California Dreamin’ at the 2012 Kentucky Derby

After the Arkansas Derby this blog predicted a west coast superfecta at the 2012 Kentucky Derby, as 4 California entrants, each with more aggressive conditioning regimens behind them, faced off against 16 others relying mainly on 4-5F works. Didn’t happen, but all west coasters ran well, finishing 1-2-5-6.

The pic above is courtesy of Brookdale Farm, who raised 2012 Derby champ I’ll Have Another, and the old guy is my dad, who raised this blogger on trips to Fairmount Park in the early 1980’s. Just an hour before this snapshot was taken, one of these two just won the biggest race on the US calendar on the other one’s 69th birthday.

I live 10 miles from Churchill Downs, and it has been 70+ degrees here since early February – so even with 2 instances of 1” of rain in the 24 hours before the big race, the CD strip more closely resembled the Santa Anita track than anytime since the 2001 Monarchos/Point Given showdown. Groupie Doll, Shackleford, and Successful Dan all set track records on Saturday, while Bodemeister nearly pulled off the greatest wire-to-wire effort in history during the headliner.

But it’s not just the track conditions that led to the west coast dominance Saturday evening. I’ve been singing the praises of the numerous 6F+ works practiced regularly in California for a few years now, most recently after Bob Baffert’s recent success at Oaklawn Park:

For some astounding data to illustrate the differences in west coast vs. east coast conditioning, see here:

I was firmly behind Bodemeister as last week wore on, especially when Baffert didn’t sit on his star colt after arriving at Churchill Downs following a scintillating Arkansas Derby performance just 2 weeks earlier. He breezed Bode TWICE in 5 days, a pair of 5F efforts with strong gallop outs, one over a sloppy track on the morning of the 29th.

We all know that Bodemeister did not race at age 2, but did you know he breezed 26 times before his first race? Thanks to Andrew Beyer and the DRF:

26 breezes at age 2 before ever racing, that sounds very familiar to me as I wrote about the ideal conditioning program for a young horse’s skeletal development years ago:

No one is saying you have to race a psychologically fragile youngster at age 2, but you have to take advantage of this physiological window to build racing bone and strong connective tissues. By the time you get to a chronological age of 3, this window of development is 80% closed.

Mr. Beyer also mentions something here that I have thought of for several months; by and large Baffert’s horses don’t bounce. With such aggressive conditioning Bode was able to back up a huge OP effort with another sterling CD performance 3 weeks later. A necessary skill in a 3yo colt facing 2 more Triple Crown races between now and mid- June. Please read Beyer’s fantastic take on this concept in the link above, noting that Baffert’s Derby winners went on to Preakness glory, while the same cannot be said for the architects of the ‘less is more’ theory: Lukas, Frankel, and Pletcher.

Even better than this year’s Derby backing up my theories on conditioning, was an interview given by winning trainer Doug O’Neill the week leading up to the race where he mentions a few things that lead me to believe he is a valued Thoroedge blog reader-

(Full Bloodhorse interview with 2012 Kentucky Derby winning trainer Doug O’Neill, BEFORE winning the biggest race of his life found here:

Or if you prefer, a quick synopsis of the parts pertaining to the conditioning regimen behind the success of O’Neill and his star colt:

4:37: Mr. O’Neill shows up donning a University of Louisville ballcap, and he’s already on my good side.

4:40-4:50: We see soon-to-be Derby champ I’ll Have Another 2 minute licking around the turn at CD, something he did nearly every day of the week, including on Friday. A decade ago Monarchos did the same.

4:50: O’Neill is asked what he is doing different nowadays with respect to conditioning. Answer: In two previous Derby appearances Doug was just happy to be here, and let up on his horses (‘wrapped them up in bubble wrap’) leading to a couple of poor efforts on raceday. “We are taking a more aggressive and consistent approach” this time around. So far, so good.

5:40: Mr. Haskin notes the 8 week gap between the Lewis and the Santa Anita Derby. O’Neill and his team were afraid of a bounce after such a big effort off a 5 month layoff in the Lewis. But, note these works during those 8 weeks of ‘rest’:

2/4/2012: Big Lewis (G2) win at 43-1.
2/23/2012: 4F/:48
3/03/2012: 6F/1:10
3/12/2012: 8F/1:42.6
3/21/2012: 7F/1:26.2
3/30/2012: 7F/1:26
4/7/2012: SA Derby (G1) wins by a nose over Creative Cause
4/19/2012: 6F/1:13.6
4/27/2012: 6F/1:13.8

*Many of these works came over the all-weather surface at Hollywood Park, and few were blazing fast.

6:00: Note the FLAIR nasal strip worn by I’ll Have Another during his SA Derby win.

