US Thoroughbreds Are Not Only Slower, But Also Breakdown More Often

What a mess: we are breeding for speed – but not getting it, and simultaneously our horses are getting injured more often while running route races in times similar to those of the 1940s. Unlike the Leonardo da Vinci quote above – some of us are indeed saying something about it.

Dick Jerardi recently wrote about the lower Beyer figures for BC Classic winners these days here:

http://www.drf.com/news/jerardi-top-beyer-figures-thing-past

But, I beat him to the punch just over a year ago when comparing raw winning times in American classics over the past 7 decades:

https://thoroedge.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/triple-crown-times-have-not-improved-in-70-years-why/

OK, so we’re not appreciably faster despite 70 years of selective breeding of ‘the best to the best’. With an average foal crop in that time span of 15k or so, that gives us 1 million chances at breeding a faster racehorse.

Back in the 1980s we even decided to help this process along a bit, by legalizing raceday Lasix and Bute in an effort to humanely allow these animals to reach their full potential on the track. Certainly if our horses are no faster – and now benefit from these veterinary treatments during competition – we at least should be seeing fewer fatalities, right? Wrong:

Thoroughbred fatality rates per 1,000 starters:

US – 1992 – 1.6 (http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/aaep/1997/Mundy.pdf)
US – 2010 – 2.0 (dirt = 2.14, turf = 1.74, synthetic = 1.55) according to the Jockey Club

Back in ’92 there was no Polytrack or Tapeta to ‘cushion’ the stats either, or they would be even lower and the current negative trend would be more pronounced.

How about the pace scenario in route races like the Kentucky Derby?

Perhaps our horses are faster through the first few panels these days, and that ends up hurting the final winning times? Not according to Derek Simon at the TwinSpires blog:

http://blog.twinspires.com/2011/03/no-early-speed-no-triple-crown.html

Lasix and 1992:

According to the Jockey Club, 1992 was the first year where more than 50% of US racers were administered Lasix. That year the breakdown rate, as noted above, was 20% lower than today’s number where 95% of starters get the drug, and remember, also generally running slower in the process.

Perhaps off topic, perhaps not – this week former WinStar Farm co-owner Bill Casner enlightened us on the objectively measured post-race/recovery effects of Lasix in his string of runners:

http://www.thoroughbredtimes.com/national-news/2011/12/06/casner-weighs-the-consequences-of-salix.aspx

My Admittedly Biased Solution:

Condition your horses like the old timers, plain and simple, but do so with an eye towards science and modern technology in order to ‘stack the deck’ in your favor as much as possible.

When one breeds for speed, what one is trying to get is a horse capable of producing a greater force against the ground when sprinting – that is what pure top-end speed boils down to. One manner in which a horse can do so is to possess lighter bone structures in his lower leg, as it gives him less of a weight to swing through his stride cycle.

So if you have a precocious 2 year old who is blazing fast and possesses a certain amount of stamina up to 8F you have two opposites at work: outstanding musculature capable of exerting massive amounts of force on the ground, AND thinner/lighter than average bones in the lower leg that are more prone to injury; both skeletally as well as to the supporting soft tissue systems.

You have to address this problem through progressive conditioning protocols, the polar opposite of never breezing further than 5F once a week. Don’t listen to me, I could very well be an idiot, but listen to the Hall of Famers who were able to race the champions of yesteryear:

Allen Jerkens:
“Horses worked a lot harder in those days, the strain on them in the race wasn’t as much as the strain is on them now. They trained almost as hard in the morning as they did when they ran. The best horses would often work the full distance of an upcoming race five or six days before, breeze a half-mile two days out, and maybe even an eighth of a mile the morning of the race.”

Billy Turner:
“A good horse needs a lot of training. Not only can they take it, they want it, and you’re not doing them any favors if you don’t give them the chance to develop their ability.”

Trainers today universally espouse the ‘less is more’ philosophy, but the speed data and injury rates cited above actually seem to confirm the opposite, that ‘less’ is actually ‘less’ – especially when it comes to producing strong racing bone in fast, sound horses.

