Monthly Archives: October 2011

Together (IRE) at Keeneland: Why the US (Can’t) Doesn’t Run Back on Short Rest

“What is he doing with this filly? She can’t run back again so soon after a big effort just last week, pass.” – paraphrased remark from DRF ‘expert’ handicapper on radio in Louisville last Saturday morning speaking about eventual winner of the QEII Turf Challenge, an Irish filly named Together.

The entire world has horses than can run two top efforts within the same week at the highest levels of the game, except the United States in the 21st century. Make no mistake, this practice was a common occurrence in the old days of US racing, heck we even have a race called the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs on the Tuesday before the First Saturday in May – although it probably should be renamed the Preakness Trial these days.

Set aside for a second how asinine it is for a handicapper to criticize the moves of the world’s top trainer, Aidan O’Brien of Coolmore, and understand that successfully running back on such short rest happens in other countries on a regular basis. For instance, ‘The Race that Stops The Nation’, aka The Melbourne Cup at 3200m, will be run on November 1st this year, and will undoubtedly contain several entries who run in this weekend’s Cox Plate over 2040m. Here are some starters from the 2010 version that were running back on short rest:

Win: Americain – 13 days since last race
Place: Maluckyday – 3 days turnaround
Show: So You Think(NZ) – also 3 days out and this potential BC2011 starter has won 2 Group 1 races within a week twice in his career, at age 3 and age 4 for Bart Cummings      4th: Zipping – 10 days from last start in Cox Plate

Shocking also won the 2009 running of the Cup off of a 3 day turnaround.

Several others were coming back with intervals between 3 and 10 days off as well.
The good ol’ days in America used to have a similar flavor, as here is an American Triple Crown winning campaign from Assault in 1946:

May 4th – won Kentucky Derby on off track after finishing off the board in Derby Trial the week prior
May 11th – won Preakness Stakes
June 1st – won Belmont Stakes
June 15th – won Dwyer Stakes

Not only did the Club Footed Comet win 4 Grade Ones in a 42 day window, he also breezed miles between each effort despite multiple health problems and soundness issues. Which brings me to my main point: No modern day American horses are conditioned to safely put forth such an effort as Together and her 18 furlongs of racing over 7 days at the Kentucky oval.

First off, nearly all US horses coming off a race are given 14 days break at a minimum before any speedwork. How can you expect to successfully race 8F+ twice within 7 days if you are accustomed to only jogging that first week after a race? Conversely, here is a chart of a filly undergoing a ‘maintenance’ work at Newmarket:

Those big dark shades are hills. The blue line is pace, and the red line is heart rate. What you have here is 2 half mile works, with a 10min walk in-between coming down the first hill and moving to the other. Overall, you get a mile of maximum HR work done in 14 sec furlongs, uphill, in interval training fashion. Again this is merely a maintenance move, and may be done twice in the same week. Compare to the American standard of a half mile in :48-52 on the flat every 7 days at best. Any wonder a Euro can run back so quickly?

In Australia another trainer tells me: “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.”

Is it just a coincidence that we also see interval style training Down Under and horses that can run back in a week? By the way, with more fast exercise and no raceday drugs the Australian breakdown rate on turf is 0.6 per 1,000 starts, compared to the US figure of 1.74 per 1,000 starts on the same surface. I have been told the AU turf is quite forgiving, but Black Caviar remains the fastest sprinter in the world, so it must be somewhat firm at times.

Secondly, no US horses ever gallop further than 2 miles in their lifetimes and are devoid of sufficient ‘bottom’, or foundation, to undertake races spaced so close together. Here is a HR/GPS chart of a horse galloping 4 consecutive 2:30 miles, all the while his HR never goes above 85% of maximum, as this is well within his ability:

Here is a quote from a trainer based in Ireland: “Early season conditioning consists of four weeks low intensity steady state exercise(<150 HR) work from a starting distance of 2-miles up to 6-miles trotting/hacking, moving very gradually to a 3-min/mile pace and up to about 2.45-min/mile pace at end of week 4.”

