Monthly Archives: January 2014
Under-conditioning of our thoroughbred starts is not only producing ever-slowing Belmont Stakes times, it is also slowing the progress of the breed as a whole. Exercise affecting genetics? Impossible, you say? Current research is full of examples where intensity of exercise programs has been shown to influence genetic expression. I’m not qualified to expand on that point, but I can certainly draw comparisons between AEI and the conditioning programs of any given racing era.
The stallion stars of the 21st century, even the immortal Storm Cat, are not passing down their racing genes to their respective progeny as often as was the case several decades ago. At least that is the story told by the Average Earnings Index.
If you know full well the definition of AEI, please skip the next 2 paragraphs and get to the ‘good’ stuff, well maybe not so good if you are a breeder in today’s marketplace.
What is AEI?
Developed by long time BloodHorse editor Joe Estes, the Average Earnings Index is a statistical method to compare stallions across different eras. One can’t simply compute earnings, as the value of the dollar changes over time. Nor should crop size distort the picture. Mr. Estes simply computes the average racetrack earnings by age group each year, terms this figure 1.0, and compares how a stallion’s offspring performed vs. that average. If the average earnings for Storm Cat 3 year olds in 2000 was $20,000, and the breed average for 3yo that season was $10,000 – the AEI would be 2.0, for example.
The primary complaint is that AEI can be skewed by one big runner, but isn’t that part of the joy of breeding – hitting the Home Run Horse? Furthermore, when we compare stallion careers in this manner – the sample size becomes quite large and this ‘fault’ is mostly remedied.
In his time, Mr. Estes considered an AEI of 4.0 or greater as an indicative of an outstanding sire. Sadly, today’s breeding stars are only able to post figures just over 2.5.
Leading Stallions by AEI from 2013-2001:
2013: 2.74 War Front
2012: 2.68 War Front
2011: 3.03 Storm Cat
2010: 3:09 Storm Cat
2009: 3.26 Street Cry
2008: 3.15 AP Indy
2007: 3.38 Storm Cat
2006: 3.50 Storm Cat
2005: 3.57 Storm Cat
2004: 3.66 Storm Cat
2003: 4.32 Danzig
2002: 4.42 Danzig
2001: 4.53 Danzig
The past decade plus has shown us the end of the line for both Storm Cat and Danzig, and although both were breed leaders in their respective years, the AEI distinguishes one from another quite distinctly. AEI also seems to decline with age, which I think can be expected due to nature. However, Storm Cat finishes at just over 3.0 and Danzig in the vicinity of 4.3 – a huge level of statistical significance. I cannot find lifetime AEI data on these 2 since they are no longer active at stud. But, I did find a mention of Danzig’s AEI in 1999 at a robust 5.17, so it can be safe to assume his lifetime AEI performance to be vastly superior to Storm Cat. (EDIT Found it: Danzig 4.53, Storm Cat 4.11, not as big a difference as suspected, but still remarkable). What is also somewhat curious as I look at the data is that Storm Cat’s AEI fell off more drastically than that of Danzig.
Danzig’s not the only stallion who can claim AEI superiority over Storm Cat, not by far, but I’ll save that for a bit later in the post. The suspense is whether or not Storm Cat will make the All-time Top 20.
Here is a quick window into other stats indicative of breeding success for these two taken from a 2005 summary that briefly backs up the concept of the AEI indicative of superior breeding success:
% of stakes winners: Danzig 18%, Storm Cat 13%
% of grades stakes winners: Danzig 10%, Storm Cat 6%
% of G1SW: Danzig 5%, Storm Cat 3%
And here is a graphical representation of the top 5 in AEI for each of those years which further illustrates the increasing decline of stallion performance measured by offspring race earnings compared to peers:
In 2013 you can hit the Top 5 list with an AEI of 2.2, but back in 2001 it took a 3.27. The last 2 years (2013 and 2012) no stud (of several hundred) broke the 3.0 barrier, yet in 2001 the average of the top 5 was 3.9. Remember, Estes talked of superstars in the shed at 4.0 back in his day. Talk about lowering the bar. That graph looks familiar, where have I seen that trend before? Oh yes, recent Belmont Stakes winning times:
My apologies for this terribly primitive chart from an earlier post. 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 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.
I don’t have enough data on AEI to precisely overlay these two charts. But we can make two general statements:
- 2:30+ winning times over fast Belmont tracks have become the new normal in the 2010-2013 timeframe, performances not seen since the 1930’s.
- AEI numbers of our ‘leading’ stallions are approaching 2.5, versus a historical 4.0 or better.
Now of course these two trendlines don’t overlap precisely. Belmont winning times were on the improve after Bold Ruler’s day, but the sudden reversal in the early 90’s is apparent, coinciding with the legalization of Lasix in New York State around 1995. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have stopped improving over the last several decades as well; but the longer Belmont has actually reversed the trend in winning times. Meanwhile, AEI declines consistently over the entire interval.
Danzig is perhaps the lynchpin in this AEI analysis, before him big AEI numbers, afterwards – not so much. Conditioned by Woody Stephens, although only raced 3 times due to injury, Danzig never won the Belmont – but Stephens did with Danzig Connection in 1986, the last of his 5 consecutive victories beginning in 1982.
Missing from this post is any reference to mares. Many believe, as do I, the majority of good racing genes comes from the female side of the mating. However, billions are tied up in stallions due to the numbers game foisted upon them by nature. I think we can agree that during each racing era; 90% of all elite runners are conditioned similarly. From the mid 1980’s onwards it’s all Lukas and speedwork every 6/7 days, racing with 5-6 weeks rest. Starting with Stephens and running back towards Preston Burch and Max Hirsch in the 40’s – it was 2-3x weekly speed sessions and racing every week or two. Remember the Derby Trial was run on a Tuesday preceding the Derby on Saturday. Nowadays that race should be called the Preakness Trial, because no elite horse is prepared to run twice in a month, much less a week.
So, although AEI only looks at half of the equation, the mares being bred too were also conditioned/raced more aggressively in the days of Bold Ruler, etc. The Comparable Index somewhat addresses this, but I’ll have to leave that for another day, or maybe someone smarter than myself.
Minimal conditioning practices decrease the rate of passing on athletic genes to offspring. When horses were worked long and often, and raced more frequently, they became better athletes and maximized genetic expression which carried over to the breeding shed. Do I have ‘proof’ of this? Nope, but I don’t need to as I am merely a blogger who is biased towards ‘old school’ conditioning practices.
Bottom line: Going to a top stud in Danzig’s day gave you a decent chance at earning 4x the breed average and covering your bills; today the ROI is half that. The importance of choosing a top sire is lessening.
Here is a 99% complete list of all time studs ranked by AEI, I may have missed a few from 1990-2010, but based on recent trends it’s not likely they would have made this list anyway:
Bold Ruler 7.73
Northern Dancer 5.14
St. Simon 4.75
Tom Fool 4.51
Hail to Reason 4.47
Bull Lea 4.37
Mill Reef 4.36
Count Fleet 4.28
Mr. Prospector 4.25
Seattle Slew 4.12
17. Storm Cat 4.11
Round Table 4.01
Blushing Groom 3.97
Hoist the Flag 3.88
*I stopped with Equipoise because I always chuckle at the fact this is also the name of a very popular steroid. Surely not known back in the 1930’s, but used today quite often, not only in horses, but also in humans.
Could I get past the Jockey Club today naming a horse Testosterone? Furosemide? Cobra Venom? Clenbuterol?
Ok, now for the arguments against my primary claim. Most of them will involve other nuances of the AEI, and rightfully so. However, the crux of the Index lies in comparing racehorses to their peers in each individual year. So, the fact that horses started much more often in Bold Ruler’s day than in Storm Cat’s shouldn’t matter. Nor should the fact that purse sizes now are significantly larger due to inflation and casino money. Now, the predilection of today’s stallions to get larger books of unraced mares? Absolutely a valid claim and surely a factor in declining AEI in the modern era.
Let’s think about this yet another way. Assume we have two twin girls who become mothers at age 25. Let’s also assume they married twin brothers. Identical genes all around, or as close as we can get. Mother A and Father A both read books obsessively pretty much from school age on, while Mother B and Father B never read more than a cereal box, spending the rest of their time watching television.
Baby A and Baby B are born. Who is more likely to have, or even develop, a strong inclination to read books? Have the reading habits of Parents A altered their genetic expressions to influence the likelihood of passing on the ‘reading gene’ to their offspring. Have Parents B done the opposite? Surely possible, albeit unlikely to ever ‘prove’.
Racing over Polytrack, Cushion Track, Tapeta, etc. is quite a different sport than racing over dirt, therefore it should ‘deserve’ it s own category, at the very least lump them all in with ‘turf’. I will soon show you why, but first a brief summary of the 6 repeat Eclipse HOTY winners:
Horse Years dirt starts/year
Secretariat 72-73 10.5
Forego 74-76 10
Affirmed 78-79 10
Cigar 95-96 9
Curlin 07-08 7
Wise Dan 13-14 0.5
Thoroughbred racing over dirt is more taxing than racing over synthetics and/or turf. Surely turf track conditions can differ greatly, but regardless the pace scenarios are more physiologically friendly. Wise Dan’s BC Turf mile saw him cover the first half in roughly 45.5 sec, whereas Goldencents went a full second quicker in the Dirt version that day at Santa Anita.
That BLEEDS (pun intended) into my next point: the pace of dirt races (with more early speed) is more taxing than races on synthetics. Let’s say you could stop a horse mid-race after the first 4F on dirt vs Polytrack and draw blood for analysis; this is what you would likely see in terms of blood lactate levels:
Dirt runner: blood lactate level of 10 mmol/liter
Poly runner: blood lactate level of 8 mmol/liter
(Blood lactate levels are a common measure of exercise intensity. For reference’s sake horses walking exhibit levels around 1.0. A stakes horse galloping at 30mph (15sec/f) may show a lactate level of 4.0. After a race that number will climb to over 20+.)
This is one reason why dirt horses coming down the stretch often shorten stride and decelerate towards the finish line; while many turf races show a quick ‘turn of foot’ and faster final sectional times.
I chart heart rates on both surfaces, paying special attention to recovery after breezes. A claiming horse going 4F on dirt in :50 will show a similar HR recovery to another claimer going 6F on synthetic in 1:15. Many trainers have noticed this and work horses 1-2F further on the artificial surfaces.
Don’t believe me, how about a guy from M.I.T?
“Horses working on the Tapeta™ surface will experience one-half the impact as compared to horses working on a conventional surface.”
How about an exercise rider for Zenyatta?
“She’s terrific,” added Willard. “She couldn’t be training any better. She loves the dirt. She drives off it. It doesn’t have the trampoline effect like the synthetics.”
Take yourself down the road to your local high school track, as many these days are high quality rubber surfaces, rather than the cinders of my HS times. If you are have old bones like mine; a 400m lap in 1:30 over a nice cushy track feels much easier on one’s body than the same distance/time on the concrete street in front of your house, as judged by the next morning’s soreness. You simply recover more quickly from the ‘synthetic’ effort.
Now, in Wise Dan’s defense – he may very well be the best at what he does: going a mile on the grass, and the dirt runners this year didn’t exactly set themselves up for the award season this time around. Mucho Macho man made only 5 starts, winning 2 and pulling up in 1. Goldencents came out of his BC Dirt Mile win and was routed in his next start in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. However, our other repeat Horse of the Year winners throughout history did not enjoy the luxury of a season of less physiologically taxing races on synthetics – instead they came into season-ending races off of several previous dirt efforts.