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About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on December 9, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Drugs (legal and illegal), threadbare conditioning, progressively less starts per year, etc. I philosophically have no problem with these things IF horses are getting faster and sounder. But when these variables are present, and possibly the cause of, slower and more fragile animals – well, I can’t get on board that bus.

    Drug use in baseball meant more home runs. Drug use in track meant faster runners. Drug use in football meant stronger athletes, but drug use in racing puts the breed in a stall pattern, or worse, for 25+ years. Makes no sense. There is no selective breeding in those other sports, either.

    If you are a horseman/horsewoman and you choose to control your own health problems with prescription drugs and sitting on your sofa rather than exercise, that is your prerogative. But if you extend that practice to the animals in your care who have no choice in the matter, you should be ashamed of yourself – especially in light of the breakdown data above.

    Other posts on this blog show how the US breakdown rate (independent of surface) is 3x that of the rest of the world. Yet many envision our practices as ‘advanced’?

    True story:

    One of my clients owned a colt racing in FL for a top ‘name’ trainer a few years back, a guy I see on TV quite often. Month after month the owner was pestered by the trainer to geld the colt, in order to ‘focus his mind’ on the task at hand. The owner resisted for a while, but eventually gave in.

    The next monthly vet bill the owner receives? Yep, testosterone injections make their first appearance.

  2. Phillip Haycock

    “The sport of Kings” How many people ever stop to think about the significance of this phrase.
    To me the term “King” describes someone that participates in the sport for reasons other than financial gain, and indeed has no concern about the costs.
    Someone of immense financial depth.
    Someone who aspires not to wealth but power and prestige.
    Ask yourself, is this person going to breed from a crooked or bleeding horse.
    Are they concerned if it takes 5 years to grow and build a champion.
    The great horses will return with the Kings once the peasants have learned that it not really the sport for them.

  3. Great post, Bill. The numbers should speak for themselves, but Americans want to stubbornly hold onto the drugs because “it’s the American way.” Very sad for the horses that misguided nationalism has thrown animal welfare out the window.

    • Yes, the numbers don’t lie, unfortunately. I wish they did in this case, but they do not. I’d take a few more breakdowns on dirt because it is a harder surface and bones are the most vulnerable thing in a horse, but the turf/poly breakdown rates are only 20% better than dirt AND still double to triple the rest of the world. And I’d even take the higher turf breakdown rates if our surfaces were harder and we were faster, but again neither is the case. The Arc was just run in 2:24 for 10F for crying out loud and the top turf sprinter worldwide is Aussie Black Caviar.

      For my money, if you took drugs (legal and illegal) and conditioned the hell out of your horses like the old timers, then we’d get some historical performances. But no, we tend to take drugs as shortcuts in this game.

      You know why drugs benefit other sports? Because the guys who take them also train their asses off, that’s why. Drugs are not a shortcut in track, baseball, or football – they are a tool that allows the athlete to train harder and more frequently in order to develop exceptional power, albeit with an increased chance of injury as the ligaments/tendons do not respond to steroids like the muscles do.

      Back to horses, we breed and train for speed better than the rest of the world, but we are abhorrent when it comes to stamina development, and no one understands how important a role stamina plays in a 8F horse race.

  4. Out of context, what are your thoughts on Shackleford entering the gate for the Preakness “lathered up and nervous,” as effecting a partial warmup with contraction of the spleen etc., along with other comparable examples.

  5. Trainers just don’t get the concept Jim, this is what they tell me:

    “what the hell good can an aggressive warm up do? I don’t want them leaving their race on the track before even loading in the gate….I spend 3 weeks to get them so their eyeballs pop out and they are ready to run through a brick wall, why would I waste, or dull, that effect with a blow out the day before and/or a warmup?”

    Then they complain that their horses fail to ‘relax’ or ‘settle’ – I wonder why?

