Woody, Wayne, and Weekend Warrior Syndrome
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.