Monthly Archives: June 2013
We’ve got this filly who keeps hitting herself in the front legs when she runs over the training track. Doesn’t happen at a gallop, but always happens when we approach, and go past, the 15sec/furlong barrier. Not huge gashes mind you, but enough to be uncomfortable. We put the rundown patches on, and she even hit herself above them. Frustrating.
Enter Niagara Equissage.
You may recall a post I did a few years back detailing how this ‘massage saddle’, (as it is referred to on the backstretch), helped me get a horse back to the winner’s circle:
Well, we’re not at that point yet with this youngster, but we are certainly closer now that we solved the run-down problem. We began using the device 3 times a day for 20 minutes at a time: immediately before the daily exercise, immediately after the cool down, and again in mid-afternoon just because she likes it.
First fast gallop – no more front leg injuries. None, just gone. Quite a relief, as often these seemingly minor cuts in training can lead to grabbing a quarter on raceday, something it’s wise to avoid as the downtime/risk of infection can be a pain to the horse as well as the owner’s wallet.
No more leg interference then led to some faster works: last 3F from the gate in a respectable :37 flat for this Indiana-bred with questionable bloodlines.
*Interestingly enough, one morning the trainer couldn’t get his truck to start, so he hopped in his car to make the drive to the training center, leaving the Niagara Equissage behind in his trunk. She again cut herself that morning during an open gallop finishing in just :30 for 2F down the lane. You gotta be kidding me!*
Here is a diagram showing all the physiological systems that cyclonic vibration can help improve, and I can certainly attest to the ‘improved joint mobility’ aspect.
Getting those shoulder joints nice and loose allows my filly to get out of her own way and avoid injury – after this experience I agree with trainer Michael Matz:
“The Niagara Equissage is great for warming up and relaxing horses before daily training. We use it for pre-race warm up and for post-race stiffness. We also find that it works great on fillies that tie up.”
More info here: http://www.equineproductsllc.com/
Now, that’s impressive! Video, workout fractions, stride length, and HR/GPS data all available online for viewing by owners/trainers/investors in real-time! Your trainer simply uses the special girth attachment, there is no other equipment to manage nor any computer skills required.
Here’s the link if you care to explore further:
What does the little piece of technology that makes this possible look like? Amazingly, just a simple addition to the traditional girth strap:
The technology is courtesy of Gmax Technology Ltd: http://www.gmaxequine.com/ , who are currently looking to raise investment and for lead customers.
For more information contact Gmax through their website or David Gregory at firstname.lastname@example.org
Animal Kingdom’s recent loss at Royal Ascot highlighted many of the vast differences between thoroughbred racing in the UK versus the US. Many are well known such as pace and turf topography, but a few only appear if you catch a certain glimpse of TV footage or are lucky enough to attend a UK race in person. Even better, if you can ‘spy’ on a training session over the hills at Newmarket!
First off, the 2 video clips above. The top one shows the pre-race activities of #13 Elusive Kate, who would go on to finish 4th. This is the only warmup I caught other than that of Animal Kingdom, the ‘star’ of video two. Note how she blasts out of pretty much a walk and powers down the turf at a very decent clip. In my experience, the vast majority of UK based runners warm up in such a manner – whether the race be a 5F or 10F affair.
Contrast with the pre-race jog of Animal Kingdom, with pony accompaniment in the second video clip. Which do you feel is a more appropriate warmup for racing a mile on an uphill turf course?
I’ve talked about this before; even in Japan over dirt the warm-ups are quite extensive; also where no Lasix is used to combat EIPH over a hard dirt surface:
(in hindsight, ‘proof’ was not the correct word to use in this post, perhaps ‘evidence’ would have been more accurate)
Next, thanks to some data compiled from a Group 1 winner training at Newmarket a few years back, we also know what a typical ‘speedwork’ day looks like across the pond:
That’s 2 steep uphill climbs in 15-16sec/furlong fractions totaling nearly 8F, separated by a 12-15 minute walk down one hill and over to the next. I am told Newmarket-based trainees do this TWICE weekly when in a maintenance phase during a racing campaign. This is Equine Interval Training done right.
