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: https://thoroedge.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/the-ideal-2-year-old-training-program/
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: https://thoroedge.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/nafzgers-secret-with-unbridled/
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:
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.