Similarly, I don’t mean to come off as a hater of artificial surfaces. Most data shows they have cut catastrophic injury rates as much as 25%, perhaps at the expense of statistically more soft tissue injuries, but good luck finding anyone willing to quantify those numbers. At least the injured horse survives. So the technology has some positive benefits.
Like it or not, there are only 2 true natural surfaces for horses to run over: dirt and turf. America runs its classics on the former, and shouldn’t give its largest award to runners who specialize over the latter. So, don’t compare the top performers of today to the ones of the past because they just don’t make ‘em like they used to; neither tracks nor horses.
Congrats to the 2yo gelding and winner of 3 juvenile starts by 19+ total lengths. Check out that video above, that box is a Class IV laser and Laserman (Steve Bourmas) is demonstrating a small portion of a photobiostimulation massage session. More here:
Hmm, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer hires this guy to attend to his Hollywood/Santa Anita string and immediately starts having some of his greatest successes in the state outside of No Cal. Could just be a coincidence?
Racing, and training, repeatedly around only left hand turns will imbalance even the most conformationally correct racehorses. Hell, NASCAR drivers need full pit-crews to change tires that wear unevenly during races around the oval, shouldn’t every barn have someone similar keeping racehorses in balance?
I’ve read it somewhere in the past with respect to human athletes; something like a 10% difference in strength and/or flexibility between your right and left sides leads to a 600% increased chance of injury. (I am paraphrasing)
Horseracing is unnatural. Hay, oats, and water alone is not sufficient to develop optimal equine performance. Here’s hoping several more ‘Lasermen’ are haunting the backsides of our great tracks in the years to come.
US thoroughbreds suffer from what can be termed Weekend Warrior Syndrome; and the respective careers of trainers Woody Stephens and D. Wayne Lukas in the Belmont Stakes gives us valuable clues to its origins and the damage it is causing our dirt runners.
Firstly, I define the syndrome as the current propensity to undertake speedwork of 12/13sec/f once weekly, at most. Overall, the frequency is even smaller when you consider 90% of our runners refrain from any speedwork 10-14 days post-race. Our country’s ultimate test of TB stamina, the 12F Belmont, is the most illustrative of this phenomenon.
At first glance, both genius conditioners seem to have similar Belmont success; as Stephens won 5 runnings in a row from 1982-1986 and Lukas triumphed 3 times consecutively from 1994-1996, and added his 4th win with Commendable in 2000. However, when we dig deeper we notice some striking differences in approach.
Mr. Stephens posted works for his Belmont runners 2-3x a week, and raced quite often – while Mr. Lukas was posting weekly 4-5F works and racing quite sparingly; two strategies that his stable of assistants have kept alive over the past 20 years as they began working for themselves.
So, which approach is best? One produced 5 wins and the other produced 4, which I don’t consider to be statistically significant. But there is more…
-# of Belmont starters before first win: Woody 1, Wayne 15
-Belmont Stakes record: Woody 9 starters :5-1-1, Wayne 22 starters :4-0-1
-overall starts during streak: Woody 1348 or 270/yr, Wayne 2540 or 847/yr
-All 5 of Woody’s wins were timed in under 2:30 and 3 of those were on ‘off’ tracks.
-Wayne’s win with Thunder Gulch over a fast strip was the slowest winner in 20 years AND one of the 5 slowest versions of all time.
Let’s examine perhaps their 2 signature wins. Conquistador Cielo won the 1982 version just 5 days after a magnificent win in the Metropolitan. Thunder Gulch enjoyed what has become the traditional 3 week break following his Preakness victory.
Long-time blog readers will recall a post from earlier in 2013 where I documented the Belmont times of the 2010’s were all over 2:30 – which hadn’t happened since the 1930’s:
Sometime between Stephens final triumph in 1986 and Lukas’ first win in 1994 – the ‘less is more’ philosophy of conditioning took root and grew. That had led to slower winning times consistently over the past few decades.