US-based horses such as Animal Kingdom don’t condition in such a manner, even at Fair Hill in Maryland. After a stirring 10F win in Dubai and several thousand travel miles, did Graham Motion take his foot off the gas a bit? Don’t get me wrong, I know AK had some stiff uphill gallops in his race prep, but to this extent, and twice a week? Doubtful – I expect the once weekly 4F effort was the prescription.
You simply can’t go to a UK course and beat a bunch of closers at their own game, not without similar physiological preparations. The only hope Animal Kingdom had was squashed as Velasquez restrained an eager soon-to-be-stud from taking the early lead. Quite possibly he could have set an aggressive pace that would have sapped the closing kick of the others who rarely witness such a strategy. Alas, we’ll never know.
Like Zenyatta, Animal Kingdom now heads to stud off of a disappointing loss. A loss that quite possibly could have been avoided with a more aggressive preparation in the minutes and weeks leading up to their respective final dances:
If he was a thoroughbred, the guy on your right, Kirani James, would be excoriated for his poor conformation and/or fail any stride analysis at a 2yo in training sale. His lower legs ‘paddle’ out at strange angles compared to the other two runners: Jeremy Wariner on the far left, and Lashawn Merritt in the middle. Of course, Kirani James is the defending gold medalist in the 400m (the only gold medalist ever from the island nation of Grenada), and those other two fellows are world class as well. Go figure.
While watching James race Merritt last weekend in Oregon, I began to put together some ideas on the differences between conditioning equine and human athletes. First off, we can use many of the same tools and exercise physiology principles for both, but the magnitude of these can vary greatly. All differences can be boiled down to a single concept: that of ‘predator vs prey’.
Humans are predators, we hunt animals and eat the meat they provide. Horses are prey, they are hunted by animals such as wolves, their primary natural enemies in the wild, and are vegetarians. Yet, both humans and horses undertake physical conditioning in order to compete amongst each other running over a distance of ground. Humans primarily race from 60 meters on up to 26 miles – while quarter horses may run 220 yards and endurance horses often race 100 miles. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on human middle distance runners at 400m, and compare them to thoroughbreds racing at 1600m/1mile/8 furlongs.
A world-class human 400m runner may post a time of 44 seconds, and a champion thoroughbred miler approaches 1:34, or 94 seconds. I choose these 2 distances because each matches up with an approximate energy expenditure of:
-14% ATP-CP (phosphagen)
-38% aerobic (with oxygen)
-48% anaerobic (without oxygen)
That’s my basis for comparison; neither total time of the event nor total distance covered, but the relative metabolic requirements. Likewise, it’s not accurate to compare a horserace to other human sports such as basketball, because horses just run – they don’t shoot, pass, or execute strategy. These track-based events are often referred to as ‘middle-distance’ for both humans and horses alike.
Horses are literally bred to run, humans are not. For the sake of this post; we’ll call the ideal race pace of a human the 4 minute mile, and that of the horse the 12 second furlong. All selectively bred horses can achieve that 12sec/f pace for limited distances even in the absence of training, whereas no human can accomplish the same. Think of it in terms of a progression:
*Horse: 12 sec/furlong achieved nearly from birth
*Human: must first achieve speeds of, say, 8 min/mile, then 7:30, 7 flat, etc.
The horse, as an animal of prey, is ‘hard-wired’ from birth to achieve top speeds at a very early age, and without the benefit of physical conditioning, otherwise he/she would be eaten by wolves. Conversely, the human must progressively GROW physiologically in order to step-by-step reach the 4 min/mile benchmark, over a period of several years (4 min/mile equates to 15 sec per 100m).
How is this reflected physiologically? A newborn horse can ‘rev-up’ his engine to achieve maximal HR (heart rate) within 6 seconds, while a world class human must train extensively for several years to accomplish the same feat in 40 seconds. That is a massive difference. Humans must condition themselves progressively to reach ideal race paces, allowing their internal systems to grow and support such a progression. Horses don’t. A talented horse can make the worst trainer look like a genius, for a brief moment in time.
Both horses and humans have built in safety mechanisms within their muscles, ligaments, and tendons – these are called proprioceptors. The Muscle Spindle Apparatus is found within the muscle itself, while the Golgi Tendon Organ is found within the softer tissues. Both act to protect damage to these structures resulting from excessive loads and/or extreme stretching. However, the threshold for each to become active and lesson muscular contraction is vastly different between predators and prey. Today you may be capable of rising from your desk and running 100m in 20 seconds and coming out of that experience in one piece. But, if a criminal was to point a gun at your head and demand you go faster, your proprioceptors would change their thresholds for activation – and you would find a way to cover the same distance in perhaps 17.5 seconds – but tomorrow you would be sore as hell, and likely injured to some degree. Horses run as if a metaphorical gun is pointed to their heads every morning, until they become psychologically trained to relax and obey rider cues. This ability is what allows them to survive in nature when confronted by a predator, it also allows them to win races that they shouldn’t win.
*A quick aside: just out of college I lived in a house with a football player and a baseball player. I played basketball in school, and one night all of us were arguing which sport had the best athletes. We were all the same age and had about the same level of success, or lack thereof, in our respective sports. After some discussion, we headed outside to race – I think roughly 100m. I was the only one who had been drinking quite a bit that evening, so I was certainly being quite annoyingly sure of myself. I remember it being pretty cold out, and none of us idiots warmed up at all. We raced 3 times and I won every single race, but it was close. I was sore for WEEKS afterwards, in places I didn’t even know I had. The alcohol had dumbed down my proprioceptors, and I was allowed to run much faster than I was capable of on that night. Lesson learned – don’t do this to your horses.
There are probably other differences I could cite, but you get the idea – it all boils down to who is a predator and who is prey. A human is fit if he wins a race, but not necessarily a horse. If a horse wins a race and emerges injured – it is not always a ‘bad step’, it is just as often unpreparedness and or a willingness to run past his/her physiological infrastructure that is the true culprit – something humans cannot do unless under an imminent threat, or a case of beer fueling a too large ego!
EFFECTS OF DRUGS
Everyday around the world, horseracing is the only sport where females and geldings routinely beat males. How can that be? Simple, if nature allowed female horses to be less athletic than males – all of them would soon be eaten by wolves and the species would become extinct. So, in addition to being wired differently in order to escape predators, nature has neutralized the effects of male hormones such as testosterone on equine athletic ability. Unless every filly/racemare/gelding in the world is being given regular injections to compete on equal footing with the boys, that is. Some will make that argument, believe it or not, but that doesn’t explain the equal athletic performance found in nature that ensures survivability of the species.
Now drugs meant to mask pain are a different story entirely. Not only do these substances cover up an unpleasant sensation within the body, but they also dumb down the proprioceptors much like several beers does to a human subject. They simply allow horses to run faster and further despite the presence of physiological warning signs. It could be argued that Lasix does the same, but that is another subject for another time.
Similarly, it’s commonly postulated within the veterinary community that a horse’s respiratory system is untrainable. I tend to agree – no amount of conditioning can change the size of a horse’s airways. But drugs can. Any bronchodilator serves to expand the diameter of an airway, allowing for more oxygen to reach the lungs and working muscles. Don’t confuse the true reason for use of clenbuterol – it’s not merely to alleviate allergy symptoms.
(Quick disclaimer: I market and sell an equine supplement named STORM worldwide.) Often it takes me 20 minutes to explain what an equine exercise physiologist does, so a few years back I went out to find another product/service to sell that I could explain to anyone in 20 seconds. Enter STORM.
During this process, I first looked at creatine – a common human supplement for bodybuilders and other power athletes. I used the substance myself 15+ years ago, and immediately noticed significant strength gains in the weight room alongside an approximate 3% gain in bodyweight within 10 days. This was not muscle, but it was retained water within the muscle – which allows for greater leverage and more powerful muscular contractions. Many equine shops sell creatine, despite the fact that 3 separate research studies done in the lab could not definitively prove absorption through the equine gut. So, no go. Horses and humans are different, remember.
