if he breezes 4F in :50 with a HR recovery of 120bpm – he gets no fitter from this effort, but he loses nothing either. Every fast workout meant to increase fitness needs to elicit a HR recovery around 130-140bpm – so speed it up, OR lengthen it to achieve these demands. Lower level stock will never move past the 4F in :50 barrier, while stakes level horses will ‘train themselves’ on up to 6F in 1:12 and longer – it’s all up to them. But, if you have a stakes level animal and stop conditioning him at the 4F level – you are doing him a disservice. See Uncle Mo or Eskendreya.

Horses get hurt, that is an unavoidable fact. Comma to the Top and Archarcharch both chipped ankles in the 2011 Derby, but Arch had 4 lifetime starts, and Comma had 14. Isn’t it better to get hurt trying to improve rather than standing in a stall? As an owner or trainer, don’t you benefit more from 14 starts as opposed to 4? Only when a genetic superfreak like a Big Brown or an Uncle Mo is subjected to this manner of aggressive conditioning will we get our next Triple Crown winner and horse for the ages, I can only hope I am alive to see it.

Where to get this book?

My copy came from the local library in Louisville, KY – and I have also seen it on the shelf at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Lexington.
Online, Amazon shows copies available, but starting at $99ea, that is almost $1 per page. I guess we can call this an official collector’s item.

When the Art of Horsemanship Meets the Science of Equine Conditioning

Yes horsemen and women, you don’t need a $4,000 equine scale to weigh your horse daily, you can eyeball 10-20lbs of loss or gain. But you cannot see 2lbs in any direction for 3 days in a row. Similarly, your trained hands can feel a 2 degree difference in temperature when palpating legs in the morning, but no one can detect a .2 degree change, as that can only be captured by equine thermography. Two of the world’s leading stables ran by traditional, old school, men and women resisted these two technological advances for years, but now use modern science and technology to improve upon their craft.

“People have opinions, horses have the facts.”

Couldn’t be a truer statement, but when you only observe the external signals, you miss half of what the horse is trying to tell you. By the time he’s off his feed, something has been wrong for several days and catching it earlier can minimize damage and/or time off training. Any vet knows that resting HR is an indicator of health and soundness. But horses are wild animals, and getting a true resting HR is difficult. How about recording HR as he walks to the track in the morning? Typical walking HR may be 82bpm, if 3 mornings in a row his numbers are 91bpm, that can be a very early warning signal of illness, infection, or injury – especially in a 2yo with very temperamental shins.

“Horses may lose form, but not ability.”

I have personally seen this in 2 separate countries recently. As you may know, I quantify athletic ability with heart rate, GPS, and blood lactate measures. Stake horses worldwide can 2:00 minute lick with blood lactate levels of under 4mmol/liter. Twice, I have seen former Grade 1 winning fillies come back onto the track for some gallop work after 2-3 years of failing to carry foals to term, and both times they hit these numbers. Amazing. 90%+ of horses in training will never accomplish this physiological task, but these 2 were simply born that way and 3 years of pasture turn out doesn’t take it away from them.

“It’s now how fast they go, but how they go fast.”

Again, I can express this in numbers using current tools that were unavailable to horsemen just 10 years ago. There are a lot of crummy horses with beautiful strides and sound confirmations. Like the Green Monkey, they may go fast – but the energy cost of doing so is too large. Maximum speed is meaningless in a horse race, as they are only at top end speed for a few strides, heck even the World’s Fastest Man Usain Bolt only spends 10m out of his 100m races at top speed. If you have a 2yo now in training that cannot go 25mph with a HR below 200bpm, or during breeze work his maximum HR is only 205bpm – he should debut at Turfway for a tag, not Saratoga MSW – regardless of what you paid for him.

“All horses have 3F of run in them, and use it early, middle, or late.”

Claimers have 3F of run at best, but stakes horses have closer to 5F, in my experience. This 12sec/furlong speed is primarily a result of anaerobic metabolism, or exercise without the use of oxygen. This very intense effort creates lactic acid burn in muscles, and eventually leads to fatigue. As animals of prey, horses are designed by nature to utilize their fight or flight adrenalin response to evade capture, it’s the longer thoroughbred-like race distances that are foreign to them. This concept ties in closely to the next paragraph.

“He has a high cruising speed.”

One of my favorite things to quantify. Cruising speed is the opposite of the 3F of burst described above, as it is the amount of work done using mostly aerobic energy pathways, which include oxygen and do not generally produce significant lactic acid. If your cruising speed is a 2 min lick, you are in the top 10% of equine athletes worldwide.

“Horses tell us when they are/aren’t ready to move forward.”

Yes, they most certainly will – but if you are only using your eyeballs to assess this, just as your mentor did in the 60s – you are missing half of the pieces to the puzzle.

“Every horse is different.”

Psychologically yes, every horse responds to behavioral training in different ways. But physiologically, all have the same blood, muscles, tendons, heart, lungs, etc. (if sound!)

“This horse is dead fit, we’ll just gallop into the race.”

Oh how many times I have heard this one, usually along with “he breezed a half in 48 and couldn’t blow out a match back in the stall”. How many of you have heard, or said, this about yours and proceeded to watch them run 7th? The respiration rate of a horse 10min after a breeze means almost nothing. It is influenced by humidity, temperature, and other variables that have little to do with fitness. Thoroughbred fitness is measureable, and what gets measured typically gets improved. For instance, before his BC Juvenile win last year, Uncle Mo would have galloped a mile in 2:00 with a HR of approximately 187bpm or thereabouts. That is his metabolic signature when he is truly ‘dead fit’. Before the Wood Memorial this year, he was sick – but no one knew that because no one measured these variables. Instead, he was observed to be fine, ran 3rd, and lost $5 million in residual value. Conversely, years ago Barclay Tagg went the other way with Funny Cide. After a Derby win, this gelding was rode hard home in a rout at the Preakness, then worked 5F before the Belmont, and lost that race to a fresher Empire Maker. Quite possibly he was slightly overtrained, and knowing his metabolic signature may have been a help at the time. In 2011 there is no need to guess this stuff.

Finally a word to the owners, as I ran into several at the recent Bloodhorse Pedigree, Genetics, and Performance Symposium in Lexington this week. Being owners gives you an advantage that you are not currently using. You have access to your horses! You can gather info from them during exercise that gives you confidential data on which to base your selling, or racing, decisions. Every buyer in the world utilizes pedigree, conformation, heart score, biomechanics, vet scans, etc. while deciding whether or not to buy your horse – you need ‘inside’ info before you agree to sell.