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:


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 bill@thoroedge.com 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?



About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on January 29, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. my experience with training racehorses at altitude is very different to that of George woodruff,I trained at 9000 feet(2700 mters) and what was able to determine after trial and error (no fancy aids to help me, it was late 1970’s)was that the horses took a lot less work to keep fit and that I had to be very gentle with two year olds and fillies of all ages,the proof of the pudding came when I took BLAKAMAN to run the caribbean classic held in Puerto Rico in 1983,we took him to Panama a month before the race to try and learn and aclimatize,the first and most important “eye opener” was that the horse gained nearly 70 pounds in his first week there,that forced me to set out a much more intense training regime which continued to 4 days before the race when he went 5 furlongs in 1.01flat considered by most experts “suicidial” and ill advised,as all this was happening the favorite for the race who had also come from altitude (EL villano from mexico city) would spend the whole week cantering idly, when I realized that he was not going to be put thru his paces all that was left for me to conclude was that he had been given “the last rites”by his trainer,sure enough come the race my horse made a great effort to come from last to second (9furlongs was always going to be against him) while El Villano lasted 5 furlongs before running out of petrol (gas).the race can be viewed on utube clasico del caribe 1983. there is no doubt in my mind that at sea level race horses need to exercise harder to keep racing fit as compared to altitude training.

    • I tend to agree with you Rodrigo.

      In my mind one may have to back off a bit when first training at altitude, but as the horse gets used to the lower concentration of oxygen (by creating more red blood cells) one can then actually train further/faster/more frequently than at sea level. Then when you ship to near 0 elevation, you should be much fitter than those who train/live at that altitude.

      I wouldnt try to acclimatize however, as that month at sea level would ‘cost’ you the extra oxygen carrying red blood cells you developed when training at 2700m. What was the elevation in Panama?

      Here is that video for anyone to see:

  1. Pingback: So Big is Better Storms to Arabian Breeders Cup Win | ThoroEdge Equine Performance

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