Monthly Archives: October 2012

Response to Dr. Larry Bramlage

Sometimes it helps to begin at the end.
Recently Dr. Bramlage was quoted extensively in a Bloodhorse piece entitled; “Bramlage: Rest Needed to Keep Horses Sound”.  Although I will summarize the interview extensively below and add my commentary, you may also read the entire piece here:

While I applaud nearly all of his comments, his final conclusion includes a statement that I hear from trainers and breeders quite often these days, a statement that is categorically wrong by any statistical measure: “Formerly horses probably had a little less speed. They didn’t go out as fast as they go out now in their races, but they were more durable.”

Breeders love to make us think that the high injury rate these days is a side effect of the blazing fast horses that they are pushing on the auction market. Now I’ll gladly stipulate that horses were more durable in the old days; but today’s horses DO NOT go out faster in their races, at least not in the biggest race of them all that is famous for brutal early paces  – the Kentucky Derby. See the evidence:

Here we have the last 33 runnings of the big race represented by data points that quantify the opening 4F fractions – ending with the final two Derbies: Animal Kingdom’s closing win off a glacial 48.63 half mile opener and Bodemeister’s near heroic 2nd place trip off a blazing 45.39. Of note is the trendline, the solid black line in the above chart which runs roughly parallel across the past 3 decades at roughly the 46.5 clocking. On my admittedly primitive Excel masterpiece above, faster times (like Bodemeister’s) are at the bottom of the chart, therefore if colts were progressively running faster opening fractions the trendline would point downwards. It does not.

So; owners have been paying hundreds of millions of dollars for breeders to selectively breed faster animals capable of peaking in May of their 3yr old season – but the breed is no more precocious than in 1980. More fragile – yes, fewer starts – yes, but neither is due to the fallacy of ‘breeding for speed’.

Even though half of the main conclusion to Dr. Bramlage’s is blatantly incorrect, he did speak to thoroughbred recovery from exercise in some very good detail, especially with regards to the skeletal system: “Bone is very dynamic, bone is laid down when strength is needed and removed when strength is unnecessary.”

Absolutely. One key precept of exercise physiology is what we can call the “Use it or Lose it” principle. Simply put, while you structure exercise for a horse to grow stronger bone; too much rest will result in that bone growth disappearing. This was best displayed in the amazing work of Dr. Nunamaker at the New Bolton Center with his seminal study; “On Bucked Shins”.

The main take-away from that piece is that bone remodels slower than all other equine physiological systems, and exercise frequency must be structured to take advantage of the work/recover cycle. Frequency is key to cumulative bone growth, if you wait too long between bursts of speed – the bone growth you stimulated in the first session begins to disappear before the second session. Nunamaker recommends breezing at speed 2x per week in young horses. Waiting any longer is counter-productive, yet no American horse posts recorded works this often, once every 6-7 days is more the norm.

I’ve blogged about this numerous times so I will simply post a link, but in Australia they do exercise at speed this frequently – and their turf breakdown rate is just 0.6 per 1,000 starts, while the US Jockey Club recently announced the US turf fatality rate remaining constant at 1.7 – nearly a 300% difference:

Back to the good doctor who then makes an excellent point: “You want them to make these little steps all the way up the ladder so that eventually you get a racehorse skeleton. You have to give the horse the load at a rate he can withstand it in order to strengthen his bone to get him to the place where he can race.”

Sadly, all of this is done mainly by feel, or observation of behavior – traditional ‘horsemanship’ in other words. Look, one can have the best racecar in the world, and a top driver – but he still needs a dashboard to reflect objective measures of fuel usage, tire wear, RPMs. etc. – only then can minute adjustments can be made to improve performance. That analogy extends to racehorses as well. The best trainer can have the top horses, but too often lacks a ‘dashboard’ to indicate when a horse needs time off. Instead one waits until a poor racing performance or a good one followed by lameness.

Here is what such a dashboard looks like using HR/GPS gear:

Next Dr. Bramlage addresses the need for horses to rest, and he doesn’t mention it here but other studies show that 90% of horses that breakdown in races have an existing injury or condition that predisposes them to disaster. These underlying physiological stressors are not always visible to the naked eye, but they sure do show up on a ‘dashboard’. Owners invest millions in horseflesh, and trainers invest countless hours and emotional capital in their racing stock – when will the US catch up and spend a few extra bucks and a few extra minutes per day to maximize this situation?

