Monthly Archives: January 2013

Mine That Bird and Canonero II – Both Derby Longshot Winners Trained at High Altitudes


Mine that Bird and Canonero II are commonly recognized as the biggest upsets in modern Derby history, with post time odds only surpassed by the 91-1 Doneraile, winner of the 1913 edition of this American classic. Bird went off at 51-1 and Canonero II wasn’t even deemed fit to be an entry, and since betting machines back then could only 12 entries – he was grouped in with 6 horses that year in the mutuel field. Both also made strong late runs; Canonero coming from 18th, Bird memorably from dead last – to win with relative ease at the wire. However, the similarities don’t end there – as both of these historic longshot winners benefitted from conditioning work done at high altitudes. Bird in New Mexico, Canonero in Venezuela.


South Africa seems to be the only country where living/training at higher altitudes but shipping to lower elevations to race is commonplace due to a unique topographical profile. A recent article in European Trainer Magazine says it better than I can, with many real life success stories:—training-horses-at-altitude–cms-373

Some interesting quotes from this well-written story: (please click on the link to read it all)

Trainer Corne Spies is based at The Vaal training centre, about an hour from Johannesburg, which lies at 1740m above sea level. He said, “Traveling the other way (from the coast to high altitude) is a problem. But going from altitude to sea level is advantageous due to the increased oxygen content of the air. If the horses stay at the coast after their runs they tend to go flat. It would take about six weeks or two months for them to acclimatise and they would then begin to thrive. But taking them in and out is not a problem, so I ship them up and down to keep the positive effect of high altitude training.”

And I, for one, did not know this: Horses have two types of red blood cells: rigid, and balloon-like. Horses with more balloon-like cells move blood into the muscles and the lungs more easily. On average, horses have 40% rigid and 60% fluid cells, so one with only 5% rigid cells would have a tremendous advantage.

Geoff Woodruff, a five-time champion South African trainer, is well qualified to speak about the impact of altitude, having trained out of the coastal city of Cape Town as well as Johannesburg, having also campaigned extensively in Kwazulu-Natal. Woodruff said, “You tend to have to work them harder at altitude, in order to get a horse fitter it has to reach a stage where it is in oxygen debt. Incrementally, you will work the horse to reach this stage until it is fit enough to race, and at altitude horses need to be fitter to race because the oxygen content of the air is less.”

Ah yes, one of my favorite concepts – oxygen debt. Where that comes into play in my work is during speedwork/breezes. I estimate the amount of oxygen debt incurred through analyzing heart rate recovery data at consistent intervals once the fast pace ends, typically under the finish line. I want horses to undertake a piece of fast work that elicits a 2min HR recovery around 130bpm, with the 5min number around 100bpm (based on a 230bpm maximum). Any less and the work was too easy, any more and it was too hard. Trainers will find that one can go 1-2F further in work over synthetic surfaces than on dirt with the same horse, as the 50% lower concussive forces of artificial surfaces makes the going easier which is reflected in a lower oxygen debt.

If you haven’t yet please read the whole piece from European Trainer, as several SA based conditioners relate their differing approaches to altitude training. But, one doesn’t have to build a training center on top of the nearest mountain range to reap these benefits, as a few US based companies manufacture altitude stalls (where the horse lives up to 20 hours per day) and even enclose high speed treadmills under a dome, where high altitudes are simulated. Check these guys out:

They also have a very powerful testimonial/endorsement from millionaire trotter Broad Bahn, a recent winner of the Hambletonian.

Lastly, please do not confuse altitude training with the growing presence of hyperbaric chambers, like this one:


Hyperbaric chambers actually INCREASE the pressure of oxygen, in an effort to increase the efficacy of antibiotics, and improve injury repair time in horses around the world. Interestingly enough, humans use such technology to enhance recovery time in healthy athletes as part of the training process. If any enterprising horseman/woman wants to give it a shot – I have access to a used mobile dual horse hyperbaric chamber for sale at a big discount, just shoot me an inquiry to and I can put you in touch with the seller.

P.S. Why does he want to get rid of it? He was venting the oxygen from it last month, went around the corner of the building to check the external vent, and found one of his grooms smoking – a big no-no next to one of these things. Made him nervous as hell. Then he thought for a second: this guy wrecks my trailers once in a while, do I really want him near high pressure oxygen with his smokes?



Would You Ban Lance Armstrong if He Was A Trainer?


Armstrong was banned for life recently from competitive cycling (and triathlons), even before his public admission of guilt, but the fact remains that he passed hundreds of drug tests in his lengthy career, hundreds of them. Possibly, he failed 1-2 such tests that he was able to cover up with his money, power, and influence – but that hasn’t been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, yet. Any ‘proof’ of such violations would be in the form of yet more circumstantial evidence – mounds of which have led to his current suspension.

