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.


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on January 13, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Great article and so much truth. The fact is that very few trainers seem to know anything about truly training a horse any more. Horses are basically run on their natural talent alone – and since everyone is doing the same thing it appears to work. Appears being the key word. It is NOT working. As you know. Keep up the good work.

  2. Excellent article!! I would really like to hear more about Woody Stephen’s training practices. I have not seen a great deal in print about it. I did speak to one of his exercise riders who said he favored really long slow works ( sounded a bit like some of Ivers thinking). Thanks!

  3. This is a great story and it shows one of the root problems with this sport: We have trainers today who either don’t know how or don’t want to bother with training horses to go the longer distances. I firmly believe if the Breeders’ Cup World Championships lengthened BOTH the Classic and Ladies Classic to 1 5/8 Miles (and lengthen the Marathon to 2 1/4 Miles), it would be best for the sport because it would cause a slew of other major stakes to also be lengthened and would force trainers to change their training habits. What’s also needed is for stakes to be bunched closer together and to make it so trainers have to race their horses more often, which also would long term reduce injuries.

  4. It brings a question to mind when you look at the racing schedules of Seabiscuit and Citation and the others of that era. They raced every 2 weeks or more. Todays trainers rarely bring one out more than once every month or two.

  5. Reblogged this on Christopher Crocker Racing and commented:
    Bill Pressey does great work educating people on horse physiology and collects facts and statistics to back his findings. Hey Bill, stop giving our secrets away… lol

    • Hey Chris good to hear from you!

      • Finally got around to working on a WordPress Blog. My fiancé and I are realizing when we rehome retired thoroughbreds, people have no clue why they lose so much weight after getting them and why they are not quiet little pets. I am starting a blog and we are going to do a video series explaining how these animals think and what they need. We see so many, so called “rescue horses” end up in situations worse than the kill pen. Did you get published yet? Where can I get a copy of your book?!

  6. actually, having read the stephens book I called Stevens the father of today’s conventional soft east coast training. good post bill.!

  7. and the Devils Bag training in that book is so interesting!

    • Can’t wait to read, surely material for another blog post. I am looking at old DRF past performances from Belmont’s in the 1950’s and earlier; many worked 6F the day before going to post.

      • In my copy of Training Thoroughbred Horses I marked up Assault’s workouts prior to the 1946 Belmont for May 29 by adding 3/5 second making the 1 1/2 mile time 2:32 3/5 and added all the fractions with a notation that the last gtr went in 25 2/5. I have no idea where I came across these numbers. Any idea?

      • Sorry, doesn’t ring a bell. Boy I look back at that workout log for Assault and it makes me think I made a typo. Did he really work a full 1.5 miles in 2:32 2 days prior to winning the Belmont in 2:31? I would never believe that if it wasn’t in that great book.

  8. 1.05 slow lol thats way to fast in australia thats why they only fast work once a week. Down under 1.10 / 1.13 Thats why we can do that work again in three to four days time.

    • we have to work ’em fast Paul because often our first 2F from the gate is in 21-22 and the first 4F in 44-46. Problem is many trainers work 4-5F only, either fast or slow. No one goes back on a fit horse and knocks out 3F in 35, or goes 8F in 140+ anymore, but a few.

  9. Looking the number of horses injured and the types of injuries while in training would be illuminating.

  10. David Schneidt

    It is amazing how we all go through the workout data. My friends look at the data and dont get it. By the way the all are fat beer drinking, wing eating, softball playing, basketball playing weekend warriors. It is amazing how you claim a horse you give them the thoroedge fitness program and they run off and hide at 20 to 1. Keep up the great work but keep it on the down low. Lol thanks

    • Exactly! I have some trainers who would eviscerate me if I made public that I work with them, as they view this stuff as quite an edge on the competition. I try to tell them that 99% of the industry thinks I am a bozo, but they can’t believe that everyone isn’t deeper into the science of conditioning.

  11. David Schneidt

    Also one other thing. My relatives all worked for Calumet. All were riders for all the greats. The tracks back then and even in Devils Bag, Little John nick name of Creme Fraiche where pretty deep I know I walked on them.

    • Amazing, how lucky were they? Something tells me in 50 years no one will be as fondly remembering the days of Oxbow, Optimizer and Will Take Charge, although the latter is quite a warrior.

  1. Pingback: Who Worked 21F in 4 Breezes over Just 15 Days? | ThoroEdge Equine Performance

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