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?


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on September 29, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. All these new technologies, including Treadmills are a gift to the little guy that can help them box well above their weight

  1. Pingback: Can So You Think Run the Fastest Arc ever on Sunday? | ThoroEdge Equine Performance

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