On Beer, Bourbon, Union Rags, Oscar Pistorius, and Strong Bones

Oh, I needed a drink after an exchange on the Paulick Report this weekend.

First: I live 15min from the Bourbon Capital of the World – a town named Bardstown, KY – yet I just can’t seem to acquire the taste. Additionally, I love cheap watered down American beers and have never enjoyed any type of dark ale. Then the concoction pictured above entered my world a few years back at a pub in Midway, KY after a meeting with one of the area’s major thoroughbred farms. Fast forward 2 years (and a move back to Louisville) and my icebox is never without Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. It’s costly as a 4-pack runs $11, but well worth it as nothing is more enjoyable than watching a race involving a Thoroedge client and knocking back a beer that has been aged in a bourbon barrel – trust me, give it a taste.

But I digress. This weekend there was a post on the Paulick Repot dealing with the retirement of Union Rags due to a tendon injury:


As is typically the case, the pedigree plaudits of the world chimed in the comment section about inbreeding and several other genetic factors leading to the typical unsound American thoroughbred. That is less than half the picture. Sure we breed for speed and fast horses may often possess (and pass on to offspring) lighter lower legs that aid in stride turnover. But the bone density, or lack thereof, that a foal is born with is only the starting point – conditioning at speed can, and does, strengthen these bones to withstand the rigors of racing.

So, it’s quite likely that modern US thoroughbreds do indeed emerge as foals with genetically lighter lower leg bones that are easier for the horse to swing through the stride cycle, but are also pre-destined to become injured. A current bone (no pun intended) of contention during this 2012 Olympic season is the case of amputee 400m runner Oscar Pistorius:

Some postulate, correctly, that the lighter weight of his lower leg appliance allows for a quicker stride turnover during his races. It surely does. But being handicapped also makes pretty much every other physical achievement more difficult. Please note that the brilliant Mr. Pistorius is by far the slowest out of the starting blocks, just one area that he must overcome due to his predicament.

Back to horses.

I’ll concede the fact that selectively bred horses today start their lives with fragile bones. But a commenter on the Paulick Report thread who purports to be a NY-based owner made a remark that drove me to drink Saturday afternoon: ‘bone density is improved with daily work over time, not speed work’. THIS IS CATEGORICALLY WRONG ON EVERY LEVEL.

Click above to enlarge: Group A is a cross-section slice of cannon bone from one apparently trained by Mr. NY Owner above. Note the extra bone growth to the outside of the shin. That is the spongy bone growth from legging up/daily galloping that led to this subject bucking his shins. Now look at the Group D slide. This one breezed at speed 2x weekly, and the new strong dense bone laid down to the inside of the shin is ideal for racing.

The layman’s explanation is that when you gallop daily at 2:30 min/mile paces the cannon bones hit the ground at an angle, but when you breeze at 13sec/f or faster, the cannon bones strike the ground perpendicularly. Each exposes the bones to different types of shearing forces, and each exercise stimulates different bone growth. Likewise, when bones are stressed so are the associated tendons and ligaments. Simply put, gallops develop gallop bone – breezes develop racing bone.

The attitudes and misconceptions of ‘horsemen’ such as this guy on the PR are as damaging to our wonderful horses as anything. Get a clue. When a Union Rags has his breeze work capped at 5F every 7 days, his ability to maximize his bone density and soft tissue strength is also capped. Genetics has very little do to with it at this juncture and loss of calcium due to use of raceday Lasix certainly doesn’t help matters.

Here are a few horses my family owned/race back in the 80’s before Lasix was widespread:

Great Jason:

  • Starts: 113
  • Firsts: 23
  • Seconds: 16
  • Thirds: 20
  • Earnings: $123,169

Divine Decadence:

  • Starts: 66
  • Firsts: 9
  • Seconds: 10
  • Thirds: 7
  • Earnings: $27,281

King Bam:

  • Starts: 80
  • Firsts: 6
  • Seconds: 5
  • Thirds: 7
  • Earnings: $18,324

Lots of works, lots of racing on the dirt at Fairmount Park, no Lasix, and no early retirements due to injury.

P.S. Holy cow sometimes I am reminded of just how inferior my writing and research skills are; this is a brilliant analysis of the question above (with amazing video):




About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on July 23, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I agree completely, I am tired of people blaming pedigree for unsoundness. Lack of proper conditioning and drug use are the true culprits.

  2. I am puzzled. The lack of proper conditioning of Union Rags(by insinuation)?? Sorry, I would lean toward unlucky injury before I would question(by insinuation) Matz’s training acumen.

    • Typical. You are like all the rest, putting these trainers up on a pedestal like they are never making mistakes. Most big name trainers condition their $50k claimers like they train Triple Crown contenders. I believe this is a mistake.

      Was UR injury an unlucky fluke? Quite possibly. But I wager if you were trained with weekly half mile jogs over dirt and then raced over 1.5 sandy miles while being chased by a pack of dogs – you’d come out of that with some type of injury also.

      Please enlighten me – what exactly did Matz do with UR that was so genius? Breezing him 5F every 7-10 days and galloping 1.5 miles 3-4x a week? I can point to several hundred horses that get the same exact treatment. Some win, some lose.