8:15: Haskin notes many of these works also had another quarter mile gallop out afterwards, and here is where things get interesting…

8:45: Mr. O’Neill mentions the Triple Crown campaign of Assault and how he worked every 5 days, or more, during his remarkable 1946 campaign. To my knowledge there are only 3 places he could have read about this feat:

  1. My blog entry from 2010:
  2. My fellow blogger, who pointed me to this interview, found at:
  3. Or the actual source of the info, Training Thoroughbred Horses by Preston Burch. This Hall of Fame trainer wrote about Assault back in 1953, and I actually reviewed the book here:

I’d like to think that bringing the attention of Assault’s campaign to the public through the words of Preston Burch, who closely observed trainer Max Hirsch throughout, had something to do with O’Neill’s change of pace with respect to conditioning a 3yo expected to cover 10F in 2:02 or thereabouts on the First Saturday in May. Perhaps not, but a guy can dream right?

As a matter of fact, it was noted in this space previously that West Coast based trainers as a group seem to be working their horses 50% further than the East Coasters these days. Couple that with the weather giving us a CD strip over which several track records were set, and it’s not a surprise that California based horses finished 1-2-5-6 in a field of 20.

Look, this isn’t PETA – the objective isn’t to bring a sound horse to the Derby who runs 16th – it’s to bring an otherworldly fit colt to the gate in an effort to make history, and in the process of doing that some are going to get hurt. We condition our claimers who race a mile in 1:40 with weekly 4-5F works, why do the same with a horse you need to run a mile in 1:36 and still have a quarter left to finish?

The 2012 Breeder’s Cup at Santa Anita could very well be a bloodbath for east coast entries and may very well lead to some trainers forgoing the powderpuff 4-5F works in favor of longer moves for stakes quality stock.

But if this finally happens and dozens of east coast conditioners change their stripes, what the hell will I write about?


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on May 7, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Sorry, forgot about Rousing Sermon – his trip to the Louisiana Derby took him out of my mind – but he is technically a west coasters. Likewise, Creative Cause is based in CA, but his trainer Mike Harrington seems to be more ‘east coast’ in his conditioning methodology.

  2. What old guy?!!!

  3. Well,a different pattern in I’ll Have Another’s and Bodemeister’s workouts,but these two were horses that worked hardest for the race of their life.We can see that there Dough O’Neil is making a bigger spacing (8-10) days between the breezes,but he is doing some really strong 2 min mile gallops with his horse almost every day.On the other hand Baffert probably did some speed every week and right before the Derby two good breezes at Churchill in five days.
    It’s good to see that you had some influence on O’Neil with your blogg and let’s hope that he will continue to keep his colt at the top of his game for the next two Triple Crown races.
    Although 2 min miles everyday might be just a cruising for his colt,it might be better to do them every other day instead of every day.

    • Hi Laza, nice to hear from you!-

      Most US horses gallop miles 4x a week at 2:15-2:40 pace commonly at about 85% of max heart rate. A stakes quality colt/filly should be able to do the same at a 2min lick without too much trouble. But yes, I would prefer maybe a 1.5 mile gallop in 3min flat 2x a week, with other days off, to continue building stamina.

  4. well I am happy to say I picked the tri and alot of my decision came from the works of the horses and seeing them on the track. I have a horse with one of the derby trainers, she has a lot of ability but dosen’t even come close to setting her up. She is an allowance horse. Has a ton of speed but has been tailing off at end. Best race is when wasn’t breaking good, told to try blinkers and needed to get clear for that. So rained and couldn’t work so had to work 3 days out from race from gate. Ran at her eye balls out, horse came to her in the stretch she re broke and won going away. this was by chance because ofthe rain. The horse he ran in the derby he eased up on and he finished up the track. Before to get to the derby trained the horse long works and tapered him into the races and won to get there but babied him and you know the out come. I couldn’t wait for your blog. Thanks
    P. s. What about your book?

  5. Well,since on the web pages that followed preparation of the Derby horses I was able to see only a small fragments of their daily gallops,I am not sure what part of their daily gallop they got at 2 mins mile pace.If they gallop 1.5 daily and just reach 2 min pace in the last half mile,then it’s not so demanding.However,if they follow what you mentioned,the whole distance in 3 min,then it’s a solid piece of work and something that can be too hard for a horse,even if it’s a stakes caliber animal.
    As I saw from gallops clips on the web,only I’ll Have Another galloped at 2 min or ever slightly faster pace,most of the other Derby contenders galloped at a 2:15-2:30 clip.
    So maybe,before the Preakness,I would ease up daily gallops for the Derby winner,but I would blow him up an easy half mile the day before the Preakness,in Carl Nafzger style. But I hope that O’Neil will know what’s best to do with this nice colt.Do you have any idea if this guy uses some technology,like heart rate monitors? It was posted on the Bloodhorse that they used a shock-wave therapy to treat this colt’s back muscles in California.

    • Oh no, no HR/GPS gear in that barn, or any other in the US. The use of technology to rehab injury, such as the shockwave therapy, is quite big here however –

  6. Well,it’s much smarter to use the kind of technology that can prevent injuries than one that will treat them!

  7. Nice post Bill? How ironic is it that Doug O’Neill should be the first of them to wake up?

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