Of course we are never comparing apples to apples when we look at international thoroughbred racing. US racing is mainly on dirt, and through opening fractions that are faster than pretty much the rest of the world. Our horses run ‘positive splits’ meaning their closing fractions are slower than the opening ones. This is physiologically very demanding and makes an even better case for the need to utilize a dashboard to quantify equine fitness/soundness.

Larry Bramlage is a genius of an equine veterinarian, as are many of his colleagues, but I don’t want them conditioning horses. He talks to a group of trainers who already take 2 weeks off from fast work following a race; never breeze more often than every 7 days, get 6 starts per year on average – and tells them to put MORE rest into their programs? That’s the path we’ve been heading down for the last 25+ years and it isn’t doing us any good – why continue?

Would you allow your cardiologist to train your 17yr old football player?

What is ideal here in the US? To simplify let’s talk about 3yo. The biggest carrot is of course the Triple Crown campaign. Next up is the Breeder’s Cup. It’s common these days for 60-70% of Derby starters to end up injured/on the shelf within 6 months after the First Saturday in May:

I haven’t run the data yet on this season’s 3yo crop – but I imagine it to be even worse as current retirees already include Union Rags, Bodemeister, Creative Cause, Hansen, Gemologist, and I’ll Have Another.

So why not just give them a break anyway? Shut them down and turn them out in late June, and bring them back to the track in the fall with an eye towards the BC in November. Save the Travers, Haskell and all other big races for your older stock. Force them to take a break rather than wait for them to tell you via injury. Aim for two separate 6 week peaks over the course of a season, rather than one long 6 month one. And use a ‘dashboard’ to identify ideal distances/speeds/FREQUENCIES for each individual, for as Doc Bramlage eloquently states:

“Different horses can withstand different amounts of training, but you can’t (in general) keep a horse peaked for an excessively long period of time.”


Turf Miler Conditioning: AU vs USA – Pierro vs Animal Kingdom

Pierro prepares for the Group One Caulfield Guineas over 1600m by going his final eighth in 10.38 seconds, FOUR DAYS before the big race. Video here:

Occasionally the stars align and we have the opportunity to compare apples to apples around the world in terms of racehorse conditioning, and it provides quite a contrast in styles. Have you ever seen a US turfer prepare for a Grade 1 by breezing a final furlong in sub 11sec the week of the big event? Yet it happens Down Under all of the time, and here is why it’s a good thing:

Of course, Animal Kingdom is still 3 weeks out from his BC Turf Mile, but we know what we’ll see from him based on past efforts. And when it comes to the frequency of racing, Pierro is no outlier – here are the past performances for today’s race in Australia (jump ahead to Race 7):

10/14/2012 – G1 over 8F
9/28/2012 – win at 8F
9/1/2012 – win at  6F
4/28/2012 – win at 8F
4/14/2012 – win at 7F
4/7/2012 – win at 6F

Today will be his 3rd race in 6 weeks, and earlier in the spring he ran 3 times in a span of just 21 days.
Meanwhile Animal Kingdom again races off a huge layoff – details in earlier post:

So, Australian turf sprinters train faster and closer to their races, and they race more frequently, but US horses racing over turf breakdown 3x more often:

And yet the focus here in the US is on anything other than equine conditioning as the latest headlines attest:


These initial rule changes – allowing voiding of claims of horses that are vanned off the track after a race, requiring disclosure of corticosteroid administrations and treatments to stewards and claimants, expanding the Racing and Wagering Board’s out-of-competition drug testing program, implementing stricter and lengthier timeframes for the administration of corticosteroids and Clenbuterol before a race –  will apply to all Thoroughbred racing in New York state, including Saratoga Race Course, Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park and Finger Lakes Race Track.

More here:

Of course, Australia doesn’t have strict drug laws to ‘protect’ their equine stars – as there is no need because nothing is allowed on raceday. Pretty simple solution.

We need more damn race-appropriate exercise, the numbers don’t lie.

But no, only our 2yo breeze up sales stock goes as fast as Pierro – and they are nowhere near ready to do so in many cases.

UPDATE: Pierro suffers his first loss, as he’s run down by All Too Hard in the last 50m. After a slow start from the 7th position and a 4 wide trip uphill through the first turn, the formerly undefeated colt had a bit of his closing kick sapped. The next big race for him is at Moonee Valley, in just 2 weeks time.

