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