Weekend Warrior Syndrome is something of which most humans are aware. When you begin your working life, you can no longer play sports throughout the week – you begin to compete only on the weekends. Let’s use basketball as an example. The rate of injury for those only playing 1x per week is huge, and the impetus for the development of the $5 billion sports medicine industry. Simply put, the frequency of exercise is key to performance and injury prevention.
Luckily, we also have a comprehensive, multi-year study in the US thoroughbred industry that illustrates/proves that the skeletal system of the horse responds to exercise within a 5 day window. Known as the Maryland Shin Study and documented extensively on this blog here:
It was found by looking at thousands of horses that their cannon bones completed the stress/recovery/supercompensation phases within those 5 days – and if you waited longer between speed sessions; you would lose the increase in bone density from the previous sessions. And believe me folks, the bones are the SLOWEST of the horse’s systems to adapt to exercise. Everything else needs to be stressed in a closer to 3 day timeframe with speedwork.
Back to basketball, of which I have intimate experience. I played competitively during college and up until about age 25 before I obtained a ‘real’ office job. I was also somewhat obsessive about my vertical jump, measuring it often. At age 25 I could take a few steps and leap 37″ off the ground, dunking a basketball with 2 hands quite easily from my height of 6′. Then the Weekend Warrior Syndrome paid me a visit.
At age 27 that vertical leap was only 29″ and I had my first injury in 2 decades of playing: I tore my left ACL one night and its never been the same since. 2 additional injuries/surgeries later, and I haven’t undertaken a 100% vertical leap effort in 10+ years. Age would have gotten to be eventually, but the drastic increase in exercise frequency sped up that process.
All trainers are focused on the length and time of works/breezes, as well as the gallop out behavior – but none of them ever consider the frequency of such moves. This aspect of exercise is critical to performance and soundness. A human cannot exercise once per week at high intensity and expect good things to happen, but a horse can surely get away with it due to his nature – at least a few times.
With all the advances in veterinary science and breeding over the past 20 years, we should never see a Belmont running over a fast track in over 2:30+. The rate of improvement seen from 1930-1985 could not continue forever, but I believe we are the only major sport to see performance times DECREASE in this day and age and I believe the primary culprit is Weekend Warrior Syndrome.
EDIT: a few quotes I have unearthed-
-“The star of the D. Wayne Lukas barn galloped five furlongs in a slow 1:05 this morning, prompting his trainer to explain: “We’re just trying to keep him happy.” – DWL on Thunder Gulch
-Said Stephens: “I had the best three-year-olds in the country, and since Devil’s Bag was all through by that time, Swale was the best and he proved it. In the Preakness, I wanted him to work a mile in 1:41 for the race, and he went in 1:37.
Night and Day. Amazing. And both are legendary trainers. Again, I would argue with vastly different results when you consider the number of trainees under their respective commands.
Above is Noble Moon, 3yo winner of the G2 Jerome at Aqueduct over the weekend. Conditioner Gyarmati, a former employee of legendary Allen Jerkens, breezed this colt a full mile in 1:45 7 days prior to the big win. That cold day at Aqueduct saw 200+ horses breeze, and only 2 went a mile: both were Gyarmati trainees – the other being Street Gent.
That wasn’t the first 8F move for Noble Moon, he also was sent a mile in 1:44 on November 23rd, a few weeks after running 3rd in the G2 Nashua off a terrible gate break. Both races earned an 85 Beyer.
Interestingly enough, she has a lower level allowance winner named Smooth Bert, who’s not recently posted work longer than 6F, completed in 1:15 back in November.
So we are looking at ‘longer than typical’ works, and also perhaps a bit ‘slower than typical’ with roughly 12.5sec/furlongs. But, we finally see a trainer structure the workouts to the ability of the horse, at least in these two cases. (Street Gent is a MSW winner, paying $28.60, who has yet to run back.)