Next up, I looked at EPO Equine – a natural substance purported to legally increase red blood cell production, and therefore, improve oxygen delivery to working muscles. The equine spleen stores as much as 30% of the RBCs found in a thoroughbred’s bloodstream; contracting and releasing these cells into the blood when deemed necessary during exercise. That makes it quite difficult to assess the changes in RBC concentration when dosing EPO Equine, as you never know precisely how much of that splenic blood is in circulation. So, I passed on this one as well – but the experience highlights the uniqueness of the equine spleen, no human spleen serves as a RBC storage device: predator vs prey, remember?
Lastly, we come to the amino acid known as beta-alanine. Humans have been experimenting with it for years, albeit with not a lot of proven data backing up its efficacy. Of course the equine nutrition PHDs behind the product handed me much laboratory data, and one fact JUMPED off the page. Beta-alanine combines with another amino acid in the body to form a dipeptide known as carnosine. Carnosine is gold to a racehorse, as it is released into the muscle during intense exercise, blunting the buildup of lactic acid. However, the typical human muscle possesses but 8% carnosine concentration, while the typical equine muscle holds over 30%. Bingo! Carnosine as an intramuscular buffer during exercise is 400% more important to horses than humans. Yet another significant difference between the two species. Realizing these physiological differences can save you time and money when attempting to improve your thoroughbred’s performance on the track.
Lastly, we can discuss actual physical conditioning. It would be rather boring to dissect the traditional, at least in the US, program of 1.5 mile daily gallops and 4-5F weekly works/breezes. Let’s talk about something controversial instead: Interval Training.
For our 400m human athlete, interval training forms the basis of his regimen. If he is a 44sec runner like the elite, that averages out to 22sec per 200m and/or 11sec per 100m. Many of his exercise sessions will be based up on these shorter distances: completing multiple repetitions at race pace or faster, with varying periods of rest in between – hence the name ‘intervals’. Common among human athletes are rest intervals between periods of work that allow only incomplete recovery – perhaps along the line of a 120bpm heart rate, roughly 60% of a 200bpm maximum.
The legendary Tom Ivers, rest in peace, was perhaps 3 decades ahead of his time with the publication of his work entitled The Fit Racehorse (volumes 1 and 2). He understood the benefits of interval training and its massive effect on human performance.
For example, in 1972 the legendary Mark Spitz won a gold medal and set a world record in the 200m freestyle with a time of 1:52.78. Just 26 years later a 15 year old named Ian Crocker posted a time of 1:49.48, more than 3 seconds faster! The kid was 15 for crying out loud. Michael Phelps? In Beijing he won the gold medal in 1:42.96. Water hasn’t changed in the last 40 years; the primary drivers behind these faster times are interval training and improved nutritional supplementation.
However, Mr. Ivers prescribed human style interval training, with short rest periods eliciting incomplete recovery, for racehorses. Some thrived, namely an Irish horse named Stanerra who famously won 2 group one stakes races in 3 days at Royal Ascot – while galloping as many as 12 miles a day and firing off numerous half mile breezes in a row in a typical training session. Sadly, for every Stanerra there were perhaps another several hundred horses who broke down under such a demand.
Owner/trainer Frank Dunne called me on the phone a few years back to talk about his brilliant racemare. She was quite literally plucked out of a pasture and put on Ivers’ program. Oh yeah, she also won the Japan Cup.
Pretty much everyone who has ever tried interval training on horses has done it incorrectly. You must be galloping a solid 2 miles or more daily for weeks to develop a sound foundation of mitochondria and capillary beds, and you must have a HR monitor to assure complete HR recovery to 80bpm or so between intervals of fast work – and 3 such intervals would be the maximum, 2 more the norm.