    I’ve yet to meet a trainer who knows the role and uniqueness of the equine spleen and how it affects their charges. One lady trainer even tells me: ‘Humans don’t worry about their spleens prior to a race, why should I?’

    Because, lady, human spleens are worthless in athletic competition. Humans are predators, horses are prey – different splenic actions entirely in the animal world.

  6. I refer to current, conventional US training as the ‘wild animal’ theory: prey upon the ‘fight or flight’ response in order to achieve maximal race readiness. Hope for one big black type effort before injury is the result. Make a splash at 2 or 3 then off to the breeding shed. Use drugs to enhance this process.

    The other theory I call the ‘equine athlete’ syndrome: condition horses like you would humans with race-specific principles – this is the way of Allen Jerkens and the other old timers. Shoot for 12 quality starts a year with consistency of effort and maximal soundness. Use drugs to fuel even more frequent speedwork.

    Their race times in 1940 were as fast as ours are now, and (anecdotally) their breakdown rates were lower – so I think they were on to something quite effective. When we went to Lukas style QH principles – we also created the Ragozin Bounce Theory.

  7. The numbers don’t include horses breaking down in training. As an owner, at the track every morning, I see horses galloping very fast and breaking down. Conversely, I see horses galloping slower, and not breaking down in either training or racing. Horses, like human athletes, are individuals. We get too hung up on statistics and forget the individual equine athlete in front of us. Stats mean nothing if you don’t know how each horse trained that ultimately broke down. Consider it may just be that we have many more horses, racing more than they did back “then”…not to mention too many trainers taking shortcuts with drugs and other things.

    • True, no trainer will admit publicly that he/she had one get hurt in training – that will never be documented. Starts per horse per year is way down, near 6.0 in 2010 – closer to 10.5 back in the early 90’s. So they ran more often back then and were sounder to boot.

      Show me a trainer who boasts he has never broken down a horse in training over a 20 year career, and I’ll show you a trainer who has never optimized the fitness of any of his stock. Bob Baffert trains faster than most (breaking down more in training than the others), and his Triple Crown and Breeders Cup records dwarf those of Pletcher and Mott (4F every week guys). One cannot have it both ways; maximizing development carries an increased risk of injury, no doubt.

      All horses are conditioned the same for the most part. As an owner, no trainer will ever breeze one of your horses twice in a week – and he has you convinced that such a practice is barbaric overtraining. But that is the way it was done by every Hall of Fame trainer prior to the 80’s = fast forward 3 decades and our undertrained horses are no faster, despite breeding the best to the best a few hundred thousand times.

      Neither will any of your horses ever gallop more than 2 miles on any given morning, most likely. Now, if you tell me your trainer observes each horse each morning – deciding on the fly to walk, jog, gallop, or breeze – I agree with you. But once they exercise, the cookie cutter approach dominates. I have many trainers admit to me as much; they simply don’t have the time, or manpower, to individualize exercise programs.

      Of course, the drug fueled shortcuts are partially to blame as well.

      Google a horse named Burna Dette, who broke down at Los Alamitos a while back under a big ‘name’ trainer. He had ZERO published works for 3 weeks prior to that fateful race. Also on this blog is a post about a trainer who picked up a horse at auction overseas, had surgery, and galloped 2+ miles a day, interval trained 2x a week, and hit the board in his first 8 starts.

      • bpressey: “…Show me a trainer who boasts he has never broken down a horse in training over a 20 year career, and I’ll show you a trainer who has never optimized the fitness of any of his stock. Bob Baffert trains faster than most (breaking down more in training than the others), and his Triple Crown and Breeders Cup records dwarf those of Pletcher and Mott (4F every week guys). One cannot have it both ways; maximizing development carries an increased risk of injury, no doubt…”

        I think I’d rather have fewer breakdowns than more TC and BC awards. Now, if it were me doing the training (meaning me as the athlete), I would have a choice as to whether I wanted to give life and limb to my goals. I think the industry has long ago crossed a line and no changing the track surface will fix it until they move the line back…or forward, depending how you choose to look at it. Everyday, people complain about the slow death of the industry.