This is the primary point of my conditioning system, tentatively named FIT for Feedback Induced Training. The works are suited to the horse’s ability TODAY. A G2 winner like Noble Moon will go a few more panels than a nice allowance winner. Each horse likely responds to these different workouts in the same manner. Now with FIT – one actually collects HR/GPS on the worker throughout the session, paying special attention to HR behavior during the gallop out and cool down.
Perhaps the mystery of who Leah is and why she works her horses longer than most is best answered by this quote in the DRF revealing her relationship with the Jerkens training clan: “Allen is the first person whose opinion I look for; Jimmy is the second,” she said. “Allen is a father figure, and I want him to be proud of me. I seek advice from both of them all the time.”
A youngsters legs above and below is a video of 2 quarter horses sprinting a final 2F down the lane after a mile gallop in Colorado at 6,000 feet above sea level: (sorry for the cell phone video, hope it comes through good on your end)
These babies just turned 2yo, as in 40 hours ago, and went through a thoroughbred style preparation in accord with the most popular post ever on this blog:
They are to be turned out for a few weeks here in January, then re-start preparations for the trials later this spring.
“In the past I would gallop them slow n long for a long time then whenever I’d work them fast they usually get sore. Mine also used to get tired real easily at altitude but now they seem very fit and recover very quickly.
The grey filly is just 18 months old the black one is 22 months old; so far no injuries and no lameness. This early in the year and they are working like an older, sound veteran racer.
I will continue the twice a week sessions as I’ve had very good results with it.
On Friday instead of galloping a full mile they only galloped a half and then we paired them up for a blast (video above). They came out hardly breathing hard at all and when I put them in the walker to cool off they were jumping and playing.”
I’ve never really contemplated QH training before now, as I figured the race was so short that conditioning may play a lesser role than in the TB game. But the more I think about it: quarter horses never run when tired – races range from 9-20 seconds in length and training is rarely over a mile. These sprinters should be more sound than 6F-10F horses, if bones/tendons are conditioned appropriately early on as in this example. Stay tuned.
“Hey bill just to let u know my futurity filly just worked 250 yds out of the gate and beat two others by two lengths and came out hardly breathing hard.”
– work officially timed from gate in 13.81 for the 250 yards, ranking 30/95 at that distance on that day.
Something about the millions of dollars and man-hours regarding pedigree and breeding has always rubbed me the wrong way. Possibly, my irritation has something to do with the absence of any importance ascribed to conditioning. ‘Training’ or horsemanship gets some play, but no attention is paid to actual exercise, other than the published breeze times, which are often flat-out lies at the lesser tracks/training centers. The entire industry seems full of genetics experts, but is the racing game really that dependent upon millions of chromosomes? Obviously you need to breed a winning female to a winning male, but past that – how much does it matter?
Kitten’s Joy stands for 100k and had 257 runners earn 10,936,504 ranking 1 in 2013
Alphabet Soup stands for 5k and had 98 runners earn 2,059,226 ranking 150 in the same year
So, on average you invest 100k and send your mare to #1, you earn $42,554 in purses.
Or you go with #150, invest 5k, and your typical offspring earns $21,012 on the track.
An admittedly very elementary ROI analysis:
Joy produces $425 in earnings for every $1 in stud fees.
While Soup gets $4,202 in earnings for every $1 in stud fees (10X the value).
Perhaps I am discounting the desire to breed/race a champ and future stallion money machine, economics be damned:
Joy – Big Blue Kitten $902k + 2 Grade 1 wins and 1 Grade 2
Soup – Egg Drop $448k + 1 Grade 1 win and 2 Grade 2’s (not a hell of a lot of difference, black type is black type)
Nevermind, I figured it out:
Average yearling sales price:
Joy – $60,480
Or just another foolish comparison?
Remember the stud fees:
20x higher for Joy, yet only brings 3x more of a hammer price in the ring.
Breeding/Pedigree industry experts, what am I missing?
P.S. If I remember, next post I will document a set of characteristics that EVERY top racehorse throughout history has shared, or so I claim. And it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with genetics.