Do you think Animal Kingdom will ever run again after early November, win or lose?

Animal Kingdom in the 2012 BC: It’s Not the ‘Bounce’ to Fear

Recently it was announced that Animal Kingdom will make his first start after nearly 9 months on the shelf in the Breeder’s Cup Turf Mile at Santa Anita on November 3rd.

When asked why no prep race at Keeneland prior to going straight from the farm at Fair Hill to a BC effort, owner Barry Irwin responded: “Because he is not ready and he is apt to run too big first time back, so he likely would regress second time out.”

Trainer Graham Motion: “Coming off the layoff, the Mile just seems very logical for him, he certainly has the turn of foot to handle it. The timing is right for his schedule coming back, and the caliber of horse that he is, you’re not going to look for a nice, easy spot. It’s a totally different situation than last winter when we ran him in the Gulfstream allowance to get ready for the Dubai World Cup. Going a mile, we feel he should be very fit for this race, and he deserves the opportunity.”

(above two quotes courtesy of Paulick Report:

Many of you will remember his last start (off of a 7 month layoff), back in February at a Gulfstream allowance race over a mile and a sixteenth on the turf, was meant as a prep for the following month’s Dubai World Cup, a 10F effort over the Tapeta surface. Three weeks after this winning effort, timed in 1:41.72 over a firm turf loop, Animal Kingdom was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the ilium, or in other words – a cracked pelvis. Surgery was not required and he was given a month of stall rest at Fair Hill before resuming training over the summer.

A few questions come to mind:

Why after a brilliant 2011 spring on dirt did Animal Kingdom head to turf?
Of course the breeding is there, but now he’s headed for 8F with a $2 million purse instead of the BC Classic over 10F for $5 million. He sure was fit for 10F in last May at CD, with no such layoff by the way.

Why no prep race this time?
In February he came off a long layoff to run at GP in an 8F+ effort that averaged 12.65 seconds per furlong, now he’ll make a HUGE step up to the BC Turf Mile, which was won last year by Court Vision in 1:37.05, or 12.13 seconds per furlong.

Why the sudden worry of a ‘bounce’?
He’s never bounced before, quite the opposite actually with a fast-closing 2nd in the Preakness off of short rest and a Derby triumph.

Why no changes in the training breezes this time around?
Ah, the good old weekly 4/5F works – a US staple. In Australia turfers are often worked fast 2-3x per week – so how’s the breakdown rate compare to ours over turf?

Per 1,000 starters, US horses breakdown 1.74 times vs the Australian rate of just 0.6 – a nearly 300% difference. And they are faster too, see Black Caviar – without running on Lasix or Bute.

Remember, Animal Kingdom also came out of his 2011 Belmont effort injured as well. That’s when the move to turf was initiated with an eye to a big future paycheck over Tapeta in Dubai. So, we have a twice-injured Animal Kingdom going into a big race next month off a longer layoff that preceded his last effort at Gulfstream, which ended in injury – even though that race was run over a half second per furlong slower than what is to be expected November 2nd.

Being ‘fit’ to race doesn’t simply mean you can make it around the track and get to the wire first, it also means that no trauma is found over the next few weeks after such an effort.

-If you win a race by 10 lengths and emerge injured, you were not fit for the task.
-If you win a race by 10 lengths and come back 5 weeks later to lose by a ton, you were not fit for the task either, as the horse was comprised psychologically, physiologically, or both.

The connections have rightfully decided they only have one more in the tank for this brilliant, soon-to-be stallion – and are shooting for the moon – hoping talent alone will save the day.

-The initial move to turf was made because soundness was a concern after the fractured cannon bone found following the 2011 Belmont.
-The decision to turn back in distance was made because soundness was still an issue after the fractured pelvis found after the Feb. 2012 allowance race at GP.
-No prep race this time around because soundness is still at the forefront after two relatively minor skeletal injuries following his last two races.
-At Santa Anita this winter Animal Kingdom will run, for him, a mediocre effort – and be retired (‘nothing else to accomplish’ will be the official reason…) OR win heroically and emerge injured for the THIRD time in 18 months, also leading to the nearest stud farm.