Think of Interval Training as the icing on the proverbial cake; if you don’t yet have the cake baked, the icing does you no good. And you will likely get sick just eating icing by itself-
In conclusion; we can use the same tools behind improved human performance, but we must use them at different magnitudes on these animals of prey. Tools such as heart rate monitors with GPS, blood lactate analyzers, high speed treadmills, etc. are becoming more commonplace around the world, although the US seems to lag behind in this regard.
Take a young trainer who is winless from his first 18 starts, a first time starter, an inexperienced jockey, and race against a 4/5 favorite and what do you get? Why, a 10 length win over 5.5 furlongs of course!
Sadly I can’t find a race replay to link to here, but please join me in recognizing and congratulating Lexington, KY based conditioner Matthew Chappell on his first win. As all young trainers with limited quality stock, Matt got off to a slow start in 2012, but is rapidly improving this year. Just last week at venerable Churchill Downs he ran a strong 4th at odds of 77-1, beaten less than 5 lengths – AGAIN with a first time starter facing a field of more experienced runners:
One of the main things I takeaway from this game is just how difficult it is to be competitive as a young trainer. Another thing I learn is that young trainers often are afraid to work their horses quickly, as the last thing they want is an injury before raceday. Matt routinely works his horses fast at Thoroughbred Training Center in Lexington prior to their first starts, and each of the above runners posted bullet works:
*Bourbon Best: April 23 – TTC – 3F – 37.2 – 1/14
*Fancita Mae: May 15 – TTC – 3F – 37.2 – 1/6
Best of luck to Matt in the future and the owners who take a chance with him. (as always, you can click on the above charts to enlarge them)
Many of you will remember the remarkable story of Times Ahead and his brilliant young trainer Bart Hermans in The Netherlands. If not, please take time to read his insider’s account:
I cannot stress enough how much unique info is included in the above link, literally a step-by-step account of taking an injured horse from a top barn and making him ultracompetitive in several different EU countries last season, and now he’s back for more. Under Hermans’ tutelage and aggressive scientifically-based conditioning, oft-injured Times Ahead has made 12 starts – with 4 wins, 4 places, 3 shows, and 1 fourth place finish over 2 seasons. His most recent 2 wins came after a 16 month layoff.
To summarize the video above; Times Ahead is in 3rd place at 2:44, making his move on the turn as the jock gets busy with his hands. 2:56 finds him taking the lead into the turn. At 3:07 he moves a few paths closer to the rail, widening his margin to 5+ lengths, and at 3:27 you see a very healthy post-win gallop out.
Perhaps most amazing is that Times Ahead, after dominating the field over 10.5 furlongs in the above race, was back to training aggressively just 5 days later in preparation for a 14 furlong event later this summer – and training in interval fashion, nonetheless:
A quick refresher course: this chart comes from the Polar Equine RS800CX G3 heart rate/GPS monitor (US$600). The red line is heart rate, the blue line is speed, and the x-axis is elapsed time. The closer the red line/blue line relationship, the better.
From time 0 to time 15:00 is the traditional warm-up phase. Note the very low HR under tack at the beginning; a horse wearing a saddle sporting a HR of 27bpm is extremely aerobically fit. Alone in his stall he’s likely under 25bpm, which is insanely low. That’s much lower than any world class human athlete, yet our boy weighs 1000 lbs+. Most often this ‘under tack heart rate’ is from 40-80bpm.
Beginning at time 20:00 you see the first interval: 4F in :57. In contrast to a human interval regimen, this serves more as a complete warm-up than an actual piece of work. As expected, his HR recovery plummets quite quickly, dropping to 96bpm less than 2min after the end of the roughly 14sec final furlong. Again unlike human intervals, a more complete rest interval is undertaken – here 6 minutes. At time 27:25 he breaks off for his true speedwork: a blazing 4F in :45 and change. After the wire, we start the HR recovery clock – 2min later HR is 125bpm, dropping to 116bpm 5min after peak speed. A third interval after this one would certainly have been overkill.
Now, let’s assume that we skipped the first interval, and went straight to a 4F/:45 breeze, as is the custom in the US. What would this chart look like? Well I’ve seen those charts, and the HR recovery is typically quite poor – along the line of 160bpm at the 2min mark and 140bpm at the 5min checkpoint. That type of recovery is indicative of a high chance of injury, while Times Ahead should move forward off his 125/116bpm data.
