Thoroughbred Trainers Can Learn from Gold Medal Hurdler
American Aries Merritt won gold in the 110m hurdles this week, and immediately afterwards gave credit to an adjustment to his training program.
Throughout his career, Merritt entered the starting blocks as above; with his dominant (stronger) leg forward in an effort to explode when hearing the starter’s pistol. This practice led him to the first hurdle in 8 steps, but his race performances were inconsistent and the injury bug was always around. Rather than continue to fight the same battles, he changed this offseason to a 7 step approach – which forced him to start from the blocks with his weaker leg forward – a dramatic change in technique.
After some early struggles, he ran world-leading times of 12.93 three times in 2012 before this week’s triumph in London. Prior to the switch, his career best effort was 13.09 back in 2007. Now, what can the US thoroughbred industry learn from this seemingly unrelated sport?
Horses don’t start from blocks, obviously – but they do run around left hand turns exclusively in racing and in training here in America.
According to Florida-based racing consultant Earl Ola:
“America’s dirt racetracks are by necessity slanted down to the inside rail for drainage necessary to facilitate daily racing, plus our banked turns are slanted even more. Slow motion video clearly shows that the right legs of American trained Thoroughbred racehorses always hit the ground before their left legs. This situation is exacerbated by American Thoroughbred’s training and racing counter clockwise (left turn) only. Left turn only racing and training on slanted (one slant) racetracks is the primary cause of our far too high breakdown percentages. Their unbalanced action is further exacerbated by the fact that most American Jockeys and many exercise riders ride acey ducy placing their weight slightly off center on our racehorses back.”
To think of this practice in another manner, NASCAR racing does the same thing – constantly practicing and competing around counterclockwise loops at very high speeds. How do they adjust? THEY MAKE TIRES DIFFERENTLY FOR THE RIGHT AND LEFT SIDES! They also inflate and tilt tires differently on the right and left sides to improve cornering and lower the risk of blowouts.
Now, horses are different than racecars – their bones and ligaments/tendons are alive. When they only make left turns at speed those tissues remodel to support that action – which causes the imbalances that can contribute to injury. But, if not stabled trackside – you can train in alternating directions, like Kenny McPeek does at his Magdalena Farm:
“The course has two steady inclines designed to strengthen your horses’ heart, lungs and muscles. We have the option of training your horse either left or right-handed in order to change their routine. At Magdalena we have many more options, keeping your horse mentally and physically together for a longer period of time.” – http://www.mcpeekracing.com/magdalena.shtml
I believe, but am not sure, that the track is U-shaped instead of oval, which I imagine lessens the chances of someone heading in the wrong direction.
Immediately after winning his gold medal, Merritt credited his new methods for improving muscular power in his previously weaker leg – which gave him a greater balance, improved race times, and decreased injury. I would imagine those things would serve a racehorse just as well.
Coincidentally, this week Steve Haskin penned a neat piece about Medaglia d’Oro and his early work in the Arizona desert:
“He’d go two miles with rings on, then breeze three furlongs in :35 1/5,” Jensen recalled. “You just didn’t see young horses breeze in :35 1/5 after going two miles. It was nothing to him. He had an unbelievable stride. I trained him like I would a 3-year-old.” – http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/horse-racing-steve-haskin/archive/2012/08/09/medaglia-magic.aspx
The article seems to insinuate that those long gallops took place in the desert. Not being confined to a farm/training center in the early stages of his prep served him well, I’d say – it wasn’t too long ago that Stonewall Farm sold their interest in the now-famous stallion of Rachel Alexandra to Darley for $40 million. At one point Stonewall stood both him and Leroidesanimaux, who sired Derby champ Animal Kingdom, a few blocks from where I lived in Versailles, KY. Even that breeding success was not enough to save the farm as it was foreclosed on a few years back and now sells for around $10 million.
I used to jump the fence and jog around that empty farm on Midway Rd., imagining all the world-class horseflesh that used to inhabit those grounds. There is an overgrown training track in the back that would be a perfect location to condition the equine equivalent of Aries Merritt – perfectly balanced, powerful, injury resistant, and a world champion.