For years I had blamed the effects of Lasix for the inability of US horses to turn around quickly, and I was afraid that Mr. O’Brien would discover that his filly had nothing left in the tank when turning for home during her 2nd race in 7 days on the drug, but Together allayed these fears. For those of you Lasix backers who say “If horses don’t need Lasix why do the Euros come over here and take it?” Because it is a performance enhancer, that’s why. Lasix is an automatic 20-30lb weight loss via increased urination in the hours before post time, and no smart horseman will give up that edge. We handicap horses with 2lbs extra weight and trainers go berserk for crying out loud. But I digress.

Lastly, since we are talking about a Coolmore filly, it’s important to realize that Aidan O’Brien does not merely view training racehorses as solely an art. He has successfully integrated science and technology into his operations at Ballydoyle as evidenced by this quote in a London newspaper: “It is not just visual monitoring at Ballydoyle, there is also the scientific approach. Heart monitors are fitted to every horse and a GPS armband is on every rider. Data is logged, ready for examination.”

Are we really to believe that science and technology can improve mating, breeding, foaling, veterinary care and post injury rehabilitation – but can do nothing for conditioning? That is the song sung to me by American trainers quite often, sad to say – but they are in the minority worldwide. Who’s to say if your mentors in 1940-1970 had access to these tools that they would not have implemented them into their work?

I, for one, hope that Coolmore’s So You Think comes to the Classic at Churchill in 2 weeks to run against our best, but he will have to be 5% better than all others to overcome the liability of this being his first race on dirt. Ideally, he’ll ship in a week early and get a few gallops over the surface – but I fear he will follow the Zenyatta Protocol by jetting in at the last minute and only getting used to the CD strip during a less than stellar first quarter from the gate on raceday, and it just may cost him a rightful place in the history books, too.

I keep hearing people bad-mouthing the record of O’Brien in the Breeders Cup with the ‘4 out of 63’ quote, here is the full picture when shipping around the world to compete on our home field and often on dirt:

Breeders’ Cup Record

Starts 1st 2nd 3rd Earnings
63 4 11 4 $8,958,520

Literally Dissecting Thoroughbred Performance

Not for the weak of heart, this post and accompanying video highlights the dissection of a racing thoroughbred, showing what physiological structures under the skin contribute to high class performance.

The link above is to the full video, nearly 45 minutes in length from a program called ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’. If you want the notated version, read below where I document the time (minutes:seconds) in the video with what is going on – and skip to whatever piece holds your interest.

0:50 – first brief shot on dissection table, turn away if you just ate and have a questionable constitution

2:22 – view of the Eclipse skeleton at Royal Veterinary College, wow. Owner wanted him dissected in 1789 to find out why he was so dominant.

3:30 – actual post mortem dissection begins in detail, what did I have for lunch again? I can watch NBA and NFL players get hurt in all kinds of gruesome ways, but I must turn away when a horse goes down on the track, it’s the abject fear and confusion that gets to me. Here the doc talks about typical external characteristics such as long legs, big eyes and ears, as well as biomechanics – while also touching on the ‘flight or fight’ response at the 5:00 minute mark.

5:30 – we notice the thoroughbred has no collarbones, arms are attached to the body solely by the shoulder musculature.

6:00 – tracing the evolution of the horse, we discover that they used to have 4 fingers, as opposed to just one middle finger, albeit 65 million years ago.

7:00 – longer limbs + fewer bones = faster horses able to evade predators

7:05 – out comes Mr. Scalpel, this is about to get even more interesting from my perspective.

9:00 – Photographers in England many years ago realize that at some points during a gallop, the entire weight of the horse is bearing down on a single leg. Biceps muscles exposed as the primary protagonist in the stride movement, flicking the front leg forwards, much like a catapult.

10:30 – super slow mo of a skeletal horse in stride

11:30 – wild horses were domesticated 6,000 years ago

12:00 – onto stud farm at Coolmore Ireland

13:15 – we see Yeats – 4x Ascot Gold Cup winner, trained by Aidan O’Brien who was quoted in a London newspaper about his superstar: “You would not believe how well he works at home. We have a heart monitor on him all the time, and his heart rate goes up and down very quickly. He’s not just a plodder, he’s unique. His lungs and his heart are massive. Most horses are full out at a mile and a half but his heart rate is just getting up to a 180 at that point and he is just getting going.”