So that’s a typical speedwork session for Times Ahead, and here is a graphical representation of a ‘slow’ day gallop:
That’s 6+ total miles, with 3.6 miles worth of interval-style sub-maximal gallops: each consisting of 5 furlongs ranging from 16-22 seconds/furlong pace with rest intervals of 20-40 seconds between each. Note how each successive interval gets a bit faster and has a higher working HR, yet when the session is over HR recovery drops to 80bpm in less than 5min. The first interval serves as a warm-up, the last serves to improve cooling out, and the 4 middle ones are where the work is done. How many horses do you know that gallop 3.6 miles on an ‘easy’ day 2/3 times a week?
Congrats to Bart and best of luck throughout 2013, as he has a few youngsters coming into their own.
Friend/Follow Bart on Facebook to stay updated with his growing stables’ progress: https://www.facebook.com/bartjehermans
While watching Palice Malice come home the final quarter in a glacial 27.58 seconds I couldn’t help but wonder if winning times in the third jewel of the Triple Crown in the 2:30+ range are becoming the new norm?
As you can see, I am nearly Excel illiterate – so let me explain the data. The Y-axis is the winning time in seconds, averaged for each decade to control for equine gods such as Secretariat and also for varying track conditions at Big Sandy (hence the above image) as well as different pace scenarios which can effect final times. The X-axis represents each decade, with the 1 corresponding to the limited data set of the 2010’s – 4 years, and the 9 representing the 1930’s – the first full 10 year span where the race was run at its current 12 furlong distance.
So, the number 4 on the horizontal axis is the fastest decade (1980’s) when you average the 10 winners’ times and come to a value of 147.94, or 2:27.94. This was quite surprising to me, as I figured the 144 flat/2:24 posted by Secretariat in 1973 would have given the decade of the 70’s (number 5 on my chart) the title.
Of note, the 1980’s never had a final winning time over 2:30, but Secretariat’s decade had 2 such plodders: High Echelon and Pass Catcher in 1970 and 1971, respectively. That is my first point. The 2010’s have so far blessed us with 4 consecutive winning times at 2:30.42 or slower – which hasn’t happened since the early 1930’s.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the overall trend was towards markedly faster Belmont winning times from the 30’s through the 80’s, with a bit of a flattening out around Secretariat’s heroics – but since that era the winning times have crept back upwards towards the 2:30 mark. Granted 2010-2013 is only 40% of the decade, but these 4 winners have dug a hole impossible to get out of, statistically speaking.
What we will be left with come 2020 is a symmetrical version of the above chart – where the 3 decades since the 1980’s will show a gradual INCREASE in the overall winning time of the Belmont when averaged by decade, a trendline that pretty closely matches the overall DECREASE in overall winning time from 1940-1970 – how long will this trend continue?
I am 99% certain there is no sport other than US thoroughbred racing where the winning times of a premier event today are equal to those from the 1940’s. Times are faster in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, as well as in the biggest US harness race:
(EDIT: I am not positive, but I believe Lasix was made legal in NY around 1995, which coincides roughly with the sudden reversal of the trendline of winning times. Now wouldn’t that be interesting! No Lasix in the Arc or the Hambletonian, and they continue to get faster…hmm. Losing 50lbs of water weight will make you faster over 6F undoubtedly, but 12F may be another story as dehydration kicks in. Palice Malice closed in 27.5+ off a hot pace, but neither Oxbow nor Orb could best that mark, and both are champions. All were on the drug, of course.)
Regular blog readers know my particular bias is towards conditioning. Next post will deal a bit with the myriad of differences between training humans and horses. I think I may also be on the radio next Wednesday, June 19th speaking to that topic. This Wednesday, on that same radio program – will undoubtedly be a Belmont analysis. Here is the link should you care to listen to either:
All podcasts are live at 1pm US Eastern time, with recorded versions always available at the above link.