But if he loses he won’t be alone as I fully expect the West Coast contingent to dominate under-prepared East Coasters over the SA home dirt strip, much like they have done throughout the 2012 season:

P.S. I am suddenly reminded of Toby’s Corner pulling up lame before the Derby last year – after a 6F breeze at Fair Hill in preparation for the big race:

Much to Mr. Motion’s credit this problem was uncovered in the privacy of the farm training environment, will he similarly work Animal Kingdom 6F in the next 7-14 days?

EDIT 10/13/12:

‘This week, the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner’s exercise rider was fitted with a helmet cam as Animal Kingdom turned in an impressive-looking six-furlong work over the turf at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland.’

To re-confirm: I am not claiming the connections are racing an unsound horse, as the confidence to breeze 6F shows here – but that they are skipping the prep route due to the good chance one race is all AK has in him at this stage.

Casey Combest: The Human Seabiscuit

I may be the only horse racing fan who has never watched the movie ‘Seabiscuit’, because I aim to read the book first – yet have never gotten around to it. Regardless, I think the above video of fellow Kentuckian Casey Combest is illustrative of quite a few parallels to the 1938 Horse of the Year.

Note that Combest stands roughly 5’7 and tips the scales at 135lbs in this March 1999 video, where he was 17 years of age. Compared to his competitors, and all sprinters, he is extremely undersized and apparently lacks the powerful musculature necessary to propel oneself to near 30mph in less than 7 seconds.

Yet in his pre-race warmup we are afforded quite a hint to what will soon unfold as he completes a tuck jump, a common warm-up for many sprint athletes, and nearly JUMPS OFF THE VIDEO SCREEN:

What the hell is that? I have watched hundreds of hours of track meets around the world and have never seen anything like that. Several physiological studies have shown the correlation between vertical jump and first step acceleration, and not surprisingly a blazing start was Casey’s hallmark.

Olympic 100m gold medalist Carl Lewis once said, “I have been running track for over 20 years, and he has one of the best starts I have ever seen. The sky is the limit for [him].”

On March 14 in Columbus, Ohio, Combest set the national high school indoor mark for 60 meters with a 6.57. It was the 10th fastest time in the world to that point in 1999, and afterward former 100-meter world-record holder Leroy Burrell called Combest’s performance “fundamentally perfect.” Two weeks later, Tennessee’s Leonard Scott won the NCAA Division I national 60-meter title with a time of 6.58.

That’s right: this willowy HS senior ran a faster 60m sprint time than the NCAA champion. Let’s compare physiques, or as horsemen might say, conformation:

Now let’s tackle the elephant in the room; Combest is white and 99.9% of US sprinters are black. This fact brings into the equation the contribution of genetics to athletic performance. Here is a long-winded study concluding that black athletes have a center of mass that is 3% higher off the ground when compared to white athletes, which confers a sizable 1.5% speed advantage in sprinting, which is really a sport of controlled falling due to the pull of gravity:

Paradoxically, this higher center of mass is a detriment to swimmers, therefore white athletes similarly dominate that sport. Good thing no one told Casey Combest he should be in the pool.

So, Combest possessed the greatest start in the history of the sport – which made him nearly unbeatable at 60m. What are the odds this was 100% due to genetics? It has to be infinitesimal based on the data above. Here’s a clue:

From what I understand the hallway in the house he grew up in has a similar pathway worn into the carpet. Combest was known to practice his starts 20 times before bed every evening. Strangely enough, although he practiced his starting form obsessively, he never lifted weights and subsisted on a diet of Mountain Dew and cigarettes.

The world of horse racing focuses too much on pedigree in my opinion, and not enough on conditioning. Once the foal is born, or the hammer falls in the auction ring – any decision based on genetics is finished forever, what remains is the training environment. Constrain the exercise stimulus to 1.5 mile daily gallops and weekly 4-5F breezes, and your odds of DEVELOPING the next Casey Combest, or Seabiscuit, shrink to nil. Rather, you must win the genetic lottery.

61 years earlier Seabiscuit was just as under-sized and knobby-kneed compared to the top thoroughbreds of his day – but that didn’t stop him from beating War Admiral in the ‘Match of the Century’. Sadly Casey Combest never rose to similar heights in his profession. After routinely besting Lexington (KY) high school foe (and 2012 Olympic 100m 4th place finisher) Tyson Gay in 100m races throughout high school, Combest failed to academically qualify for the University of Kentucky and faded into obscurity.

Casey Combest today: