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: