The 6th Repeat Eclipse HOTY Winner Carries an Asterisk


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.”

Still dubious?

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.


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on January 21, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. They need to have the awards get split up between dirt, turf and synthetic.
    I believe that you can compare top performers of today to the ones of the past because they are still malleable horses, trainers now days are just conditioning them to be weaker than in the past, afraid and/or unsure how to train them harder.

  2. I agree with Leonie. They make the same but they don’t train them the same.

  3. After spending some time at a medium sized track watching fairly large name trainers most of them do things more because its what or close to what most of the big names are doing not some fear, they are just creatures of habit. Some trainers do take their horses longer faster distances fairly regularly and in my opinion are more successful because of it.

    • I have spent some time combing old DRF copies online; many are from the 1950’s and earlier, and surprisingly still publish works on the past performances. Matt, you speak the truth – those lines (back then seemed to include the past 3 workouts) are nearly identical in terms of distance and frequency. I only looked at the Belmont Stakes days, otherwise I’d still be lost in those terabytes of data, someday I will go back and look at the lesser races – but I think we can be safe in guessing that the copycat syndrome has been around forever, and perhaps rightfully so – If I am a young trainer I am going to copy what the big winners do as well.

      What happens if a Leah Gyarmati trains a triple crown winner in 2014? What if that horse breezed a half the day before the Derby, and a mile between the Preakness and Belmont, would the 2015 Derby contenders sport similar efforts? My guess is no, at least at first – it would take a few years before the tide would turn.

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