        Contemplate it may be the trainers/owers and breeders that prefer “titles” to honor and humanity that are causing such a sad decline in such a beautiful sport (as far as the athletes go, that is).

      • My main problem with the industry as a whole is that you have horses working 4F and racing 8F, using drugs to make up for the shortfall in conditioning. You also have our last KY Derby winning trainer touting the benefits of putting all of his 2yo on Lasix.

        These practices are unfair to the equine athlete, and trainers that do this win awards for ‘horsemanship’.

        How do trainers solve the ‘bounce’ off of a big effort? With more focused conditioning? No.
        With more time off standing in a stall, getting joints injected, and racing under Lasix and Bute to override the physiological warning signs.

      • bpressey: “My main problem with the industry as a whole is that you have horses working 4F and racing 8F, using drugs to make up for the shortfall in conditioning. You also have our last KY Derby winning trainer touting the benefits of putting all of his 2yo on Lasix.

        These practices are unfair to the equine athlete, and trainers that do this win awards for ‘horsemanship’.

        How do trainers solve the ‘bounce’ off of a big effort? With more focused conditioning? No.
        With more time off standing in a stall, getting joints injected, and racing under Lasix and Bute to override the physiological warning signs.

        Hi BPressey…

        We could have a real conversation here. I see you are listed as an Equine Exercise Physiologist. So, clearly you have a point of perception that is more focused on the grand picture, than the individual horse; at least that would be my thinking. First, generally speaking, I might agree with you about the 4 F works to prep for a mile. However, unless you are out there every day, following the individual horse and trainer, you MAY have less than a complete picture. I think we agree horses are individuals. For instance…I have an equine family that I’ve literally gone and bought up, for the sole purpose of studying them, filling in the blanks (of their prior training and breeding physiological idiosyncracies), and the resulting soundness and “class” issues.

        While I absolutely believe a slow, methodical and thorough (minimum 6 months) foundation is key, once you get beyond the foundation, the rest is the finishing touches, based upon how each horse responds to the day’s training, i.e., how is he breathing, how is he walking, is his head dropped or high, does he come back proud or looking like he was forced to do something he didn’t want to do.

        I agree that most trainers seem to settle on a program and then tries to fit each horse to the program, rather than the exact opposite. However…the 4 furlong works serve a very good purpose to achieve peak fitness, IMO, if done right and tailored to the individual horse. FOR INSTANCE….and this is why you have to be there every day…HOW did the horse gallop out? How far did the horse gallop out? How did he come back? Was he on his toes…head in normal position/neck bowed (optimum)…or dropped and gasping for air, looking for a place to lay down (much cause for concern and adjustment).

        I have a filly that you cannot (or should not) scrub on or throw her head at her, the first part of her work (or a race). She has a ton of speed but it is best saved for the last part of the work (or race) I believe, personally that this is key to getting a horse fit and keeping it sound. One only needs to observe Zenyatta and many other good horses, who consistently give top efforts and remain sound. (Of course what they get between races makes a huge difference too.) But, IMO, a horse allowed to get into a balanced momentum, at their pace, is better able to protect itself as well as run a strong race. This gunning from the gate is extremely hard on a horse in so many ways. They are not meant to go even a few furlongs in that kind of stress.

        If you breeze a horse 4 F and you have the rider pick it up the last 2 F and then gallop out strong 5 or 6 F, you have substantially worked that distance, but it isn’t officially clocked that way. You also have no way of knowing how many modified two-minute licks (13 or 14 second 1/8ths) the horse is doing…possibly 7 or 8 F. So, unless you are studying a horse (or a set of horses) from the time it is broken, to the time of retirement, one cannot really have a valid study from which to extrapolate a “program” that works for most horses, most of the time.

        As for Lasix being misused…I agree there is definitely room for that. But I also know, from experience, you can do everything right, exercise-wise, diet-wise, total care (including sun pen time) and you can still have a horse that, for whatever reason, holds water that affects their air and said exertion to overcome it, causes bleeding. Horses really freak when that happens. I think, used correctly, it is more humane to use Lasix, than not use it.

        The regulators are committing the same sin as the trainers…they are failing to consider the individual equine athlete. I blame the Vets, the regulators and the Stewards. It is their job to protect the horses and the sport from cheaters and inhumane treatment. But those that are NOT there every day, to observe how a horse is treated is in no position to paint the industry or any trainer or horse with a broad brush stroke of this or that.

        I’m opposed to nothing that does not harm the horse, if used in an individual situation. I am absolutely opposed to the use of pain killers and the way horses are whipped in a race to make them run. I believe the Vets should have to report (in writing) on a daily basis, to the racing office/stewards/track vets, all medication the individual vets give each horse. That way, the individual horse could be protected and any red flags checked into before the horse is placed in harm’s way.

        Also, I believe they need to get rid of the claiming races and make all races just the level of the purse. That would enourage more humane trainers and owners, as well as encourage a real fan base for the horses. The gamblers will always be there. Would actually be more competitive too, IMO. For instance, the purse and race conditions would remain the same for a $8,000 non-claiming race as it was for a claiming race, BUT a trainer or owner would not be able to just unload the horse by placing it in a race. And you wouldn’t be able to drop a horse that had finished 1st, second or 3rd, in a higher level race. So you keep the competition levels honest and humane. IMO, the claiming race has BRED the corruption and inhumanity in the sport. There is more crap and cheating at the lower levels than at the top levels. Way too risky at the upper levels. But the required Vet reporting would take care of all horses, at all levels, IMO.

        Sorry for the book…but this is a really involved subject and stats don’t reflect the depth of how many factors are missing in their compilation.

      • Hello again-

        Boy, I have done a poor job with this blog over the past 3 years if I have led you to believe I am a ‘big picture’ guy. I focus on each individual horse, but I do so with objective/quantifiable data gathered during exercise sessions, rather than simply subjective measures of horsemanship.

        I collect HR/lactate/GPS data on several horses each day from around the world, including some here in Kentucky at CD, KEE, and private farms that I visit in person. But when I see statistics like the one below, I have to call attention to them:

        breakdowns on TURF per 1,000 starters:

        US – 1.7 per the Jockey Club
        AU – 0.6 per other sources

        Our horses gallop lesser distances, and do fewer bursts of speedwork than do the Aussies, in general, yet break down during a race 300% more often when surfaces are equal. That cannot be ignored, in my opinion. AU superstars are fit enough to race the week before the Melbourne Cup, while our Derby horses routinely have 4-6 weeks of no racing prior to the first Saturday in May.

        Let’s take one common measure of how a horse responds to a piece of work; respiration. That is used because it is simple to observe. But every trainer has stories of a horse coming back from a work ‘unable to blow out a match’ – who then proceeded to race very disappointingly. Respiration is a poor indicator of fitness as it is highly variable to the individual and is greatly affected by temperature, humidity, etc.

        Don’t take my word for it, in http://www.thehorse.com today was the quote from a DVM: “Respiration rate can be expected to be highly variable even under normal behavior and health.” This is 1920’s style feedback data still being used today in place of heart rate, GPS, and blood lactate numbers. For instance, if you have a horse entered in a non graded stakes race and he accomplishes a 2min lick for a mile with a heart rate never surpassing 85% of maximum and a blood lactate level below 4 mmol/liter – he will run a competitive effort in that slot every time.

        I never decide on what to do with a horse on the training track until I analyze his physiological data gathered from the previous workout. If one breezes 4F in :50 with a 2min HR recovery of 150bpm – he did too much and needs a week before another episode of speed. However, if that HR recovery is 115bpm, waiting another 7 days to go fast is a waste of time and you are leaving cumulative fitness gains on the table.

        I agree the ‘clocked’ distance is a woefully inadequate indicator, but it is all we have to go on in many cases. I imagine you are in CA where the long 2F+ gallop out is quite common – you don’t see it near as much here in KY at CD or KEE, many mornings you won’t see a single case of it.

        We tried to use Lasix as you suggest, but it is such a performance enhancer via a 30lb weight drop, that unscrupulous trainers and vets started to game the system. So we end up at where we are today. All horses bleed, even at a walk. Using Lasix to treat a Grade 1 or 2 bleed is nonsense, it should only be used on Grade 3 or 4 episode. Those who bleed when we do everything right should not be in the gene pool, passing that on to future generations.

        Money is the root of all evil. I do this for fun, I have money from other enterprises. Sure I sell a handful of HR/GPS/lactate monitors each year, but I provide lifetime service and support for these clients at no cost. Similarly, I will have a book ready in early 2012 – but I will give away all digital copies and many printed copies.

        Please keep up this discourse, it is a real pleasure to talk to an owner with such an enlightened approach. Happy Holidays!

      • Looked for an email to send you a private link to workout videos, but couldn’t find one.

        Enjoying the conversation. First time here. The article link brought me here. Posted on another board. Don’t have the benefit of 3 years of blog participation. ( My posts are focused on this particular thread.) Intriqued. We travel in parallel universes…similar goals…different trails.

      • please contact me offline at bill@thoroedge.com
        Thanks for all of the contributions!-

      • As you will soon learn, I may be one of the few in the world that believes thoroughbred ‘class’ can be 90% defined via physiological ability. Certainly ‘will to win’ and ‘heart’ play roles, but if the underlying physiological underpinnings aren’t there – performance suffers.

        If a horse with a large heart and nice biomechanics has a maximum HR during a breeze of 202bpm, he will never win a race and will most likely get injured in the process. You may think these offspring come from poor bloodstock choices, but that is not the case. I have several 2yo under watch from top stallions and graded stakes winning mares: 15% of them have insufficient maximum HR values, and this is not visible to any horseman, nor can any rider ‘feel’ that neuromuscular problem.

        If that number is roughly 1 out of 6 in the best bred KY stock, how prevalent is that problem in Book 5 of any sale? And a low max HR value is 100% genetically determined, and therefore untrainable. Having a healthy max HR of 230bpm is no guarantee of success, but at least one has cleared the first hurdle by collecting such data.

      • bpressy: “…Now, if you tell me your trainer observes each horse each morning – deciding on the fly to walk, jog, gallop, or breeze – I agree with you. But once they exercise, the cookie cutter approach dominates…”

        Yes, my trainer does. I know, I’m there every day. I also video each training session. And yes…depending on how the horse comes out of the stall and jogs one mile, things are/can be changed on the fly and have been…mostly to the conservative side…rarely to do more. Horses are like kids…they always want to do more, unless they are in pain. When a horse doesn’t want to do more…time to really pay attention. Too many trainers wait until a horse is three-legged lame to pay attention. By then, it is usually too late. That horse never makes the stats, but you rarely hear from it again.

      • bpressey: “…I have many trainers admit to me as much; they simply don’t have the time, or manpower, to individualize exercise programs. Of course, the drug fueled shortcuts are partially to blame as well. Google a horse named Burna Dette, who broke down at Los Alamitos a while back under a big ‘name’ trainer. He had ZERO published works for 3 weeks prior to that fateful race. Also on this blog is a post about a trainer who picked up a horse at auction overseas, had surgery, and galloped 2+ miles a day, interval trained 2x a week, and hit the board in his first 8 starts…”

        There are two types of horses that make it, IMO: 1) A horse that is so good (and an iron horse) that even a bad trainer can’t screw it up. 2) A horse that is borderline good to really good, but with multiple issues, but has a trainer who takes the time and indeed is intriqued, (no obsessed) with getting this horse to the races and proving its worth. without the use of drugs or inhumane methods.

        Yes, I heard about Burna Dette. It’s a common story with trainers like that. But that is where the track Vets and Stewards fail the horse and the industry. It is the latter story that should be the common one.

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