So, if he was a US thoroughbred trainer – you would have hundreds of horses that had run under his name and been drug tested in multiple jurisdictions, passing in every incidence, but he would currently be serving a lengthy suspension based primarily on the testimony of his fellow trainers, grooms, assistants, etc. It’s also important to note here, some of his more well-known accusers – men such as Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, are fellow drug users who FAILED the same types of drug tests that Armstrong passed, then lied under questioning about the results. Landis even wrote a book called ‘Positively False’, while Hamilton posited his failed test was due to the infamous ‘vanishing twin’ theory: where unbeknownst to him he was conceived as a twin, but his sibling perished quite early, leaving some different blood behind.

And these guys are your expert witnesses. They’re no choirboys.

Of course there are many others willing to testify to Armstrong’s abuses, and they cannot all be lying, and Armstrong was a famous jerk: a bully bent on vengeance to all those who opposed him. Similarly, Rick Dutrow is quite mouthy with the press, and fellow trainers surely can’t be happy when he says things like this about fellow Belmont competitor Casino Drive:

“I saw him coming off the track when somebody pointed him out to me. There’s no way in the world he can beat Big Brown. He’s just another horse in the race. Big Brown will have to school him just like he’s done to every other horse.”

Imagine banning Rick Dutrow for life based on the eyewitness testimony of other trainers themselves possessing a laundry list of violations (yet always steadfastly maintaining their innocence) and a handful of ex-employees who had been dismissed over the years – yet Dutrow never failed such a test. (In real life he did, of course, dozens upon dozens of them.)

Just what is the purpose of drug tests in cycling, then?

I’ve heard cyclists, and probably Lance himself, refer to these drug screenings as pesudo IQ tests: meaning you have to be a dummy to get caught. Many are not aware that cycling drug tests are not necessarily geared (pun intended) to expose a foreign substance, but to determine if blood values are within pre-defined naturally-occurring ranges. Let’s examine one such test: the T:E Ratio – or the ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in the blood. The approved range used to be 6:1, but was lowered to 4:1 several years ago. Allegedly, 3 times in the 1990s Armstrong tested up to 9:1, but when the ‘B’ sample was tested (a more extensive screening involving carbon isotopes), the result was within the approved range.

Again, imagine a trainer testing above the level of TCO2 allowed on 3 instances out of hundreds of runners – those findings being dis-proven by B sample testing, but then punishing him anyway based on the eyewitness accounts of rival trainers who had failed the same tests but ‘saw’ him with the box of baking soda and the gastric tube in hand. That is what happened to Armstrong.

Today the question is moot because he admitted to cheating for the past 2 decades, but let me take this chance to enlighten a few on the scientific advances Armstrong brought to cycling. First off, conditioning for cycling throughout Europe was typically ‘racing oneself into shape’. Legions of top level cyclists would sit around the months before the big races literally eating cheese and drinking wine. Similarly, in the US golfers used to be quite a lethargic beer-swilling bunch until Tiger Woods came along and changed the way many prepared for such events.

Armstrong, during his rise to prominence, spent hundreds of more miles on his bike than did his competition, quite often in the hills of Spain many months before the Tour de France. Likewise, Rick Dutrow isn’t afraid to buck (pun again intended) tradition by running his horses back on short rest to great success:

Perhaps my favorite nugget gleaned from reading several books on cycling science was the concept that Lance rode with a much different RPM value than had previously been utilized in the European cycling classics. Typically men would choose a bicycle gear that would allow them to turn their legs at a pace of 90 revolutions per minute. Most famously, German star Jan Ullrich would turn his pedals at a snail-like 70rpm, putting massive stresses on the muscles of his legs – and he won the Tour in 1997 with such a method. Lance also pedaled similarly before his bout with testicular cancer, but when he came back he, along with physiologist Chris Carmichael, eschewed conventional ‘wisdom’ and found that Lance generated more sustainable power at 110bpm – while simultaneously lessening the stress on his legs and passing it onto his titanic cardiovascular system. Now, many follow that lead – but he was the first.

Back to Dutrow, who I’ve noted in the past is still a huge proponent of the pre-race blowout made famous by old school conditioners like Carl Nafzger:

Please don’t take this post as an homage to either Armstrong or Dutrow; these two pathological cheaters deserve their punishments. But don’t overlook how Armstrong was ‘convicted’, nor the fact that both men also used physiological edges, frowned upon by many at the top of their respective sports, to achieve greatness – as sullied as these achievements now appear. They won not only because they cheated better than other cheaters, but also because they were practicing their craft differently than the others who followed carbon-copy methods.

Lastly, I owe Armstrong, actually his coach Chris Carmichael, a debt of gratitude for showing me how physiological testing and analysis in training can help one become a better competitor – but of course I adapt that to horses.

