BC2011 Post Mortem: Mott, Mo and Trakus

What did Bill Mott do differently than the others at Churchill this weekend?

For starters, all of Mott’s BC entries spent the entire month of October on the Churchill grounds. That’s a full month of exercise over the specific dirt surface at CD, roughly 20 miles of galloping and a few miles of works, cumulatively. I can’t help but wonder how that practice would have served So You Think this weekend, or Zenyatta in 2010?

Pedigree experts can save the ‘conformation determines surface preference’ arguments. I am fully aware that hoof size, pastern length, knee action, and a slew of other factors can favor one type of surface over another for a runner. Those things are genetically determined and unchangeable, agreed. But what no one ever considers is the different sequences of neuromuscular coordination required to run on sand, or dirt, or poly, or turf. Each animal has to fire, and relax, different muscles at different times to get over the ground. So You Think may very well be at his best on turf, but a few dozen miles of neuromuscular practice over the unique surface here in Louisville would have moved him up a few lengths.

I see this all the time with clients who train in Australia. Quite often the early work is done on the farm over a pretty hard dirt surface, where one mile gallops in 3 minutes may first give a working heart rate of 180bpm, gradually improving down to 165bpm over several weeks. Then, the horse is taken to a track to gallop over a more forgiving, sandy surface. My email dings with concern: “What happened! I’m used to seeing him go a mile in 3 minutes with an HR of 165bpm, today it was 183!” After a few more back and forths we figure out the surface change issue. After that first alarming session, he continues to exercise over the new surface and HR drops accordingly as he becomes more used to the task. Lower HR equates to less energy expenditure for the workload.

I don’t care if SYT was on the dirt in Australia in 2009 – that doesn’t help him on Saturday evening at Churchill Downs. He arrived late Tuesday, spent 2 days in quarantine, and merely galloped over the CD strip on Friday morning. The lesson to be learned here is that specificity of surface trumps ability and class at the highest levels. Bill Mott would have never taken Royal Delta or Drosselmeyer on a plane to Royal Ascot and entered a turf race without so much as a single gallop on the grass!

Also, a blog favorite – the pre-race blowout – was put to full use by Mr. Mott. Each of his BC runners went a fast 2F the morning before his/her race. This didn’t make the DRF however, so unless you were there or read one of the worktab touts – the fact may have escaped you. Needless to say, I didn’t see this from O’Brien, Baffert or Pletcher, although Scooter Dickey did so with Flat Out. Again, for those new to the subject; blowouts are not merely psychological tools to get one ‘on his toes’. There is an extremely important physiological basis for the practice and it involves the unique equine spleen:


Don’t let the Dutrow reference fool you, Carl Nafzger also blew out both of his Derby champions the morning before the big one.


Finally Uncle Mo has been put out of his relative misery, heading off to stud at Ashford in Lexington. He’s the equine LeBron James: massively talented, yet unable to win the big one past the high school/juvenile level. The postscript from Team Repole/Pletcher: the ‘cuppy’ surface was to blame. No wait, later on we get the bloodwork which shows an elevated count of some obscure liver enzyme, a statement whose wording led me to believe the test was taken AFTER the disappointing effort.

Why not before? Then maybe he could have scratched and added a few thousand bucks to his stud fee next season at Coolmore. No one would have blamed the horse, and the question as to whether or not he could get 10F would never have been definitively answered. The thought here is that the Irish realize US buyers don’t care if the 10F is proven or not, we just want a 2yo champ with a whisker’s chance of holding that form onto 3. We’ll simply get the stamina from the female side of the tree.

Taking bloods is 1940s era work, this is 2011 and blood work done after an exercise bout, can tell you so much more:



Nice to see the Trakus info used for this big weekend of racing; ‘distance traveled’ has been used before to quantify trip, but the addition of ‘average speed’ was extremely interesting. Surely with this data and others we can come up with a objective Beyer-like figure that isn’t so open to opinion? What was most telling was the split times for Caleb’s Posse in the Dirt Mile: 23.68, 23.20, 23.90, 24.07.

He slowed a bit the final quarter, but still a remarkably consistent energy expenditure, reminiscent of Acclamation and his stirring 10F in 1:59 and 2 last month at SA: 24.0, 24.4, 24.2, and 47.2 over the final half mile (can’t find quarter breakdowns) in the Clement Hirsch Turf Championship. Yes, that’s turf and a full 5 seconds faster than the BC Classic winning time on dirt.

Running the final quarter in a time faster than the first quarter is termed a ‘negative split’, although it should be probably be christened a ‘Zenyatta’ split when applied to horses. Secretariat also accomplished something close to this in his 2:24 Belmont triumph over 12F. It’s simply the most physiologically efficient use of energy, so it’s no surprise it leads to fast times, and this is another huge hurdle for a European turf runner like So You Think to overcome as most American dirt races are run in the opposite fashion: Drosselmeyer came home in 25sec in the Classic, after a first quarter in 23 and change, for instance.


On the backside I was twice asked by ‘name’ US based trainers just what the hell does Aidan O’Brien do with HR/GPS monitors? Happily Coolmore won 2 events and almost a third. I now look forward to working with these guys over the next few months with the hope that the practice of listening to the inside of an exercising horse gets a foothold in this country.


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on November 8, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Best of luck with securing some new, high profile clients!

  2. Loved the analysis! Thanks. Glad to know some trainers are starting to listen. Also, do you know if Bill Mott still gets on his horses and checks them out himself as does Larry Jones? I have a lot of respect for that type of trainer.