Hmm, one of the world leaders in the industry, Coolmore, and their trainer is already looking at the insides of his horses during training at Ballydoyle. I have a feeling he is of the same mindset regarding So You Think (NZ), and I hope he brings him over to CD for the Breeder’s Cup next month.

14:00 – breeding shed time with Yeats and a lucky lady – he gets to do that 5x a day?

15:50 – back to the dissection table, where a leg is detached and placed into a press to illustrate the forces suffered during a gallop on the cannon bone and associated tendons, doc says the equine tendon is 20-30% more efficient at storing energy than a steel spring.

18:35 – want to see a blown tendon up close in the lab? It pops like a firecracker – but remember that outside of the lab, bones and tendons are alive. Somewhere, sometime, a researcher took a dead leg from a horse, put it on a machine like this to emulate racing stresses, and proudly proclaimed that horses only had a limited number of stride cycles in a lifetime before injury was to occur. Trainers ran with this and began the fashionable ‘less is more’ philosophy of conditioning. But in that ‘study’, the leg was dead – live bones constantly remodel to become stronger, and live tendons become more flexible in order to withstand racing pressures, with appropriate conditioning of course.

19:50 – for us Americans who don’t see the jump races around the world, this quick frame shows how much tougher those competitions are when a horse lands from a jump at the Grand National, a race infamous for its casualty rate which is quoted here at 2 fatalities per 1,000 starters. What!?! American dirt horses break down more often than that according to the latest Jockey Club statistics at 2.14 per 1,000 starters. Don’t let PETA get a hold of this fact.

20:10 – back to Eclipse and measures of biomechanical efficiency, we find him merely as ‘famously average’. I don’t believe this should be understated. He had no massive heart, he had no overly long legs or a huge throatlatch, etc. – he was simply perfectly put together with no weak, or strong, link. He would have been a $40k auction purchase in 2011 and he would have scored in the 99th percentile on my V200 testing.

21:30 – oh boy, the bone saw reveals cross section of equine lower leg, specifically the coffin bone – farriers should love this part

23:00 – shoeing explained and demonstrated

24:45 – back Inside one of Nature’s Giants (the name of the show) to the part I am interested in: the mechanism of massive oxygen delivery to working muscles

25:10 – respiratory system dissection, but first intestines in a chock-full state are removed – holy cow are they huge. Equine ribs number 18 vs the human 12.

26:35 – the massive lungs are filled much like a balloon (respiration rate during a race? 140x/min, or over 2x per second!) It takes these lab technicians with a big hose over a minute to fill up the lungs fully. And the lungs are 6 feet away from the nose.

28:25 – During a gallop each stride is tied to each breath – called ‘locomotor coupling’.

28:45 – we see how the intestines of the horse sit behind the lungs, and move to facilitate breathing during a gallop. A horse during a race moves as much oxygen in that 2 min as a human does in 24 hours. This slamming of the entrails inside the abdominal cavity is also thought to contribute to bruising of the lungs.

30:30 – Newmarket gallops: 70+ trainers, 2500 horses in training

31:00 – we meet trainer Mr. William Haggas to learn what he LOOKS for during training to identify a potential winner

31:30 – Mr. Haggas states, whether they cost $5mil or $5thou, no one can see inside their heart to ascertain whether or not they have the ‘stuff’ to win

32:30 – the dissected larynx – voicebox, the gateway to the trachea – which is the windpipe itself

34:15 – dynamic endoscope for problem breathers

34:07-34:17 – see that big, grey brick-like device on the male handler’s right wrist? That is a human Garmin HR/GPS device, which can be adapted for equine use. Thoroedge specialty! Hope they use this later-

34:30 – the vet in attendance states the overriding concept of Thoroedge: ‘anything good or bad for performance in a horse, happens chiefly at racing speeds.’ As a buyer of bloodstock you are often limited to measures taken at rest such as conformation or heart size, but as an owner/trainer/breeder – you simply MUST take advantage of your access to the horse during sales prep or conditioning and gather internal data such as HR and blood lactates, as this is your competitive edge.