      Now, I am talking straight conditioning – all the behavioral training stuff is VERY difficult and I’m sure Matz is a genius at that aspect.

      Trainers have the best jobs in the world: win races and sychopants like you anoint them kings, lose races/get injured and it’s bad luck and/or the horse’s fault. That’s crap.

      Training is an art, conditioning is a science – you are indeed puzzled if you can’t make that distinction, but you are not alone.

    • No not Union Rags specifically – just in general.

  3. There are so many idiots talking out their asses on the Paulick Report that I just don’t read the comments any more.


  4. Paleontologists have long used bone development to indicate activity type and intensity within a given genepool. Example: Native americans used as forced labor at early spanish missions had markedly heavier bones than their hunter gatherer brethren. Even so, conditioning will not take an individual or group beyond the template imposed by genetics, hence the need to avoid scrambling selection criteria with dope and corrective surgery.

    • Genetics sets the blueprint, it is up to the conditioning environment to maximize that blueprint – the graph in the above example is quite clear: traditional ‘legging up’ during the 2yo season fails to maximize bone density changes when compared to the 2-3x weekly bursts of speed. Regardless of pedigree: those that train like Group A will become injured more often than those training like Group D.

    • But I do agree that our gene pool is clouded by artifiically enhanced performers due to a wide variety of practices. Just last night I watched a piece on the Kalenjin runners from Kenya that dominate world endurance running. After 10+ years of study, there is no genetic difference – but the reason for their excellence is hard training (and living) at altitude – 100% environmentally based and controllable. The avg Kalenjin schoolkid runs 4 miles a day to and from school since age 4, barefoot.

      • Absolutely! I recently suggested on the PaulickReport site that the only change to the Triple Crown should be that it become a race for 4 year olds and up. Not only would that increase fan interest, and give horses a chance at multiple triple crown victories, but it would (hopefully) encourage racing good horse beyond 3 – so that the gene pool would improve.

    • I agree with most of what you say, but genetic research has proven that DNA is not just a fixed blue print, but also is changed based upon what we do. So while, yes, really it’s most likely all we can do is help a horse achieve his highest degree of genetic potential, it is not impossible to exceed it.

      If you need an example – look at dogs. They are all the descendants of wolves, in theory, they should still look like wolves, if DNA is a fixed blueprint – but they certainly don’t. And this happened very quickly – just since man started breeding them for specific tasks or looks. The changes are now genetically inheritable. In addition, the Russians changed foxes into dogs in just several generations – merely by treating them like dogs. Extremely interesting. As much as we know about genetics – there is far more that we don’t know.

  5. jim culpepper

    Beg pardon, certainly favorable genes can be increased and unfavorable decreased through consistent selection; still this is most often through varying combinations of the same genes rather than through mutation or Lamarckian adaptation. Most mutations are harmful. This fixed blueprint idea is tricky; a deck of cards is a fixed blueprint capable of a ridiculous number of variations, genetic codes are infinitely more complex. I crossed 21 breeding lines of yellow corn this year, some with very complex pedigrees; thus, a fixed blueprint, but with around a million possible combinations. I’m not sure of the details, but I will agree that prize money and prestige probably should be doubled for four year olds and cut by half for the younger colts.

  6. Chicago Guy seems to have disappeared. Michael Matz in disguise, possibly?

  7. jim culpepper

    Ratherrapid, are you not the characther who questioned I”ll Have Anothers workload and thus, forecast his breakdown?

    • He did Jim, brilliant call by RR that I missed the boat on completely. However, Union Rags did much less gallop/breeze work and got hurt also. I often talk about conditioning on this blog in the vein that most really good horses should do more, but the main point I wish to make is that each individual should be conditioned as such: in general lesser quality stock should do less work on the track.

      In the US, Baffert and O’Neill gallop/work horses long and hard, while Pletcher and the others do less. Both groups win big races, both groups have horses get hurt. But when you crunch the numbers as a handicapper – Baffert is king. Still, I think even he could benefit from monitoring the physiological signs of his trainees in real-time; adjusting the workload to match the feedback.

  8. Bill, after being one of the “it’s the breeding, stupid” crowd for quite some time, I began to question the many differences in what seems, anecdotally at least, to be fewer breakdowns overseas (UK, Euro). In looking at pedigrees of top class runners in Euro vs. U.S., I can’t see that much difference in their pedigrees. We can thank globe-trotting stallions for this. Their top class sire, Galileo, certainly is a prime example of if it’s breeding, how come his progeny fare better in the UK than similarly bred American horses (same kinfolk!)? I’m not completely abandoning the breeding aspect, but, I have come to the point that I have embraced the phrase, “It never is just one thing,” to try to make sense of what is happening to the Thoroughbred in the U.S. vis-a-vis their Euro counterparts. In order to solve any problem, it is first necessary to define it. If we constantly point to breeding, or zero in on any other single cause, we likely will miss other subtleties that play a part in the health of our equine athletes. Loved your piece on using the Olympic runner to make the point about some breakdowns no doubt can be attributed to horses running in the same direction on tracks that are slanted for drainage. Then, just recently, I heard one trainer (I believe it was a special on HRTV on Da Hoss), and I think it was Da Hoss’ trainer who mentioned training in opposite directions, and not always running a horse left handed!) It never is just one thing!

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