  3. Great post Bill, Its really solid stuff.
    I’ve often wondered what variables other than surface can be programmed into the horse, e.g. jockey, tack, Left hand/Right hand track etc, etc. I often see first hand the effect that a break in routine has on Heart rate when using the treadmill.
    An interesting activity is to put a Heart rate monitor on a horse while its going about its daily routine and see what its thinking by its HR responses. I’ve noted that my horses really relax while I’m rasping their feet (HR under 40bpm) and the sound of galloping feet gets their HR over 100bpm while standing.

  4. @doublejay: Mott is almost always on his pony during training mornings, but not on his runners I don’t believe. @phillip: as a human, imagine how fast your heart beats when you almost get in a car accident, and how shaken you feel for several minutes after……that happens to horses dozens of times each day!

    Just tacking them up I see HRs jump from 30 to 160bpm in seconds. But some head back down to the 30s almost immediately.

  5. Most trainers and owners would go into melt down if you expected them to take a horse sight unseen and no look at the pedigree. What they have against looking under the hood with engine running is beyond me. With all the controversy, plus sire index showing performance per racing surface, it would seem negligent to fail to adapt the horse to a given track when so much is at stake.

    • Jim, the problem lies in tradition, if a current trainer’s mentor back in the 90’s didn’t look under the hood – he won’t either. But the technology to actually do so didn’t exist until maybe 2007, so that’s really a poor excuse in my opinion.

      I just read the book ‘Moneyball’ and the parallels to the thoroughbred industry are astounding. Long post on the subject to follow this week. Horsemen are bombarded by statistics such as Beyer, Thorograph, The Sheets, etc. – and much of the time these numbers fail to capture reality, so trainers think that something like athletic ability in a horse is unable to be captured with a set of numbers – but they are mistaken.

      Numbers do indeed tell much of the story, if those numbers come from inside the actual horse in question. The horseman’s credo is ‘I listen to the horse’, but they only listen to the outside signals – they fail to capture the ones from the inside. If a horse gallops 12 feet each time his heart beats and he is entered into a race with others who travel 14 feet – he will get demolished, and even the top trainers do this quite regularly in my experience.

      Back to the surface issue: I’m not claiming that putting So You Think on dirt for a month will turn him into a dirt superstar, but I do claim it would have bought him a few extra lengths on Saturday, which would not have been enough in retrospect. The same cannot be said for Zenyatta in 2010, however.

      • Stethoscopes were developed in the early 19th century; I’ve never seen a vet without one. I suffered from tunnel vision back when I was a rider, but watching recovery times in different workouts seems like a no brainer.

  6. My point Jim is that even a stethoscope is useless – unless the rider has one he can use onboard. When a horse works, cools down, and comes back to the barn – a reading from a stethoscope is 10min too late, that’s why the ol ‘he couldn’t blow out a match’ is also wrong more than half the time.

    The real recovery happens while the horse is still on the track. For instance I need to see horse HR at 2min past the finishing pole, and I want 120bpm. Horse HR moves up and down so fast a stethoscope ends up being just an estimate quite often.

    Similarly, heart rate monitors as cheap as $99 have been around forever, but they too are no good without the GPS component to quantify how far/fast he went.

    Vets take temperatures and trainers feel for heat in the legs all day long, what the hell do they think puts off that heat – blood from the heart via increased heart rate! Hmm…

  7. Sorry Bill, I was being a little sarcastic; can’t say if folks are afraid to change or what. A serious conditioner would have carried a scope with him when that was all they had and used the poles on the track as benchmarks. Now there is no excuse except kinship to mules.

  8. Hello Bill,

    I’ve been a reader of your blog for the past ten months and it has really changed the way I train my horse. I’ve incorperated a small bit of science I can afford in my 4yo and I think it really enhanced his racing performance. So far I started using HR/GPS, blow-outs and my own fashion of interval training, at the moment I’m looking into the possibilities of bloodlactate testing. Still I manage to keep costs at around $500 to $600 a month all included ( I ride myself and the barn is my parents). So money shouldn’t be any excuse stopping people from using these technologies…

    About me: I’m 22 years old and live in the Netherlands, though my horse races predominantly in Germany. I study vetrinary medicine at the university of Ghent, Belgium. I obtained my training license at the beginning of this year and so far I had eight starts (all in the last 4 months). All eight start were PP’s with 2 wins, 3 second places and 2 third places obtaining about $25000 (which is quite a lot for German racing).

    Thank you very much for this blog, and keep up the good work,

    Bart Hermans

    • Magnificent Bart!

      Don’t take so long to write next time, I’m always happy to help and address any questions you may have. Shoot me an email one day with what you are up to on the HR/GPS front. By the way, I find that much easier to manage than blood lactate, and 85% of the time the results are similar. However, if you do have access to a treadmill and can control speed to the tenth of a mile per hour, then blood lactate is very, very useful. Good luck and please keep me posted on your results over in Germany, hopefully you can train the next Danedream in the Arc!-

  9. Hello Bill,

    My horse runs his last race at the 26th of November, at this point the turf season ends in Germany and due too weathercircumstances we won’t be able to do sufficient training to race until February, so his first race next season will be somewhere around April.

    If you’re interested, I could write a detailed article about his entire season, step by step explaining how my budget scientific training improved this horse beyond everyones expectations. I would be honored if you were to post this on your blog.

  10. Absolutely Bart!, I’d be happy to post your story on this space – I think that is a great idea – and am looking forward to reading it and getting it out to the masses. My email is bill@thoroedge.com

    Thanks again….

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