Before entering a young horse in a big race, like these Derby preps, I like to see them 2 min lick for one mile with their heart rates staying below 85% of maximum – that tells me they possess the aerobic stamina to run 9F at race pace. Likewise, I’d like to see the same youngster breeze 5F in 1:00 or better displaying a maximum value over 220bpm and showing half that number, 110bpm, as a heart rate recovery number within 2min after passing under the wire, during the gallop out. To enter a 3yo in a big race without those metabolic numbers is sure to be a bad idea – because that’s what the winners of those races possess under the hood.

Here is a brief blog entry I authored regarding this topic on my 40th birthday a while back:

The Vaunted Ft. Erie to Woodbine Angle, and Used Treadmills

Rood and Riddle Treadmill exam 2010 Rolex Tour MR

Not a very clever title to this post, but I need to cover 2 different angles today, my apologies. Let’s do the last thing first, why not? I have 2 used high speed equine treadmills that are looking for a new home, please email me at for details.

Price is discounted 50-75% from new. Quality used machines don’t hit the market that often, but in this case we have a retiring trainer looking to unload some nice gear.

Now the interesting part of the post: One trainer had 5 horses leave Ft. Erie and head up to Woodbine this season and record claiming wins. For those of you not aware of the HUGE class difference here is a quick primer on these 2 Canadian circuits:

In 2012 a typical $10k claim ran for a purse of:

$24,000 at Woodbine.
$14,000 at Ft. Erie.

In 2012 an allowance race carried a purse of:

$67,000 at Woodbine.
$18,600 at Ft. Erie.

I wish I was an astute enough researcher to see how many other horses, not trained by this gentleman, made the large jump in class from FE to WO and emerged victorious. Any sharp handicappers or turf writers out there willing to help? I can look back at this trainer’s 2011 record and note that ZERO of his horses were able to make that jump, despite several attempts. Here is some past performance info on the lucky 5 from our friends at Betfair:

Attitude Included


Sunny Weather

Fiji Boy


I post this info reluctantly, but sometimes I like to toot my own horn – as all of these horses were on STORM. A few times in the comment section of this blog readers have taken me to task for talking about the one supplement that I sell, inferring that I was simply trying to sell a product (heaven forbid). But these results are remarkable, and I have tested several other supplements that failed to produce results, and therefore have never graced the pages of this blog.

I also tout the benefits of the Niagara Equissage saddle at and Photobiostimulation therapy from although I have no financial interest in either.

My point is, when you objectively quantify thoroughbred fitness with HR/GPS and blood lactate equipment, you uncover some modalities that seem to improve nearly every horse across the board – and when you find those gems, you better use them.

Attention Aussies: 2013 Kentucky Derby Tour Fast Approaching


Thoroedge has agreed to help host a group of horsemen from Down Under at this year’s classic American race. See the itinerary here and contact Geoff if interested:

Personally I’m looking forward to meeting tour attendee Joe Janiak; certainly the most famous ‘taxi cab driver turned racehorse trainer’ worldwide. Thanks to reader Anni for sending me the book about Mr. Janiak which details his handling of super sprinter/gelding Takeover Target – a $1250 purchase by Joe who went on to earn $6 million worldwide, winning major stakes in 4 countries. For a conditioning enthusiast like myself, being able to pick his brain for several hours next April here on my home turf is going to be fantastic-



‘Son, if you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now quiet, they’re about to announce the lottery numbers…’

That’s my favorite quote from Mr. Simpson teaching his son about the ways of the world, yet he didn’t leave out his daughter when handing out advice: ‘Lisa, if you don’t like your job you don’t strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the American way.’

But, back to business. As promised over a year ago; I am still working on my book called Internal Horsemanship, and hope to have it ready before my 43rd birthday on March 14th. The electronic version will always be free, but I do plan on offering a paperback edition – and I need some help with the cover and other illustrations. One of which I would like to resemble the above of Homer (but with a galloping horse viewed from the side), a takeoff on Leonardo DaVinci’s Virtruvian Man below:


Does anyone know someone capable of such work? If so, please send contact info to, and it would be much appreciated. Here’s a quick peek at the VERY rough draft of the website that will host a full version of the book for any interested readers:

Lastly, if anyone has any experiences – good or bad – in training with a HR/GPS monitor, and would like to include them in the book, please send them in to me. I have several, but would always like to include more if possible. Here is one great story for those who have missed it:

Now I leave you with a great testimonial I received last month from the harness world:

“I’ve started using the heart rate monitor and have had good results so far. I just trained a horse at V200 for a mile and a quarter this past Saturday and would like you to take a look. The horse is a 7 year old standardbred racehorse. I’ve been working him at the V200 level 3 days before racing, jogging in the aerobic/recovery range all other days of the week. He won his last start and looked really good in the stretch going off at odds 36/1.”

My goal with the book is to receive a few more dozen testimonials like this one, which would make for a great 2013!-