Great vet insight here: why use a treadmill for this scope? Horses don’t race on treadmills – they race over ground with someone on their back, so let’s use a portable scope for this test.

34:45 – we see the portable scope for the first time

35:08 – we see the picture of the throat provided by this device

35:30 – live pics inside the horse’s airway on the gallops

35:45 – during gallop, horse sounds fine with respect to breathing

36:10 – we go uphill, horse is asked for a bit more – device shows problems with soft palate at top exertion – detail and frozen screen image at 37:00

37:15 – when palate displaces, oxygen supply is cut off, and performance suffers

38:30 – Phar Lap aka ‘The Red Terror’. Melbourne Cup winner kicks off discovery of the larger than normal heart and its effect on performance.

39:00 – the equine heart, dissected – as big and heavy as a bowling ball – comparison of HR in humans vs horses: Horse at rest 25bpm; human 50bpm. Horse at max effort 240bpm, human 185bpm. Horses jump from 24 to 240bpm in 9 sec, while humans take 90sec to move from 50 to 185bpm. (not in video, this is a Thoroedge aside)

41:20 – the heart gets a lot of play these days, but here we are introduced to the unique features of the equine spleen. Read more here about the spleen and it’s role in EIPH:

Splenic contraction due to adrenaline response differentiates between predators (humans) and prey (horses)

42:15 – hind end musculature dissection – uphill gallops on the training track develop this area to perfection. So does starting from the gate.

43:00 – the auction ring at Tattersalls, where we see how tough it is to pick a potential winner while merely watching them walk.

44:20 – the Equinome ‘speed gene’ – heard this presentation recently at the 2011 Bloodhorse Pedigree, Genetics, and Performance Symposium. I believe that already there are a few Kentucky Derby winners who did not possess the genetic makeup of a stayer. This theory was the hot topic of discussion last month, if you were not in attendance the Bloodhorse will put out the DVD at some point this winter for purchase.

One last comment from myself with regards to the practice of ultrasounding hearts. The amount of blood provided by the heart during exercise is called Cardiac Output, and is the product of Heart Rate and Stroke Volume. Stroke Volume itself is the product of Left Ventricular Size and Ejection Fraction.

The heart score people have nailed the Stroke Volume portion of the equation to perfection, but what is not captured is the maximum HR during exercise. This number varies from 203 to 240+bpm.

Even regally bred horses with multiple G1 winning parents can produce offspring with a max HR value capped at 203bpm – and these will never break their maidens, and are much more likely to get injured during the training process. If this is happening to your stock, you need to know ASAP – before spending $50k a year in upkeep/training costs for a horse that cannot win because he doesn’t possess the necessary raw materials.

Ok, we see all the internal organs and systems that lead to a winning racehorse, but how to determine if they are present without having to open them up after death? HR/GPS/lactate during exercise is the key.

Do you really think that observing behavior such as appetite, coat, ears, and whatnot is the ONLY sign of health and/or fitness in a horse?

Do you believe that all great horses share similar conformation traits that are visible on the outside, but their insides aren’t similarly distinguishable?

Consider: when something goes wrong with a horse, be it illness, infection, or injury – the very first response is to increase blood flow to the affected areas in an effort to remedy the situation. This can be measured by observing heart rate at rest, during a walk, or during/after an exercise session. This reaction to stress takes place hours/days/weeks before the traditional visual cues that horsemen have relied on for a century. This concept is true for a human, a horse, a donkey, a dog, a rat, etc. – everyone, yet 99.9% of horseman refuse to recognize/utilize this knowledge.

Why do West Coast Horses Breeze Further than those on the East Coast?

Last weekend’s stakes entries out west breezed 6F or further 89 times, while Easterners only recorded 12 works of that distance, with half of those courtesy of Bob Baffert and Jonathan Sheppard. 25 times a horse racing out west worked 7F to a mile, but only a single horse in the East put in that type of effort.

The past few years made comparisons of this type somewhat risky, as all surfaces out west were of the synthetic variety, but this year many of the works have taken place over the new dirt strip at Santa Anita. It’s a known fact that synthetics are up to 50% easier on the bones of racehorses, so it would stand to reason that a discerning trainer would realize his 4F works on dirt are equal to 6F efforts on synthetic – but this year even when those on the left coast work over dirt, the distances covered are much longer than those in the east.

Of the 45 starters in the 6 big graded stakes races at Santa Anita this weekend, each averaged 2 works of 6F or further as recorded in the DRF. Of the 35 starters at Belmont; just 0.3 long works per starter. One doesn’t need to be a statistician to realize this is significant, the question is why?

The easiest answer I believe is the ‘copycat’ syndrome. If you are at Belmont getting whipped by Todd Pletcher’s horses every day, and he works them 4F, you are likely to do the same. Out West Bob Baffert is the top man, and as he continues to cash checks you will most likely attempt to emulate his ways. A recent post contrasted the methods of these two top conditioners:

As the Baffert vs. Pletcher post discussed, even the gallop outs past the wire seem to be longer and faster out West. Anecdotally, I hear about works at DelMar and SA where horses work well past the turn after the wire, a practice not as common in the East. So it’s likely this data would be even more skewed could these extra furlongs be captured and quantified.

Also of note is the practice of the blowout; working a horse a short distance within 2-3 days of a race. Carl Nafzger is the most famous modern day trainer who gave his two Derby winners a stiff 4F work 36 hours prior to loading in the gate on the First Saturday in May – more details on the physiological basis of the blowout can be found here:

A west coast stakes horse last weekend was 9x more likely to have a blowout than one back east. This leads me to handicapping.

I forget which service it was; either Thorograph or Ragozin – but one published a study pronouncing blowouts as bad for race performance and 5F as the key length of a workout. I have much, much respect for all of the statistical work these camps undertake, but I find a flaw in their condemnation of the blowout. If I remember correctly, it was determined that a horse with a recorded work within 3 days of a race ran much poorer than his odds would indicate. However, what they fail to control for is the fact that many trainers who realize their charges have only cheap speed and no stamina realize that getting out front and attempting to steal the race is their only shot at winning, therefore these types are blown out more often – and run up the track. No doubt this is a very viable racing strategy, but it leads to the numbers used in the study to be skewed in that classy, stamina laden horses are excluded from the calculations.

I know that Mr. Pletcher is an avid consumer of this type of work, and he has no doubt seen that proclamation, but I don’t believe it is 100% applicable to conditioning individual racehorses. So that is why I believe the practice is nearly absent east of the Mississippi. Believe me, if Pletcher blew out 10 of his horses next month, so would many other trainers who rightfully study his every move.

Here is where many horsemen and women will counter with the statement: “All horses are different, some thrive off extra work – and some do not.” I agree, partly. All horses are surely different with respect to psychological means, but all SOUND horses have the same blood, bone, muscle, etc. and respond similarly to physiological stress. The hard part is reading the signals. For the past 100+ years, those signals came from the outside and were subjective: appetite, coat, behavior, ears, eyes, etc. It’s now the 21st century, and we now can observe internal signals such as heart rate and lactic acid dynamics in the blood. When you rely solely on the former, you are forced to be extra cautious in your exercise prescriptions – and may leave some fitness gains on the table.

For the first time in several years, we should have an even playing field at this year’s Breeders Cup races over the dirt at Churchill. West Coasters won’t be penalized for working and racing over synthetic all season long, as many will come from the SA strip, and will meet up with the East Coast contingent over a truly neutral location/surface. Maybe then we’ll get some conclusions as to the best way to condition a horse: short and fast, or longer and (slightly) slower?

For my two cents; I like both – short 3F speed sharpeners every week, along with a mile just under a 2 min lick pace for stakes quality racing stock. If one attempts to condition for speed and stamina at the same time, as in a 5F move, you often leave both with something to be desired. If you knock a few eighths off and concentrate solely on speed, you shouldn’t need to wait a full 6 days to come back with a longer, stamina building session. That’s the way Triple Crown winners did it: