Monthly Archives: February 2014

Norwegian Trainer Winning in Dubai with HR/GPS

#11 in the red cap is the one to watch: outfinishing a sea of Godolphin horses down the stretch – name is Avon Pearl.

Several years ago I documented the work of trainer Rune Haugen, and in light of his triumph at Meydan I am going to cut/paste his story again:

from ‘Rune Rules in Norway’, courtesy of Polar Equine:

A former jockey, Rune Haugen has been an extremely successful thoroughbred-trainer the recent years. Champion trainer at the Norwegian racetrack Øvrevoll three years in a row, Derby-victory, several wins in gr-3 races in Scandinavia and numerous other high-class races makes him one of the top trainers in Scandinavia. The secret behind his success? Controlling and evaluating every part of his horse’s training routines. Haugens most important training remedy is Polar’s GPS heart rate monitor.

Total turn-around

– At “Stall Nor” one top-bred horse after the other broke down and never even made it to the races. The owners were obviously frustrated, and contacted Sæterdal. He transferred human training principles to the horses at “Stall Nor”. He controlled the horses training doses by using heart rate monitors. Within months, the negative trend had turned. The injury-rate fell drastically and the horses started to win races, says Haugen, not mentioning his own important role in the turning process. He was hired as the new trainer at the stable, thus responsible for putting Sæterdals training principles into practice.

– Heart rate monitors, lactate- and muscle enzyme-tests are the aids I use to control my horses work-out routines, Rune Haugen explains.

– A heart rate monitor measures the beating of the heart. I use the information from the monitor to determine how a horse responds to training. I combine this with blood tests. If a horse works out at a certain pulse level, I can measure the lactate level in the blood afterwards. The link between lactate level and heart rate gives me essential information about a horse’s capacity, training development and possible sickness, he says eagerly.

– Why is the heart rate monitor so essential in your training routine?

– Because by using the HR monitor I know the exact status of my horses’ physical shape at any given time. The race season for thoroughbred horses is short. This means it is extremely important to have the horses in top shape in just the right time.

Once he has started talking about the advantages of pulse-based training, he can’t seem to run out of arguments:

– Measuring the horses’ heart rate daily makes it easy to detect when a horse deviates from its normal level. This is often an indication of the horse being ill. When a horse’s heart rate at rest rises from its normal, it is an indication of illness. If the heart rate doesn’t go down as quickly as it normally does after a training pass, it is also a warning signal. It is obviously very important to avoid training the horses hard if they are ill or out of shape. A top athlete, whether it’s a horse or a human, can have their careers ruined by excessive training during illness, Haugen says.
Training consultant for the Olympic team

– I also have to point out the importance of being able to reproduce a certain training routine. I’ve succeeded with several racehorses in the past years. But what if I had these successful horses, but subsequently didn’t have a clue how hard I actually trained them? How would I be able to learn from what I’d done? , Haugen asks rhetorically.

– Pulse-based training and specific blood tests give me information I can learn from. This way I don’t stagnate, but keep developing as a trainer. I think that’s why our stable is at the top year after year, the trainer champion analyzes.
 I believe that all horse athletes can be successful following the training principles I use on my thoroughbred horses, if they have the necessary potential, of course. Sooner or later I hope to find time to try it out on standardbred trotters as well, he says vaguely, for the first time during this interview keeping the cards to his chest.
He certainly has the opportunity to try out his theories on top athletes in the show jumping business soon enough. The Norwegian show jumping team has qualified for the Olympics in Beijing, and Haugen is hired to evaluate and keeping control of the horses’ physical shape towards the big event.
– A huge vote of confidence, Haugen comments, then bursting out:
– A lot of show jumpers and dressage horses, even those competing in high classes, are in poor physical condition. They are trained very specifically at the routines they are supposed to perform at, but lack the most important: endurance and fitness. This makes them vulnerable for injuries such as pulled tendons. Some endurance training in combination with the specific training would lower the risk of injuries significantly for these horses, Haugen claims.
– Does it take a lot of your time collecting the data’s from the training and analyzing it?
-Yes, it does. This is because my whole training system is based on this. Now that GPS is a part of Polars heart rate monitor- system, it is possible to evaluate every step a horse takes during a training pass. As this training control system is something I believe in, I don’t mind using time exploring the possibilities the system gives me. As a matter of fact, the potential that goes along with the GPS HR- monitor makes it almost addicting to work with, Haugen laughs.
– At the same time, I have to say one don’t have to spend all the time that I do to improve a horse. Being in control of your horse’s training and health is the bottom line here. Is it hard to learn how to use a heart rate monitor on horses?
Definitely not. Several years ago, the equipment was a bit troublesome to use, especially because of the wire, but today’s equipment is wireless and can be put on the horse within seconds, and it’s very accurate. My employees find the heart rate monitor very easy to use in the daily training, Haugen says.
Decides heartrate zones before workouts – How would it be, do you think, to go back to training horses without using the heart rate monitor-system?– The training jockeys at the stable are taught to make the horses stay at a specific pulse during a workout. I decide the pulse level for each horse in advance, and it’s very important that my employees follow my directions as precise as possible. To inspire them to do so, I have introduced “Watch of the Month”, meaning the jockey that has stayed closest to the right heart rate during a month is rewarded, Rune Haugen explains. This man certainly seems to be in control of every detail of his horses` routines.
– Impossible! Haugen says without hesitation.
– Simply because being in control of my horses` training gives me the inspiration and joy I need to put a full effort into my work. Another aspect by using a heart rate monitor is that it gives me an indication on which horses to train together. If I have a two-year-old with a very high capacity, this horse won’t develop optimally if trained among other horses at the same age with lower capacity. This horse can be trained with the tree-year-old horses, but if so, it is extremely important to monitor the training so the horse isn’t trained too hard for his age and ability. Training harder than a horse is ready for, means asking for injuries to pop up, Haugen says while almost pushing his teacup off the table by his eager gesticulation.

No tendon injuries

 – Speaking of injuries, training- induced injuries are a common problem among sport horses. Often the injuries are career-ruining. What’s your experience on this?

-As mentioned, the owners of this training camp used to have a lot of injuries on their horses. After the introduction of monitored training, no horse has pulled a tendon. Optimal doses of training makes sure the horse’s body isn’t overstrained, but at the same time the horses have to train hard enough to be fit for the tough races they are competing in. I know I am repeating myself, but “controlled training” is the key word even here.

– You make it sound so easy. But a heart rate monitor itself can hardly make you a top trainer?

– Of course “feeling” and horse experience means a lot too. But honestly, I don’t see why using training aids like HR monitors makes any horse trainer less of a horseman. A combination of experience and new technology seems like a good combination to me, Haugen says and smiles.
– What are your goals for the future, Rune Haugen?
– I’ve made it to the very top in Scandinavia. I’ve raced horses internationally too, with good results. My specific goal is to win a prestigious international race in France or England. With my top training system, top training camp and with owners that buy top young horses, I don’t see why I wouldn’t achieve my goal within a few years.
EDIT: How about Dubai  in 2014 Rune?

ThoroEdge Featured in Local Media

Above is yours truly and the racemare that started it all – Celestial Princess.

When we claimed her she was a 3 time winner after a couple of dozen starts, and an earner of nearly $100k from racing mainly at Charles Town in West Virginia. After a few poor runs, I started to try out my HR/GPS gear and theories on her – with full cooperation from long time family friend and trainer Doug Ham. She won 3 of her last 5, should have been 4, before retiring due to old age and old ankles. PPs here:

One thing we did was quantify the benefits of Niagara Equissage therapy:

This was in the day’s before I found STORM, so nothing to report there. Anyway, I was reminded of these days as I interviewed with local writer Mark Coomes for a 2000 word article found here:

Lots of great feedback thus far; and the above piece was picked up at Equidaily, Thoroughbred Daily News, and a few others. Enjoy!-

ESSI – Scientific Racehorse Conditioning in KY


Just outside of Lexington, ESSI opens their doors to the public – featuring several turf gallops (1 uphill), a 5F training oval, turnout paddocks, and a high speed treadmill imported from Australia.

More here:

Full HR/GPS/blood lactate monitoring in real-time, controlled workouts on treadmill, STORM supplementation for all, etc.

I could go on and on, but really all you need to know is found on their website.

A few times each month I hear from owners asking where they can send horses for this kind of treatment – and here is a brand new option in KY. Where better to get started with this stuff than a facility under the careful eye of the man who literally wrote the book on the subject back in 2000:

Training and Fitness in Athletic Horses, by Dr. David Evans:


Performance Genetics: Good Stuff

Performance-Genetics-1 (1)
These guys are based here in Lexington, and their website has a trove of great info for those interested in the intersection of exercise science, genetics, and equine performance:

Via Twitter, they recently turned me on to a great study looking at beta-alanine supplementation and swimming performance in humans:

This is of interest to me because I distribute the STORM product, but have not yet been able to set up a controlled experiment on equine performance. I could likely do so in quick order, but frankly, no one would pay a bit of attention – and I am having good enough results on my own.

Anyway, the abbreviated version of the study:

Humans swimming 200m in about 120 seconds were supplemented with beta-alanine for 5 weeks. Afterwards their 200m swim times improved by 2%. That’s quite significant. Important to note: humans typically have about 8% levels of carnosine in their muscles, while horses have as much as 30% – so I shouldn’t be too surprised at the results I am having on the track. As a matter of fact the ‘Harris’ cited as a source in one of the supporting studies is half of the team behind STORM.

Also, we see here that these human swimmers show blood lactate levels of 9-15 mmol after the event. Thoroughbred horses? I see numbers always over 20 after 6F, and closer to 30mmol in the longer events. Wow.

Of note, supplementation in this study was only 5 weeks in length, yet the manufacturers behind STORM note continued uptake of beta-alanine in horses on up through 12 weeks. So these swimmers may just be starting to feel the benefits – yet the study ended, prematurely in my opinion.

Lastly, the above study also looked at the additional supplementation of sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda. Horsemen and women around the world will recognize this as the now-illegal baking soda milkshake. In these human trials, the addition of bicarbonate made no difference over 100m, and a very small one at 200m.

I’ve always maintained that buffering lactic acid in muscles was much more important to performance versus merely doing so in the blood. Beta-alanine works on the muscular level, while bicarbonate functions in the bloodstream. That’s why one must supplement with BA 2x daily for weeks before seeing any benefit, yet milkshaking a horse must occur close to post-time to (potentially) help racing results.

One thing the fellows at Performance Genetics are discovering is the HUGE variability among horses in how they respond to exercise. That principle is also likely at work regarding supplementation; either of the legal STORM variety or the forbidden bicarbonate milkshake route. Also, some horses will explode after some high altitude exposure – like this bad boy:


Claimer Alert at Tampa Bay: Gentleman Jackson

Former, and only, Thoroedge Claimer of the Year pictured above and detailed below:

Since changing barns things have not gone so well for this old chap, no longer at Woodbine but making the South Florida circuit, losing yesterday in (I think) his first outing for a tag, $25k:

Had a lot of fun with this one a few years back, may not be a bad claim for any interested parties. A bit beyond my budget, but if he shows up here in KY this spring for around $15k I will grab him because I know he loves the STORM!

Now My Head Hurts

aneurysmOh this is giving me a headache.

First, the NBA Developmental League begins to institute in-game HR/GPS monitoring:

Pretty cool, I know at least one of these devices also records vertical leap, one of my prime interests for 30+ years. The soccer teams at the University of Louisville instituted some of this stuff years ago and promptly became regular Top 10 squads. From what I recall; the trainers showed the coaches how hard the players worked in practices and how that impacted their legs during games. Players had been complaining of feeling ‘dead’ in the legs, but coaches ignored the protests until confronted with hard data.

Same could be done with basketball: “Hey coach, your guards have lost 3″ from their vertical leaps during the past 2 weeks as you bumped up practice time. Small wonder we are getting out-rebounded and losing 50/50 balls more often.” Interesting to see how/if the coach will react.

Then we see some in-race HR data from Hong Kong…but its from the damn jockeys:

Astounding how hard those guys work when it appears to the untrained eye that they are merely sitting on top of horses.

Why oh why does no one seem to understand how valuable this stuff would be from actual horses? Not vertical leap of course, but GPS and HR data from the warm up through the race and on through the gallop out/cool down. Trainers, spectators, bettors, etc. – everyone would have a new data stream to help improve their experiences.

Curlin is Just Happy to See You

Some ‘stiff’ penalties indeed were handed down this week in the quarter horse world as a New Mexico trainer was given a 16 year suspension for dosing his racing stock with Viagra. In what is believe to be a first; several owners were also sanctioned. Details here from the Paulick Report:

The puns aplenty throughout the Twitterverse reminded me of a day long ago at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky where I met the great Curlin just beginning his stud career. I snapped the above picture of ‘Curlin Jr.’ who appeared ready for his close up.

Viagra sends increased bloodflow to one specific area; which has very little to do with performance outside of the bedroom, at least in humans. It’s doubtful that human size dosages of the drug have the same effect on horses, especially given the fact that several drugged horses were female.

I think if the drug testing labs used my HR/GPS gear to ascertain if these illegal drugs actually increase performance in athletic horses they would find that 75% of what is illegal simply doesn’t work as hoped for by the cheaters.

Nevertheless, it’s good for the game to send these boneheads to the sidelines.
(Okay, I am out of puns.)

Can I Sue Dr. Fager for Malpractice?


I wasn’t let down by the book, as it was very insightful with extremely interesting anecdotes, but more by the conditioning commentary throughout. Like all the other greats of yesteryear, I expected to find confirmation of my theories on conditioning, but instead found the opposite, to my disappointment.

Also, I am in complete agreement with author Steve Haskin, Dr. Fager’s career was not as profound as was that of Damascus, yet nearly everyone ranks Fager as superior. But we’ll analyze that later.

First, the BloodHorse Legends series has been on sale lately: I paid $0.99 for my Fager book, and ordered others at a mere $2.50ea (regular price is $14.99 or higher). Here’s the link:

Like always, I need to read 150 pages of a book simply to uncover roughly 15 words on conditioning, but it’s well worth the insight provided. Perhaps the key quote is on page 42, when trainer John Nerud sought advice from the legendary Ben Jones on conditioning:

“Now son, listen to me,” Jones said. “You ain’t got enough sense to train these horses, so I’m gonna tell you what to do. You keep ‘em fat, work ‘em a half-mile, and they’ll win in spite of you.”

Ergo, the trainer of Dr. Fager earned the nickname: ‘half mile sonofabitch’ from the clockers in New York. As in: ‘How are Nerud’s horses doing? How the hell do I know, that ‘half mile sonofabitch’ – you can’t learn anything from him!” Today? All these ‘half mile sonofabitches’ are hailed as geniuses and clockers claim to accurately grade the 8F prowess of stakes horses going 4F in the mornings. What a load of crap.

Nerud himself already preferred slow, and relatively short, works – so this advice must have sounded heaven-sent. But are we really to believe that Jones trained 6 Derby winners and 2 Triple Crown winners (including Whirlaway) with that philosophy? I remained crestfallen for the rest of the book, only afterwards realizing the key part of that ‘advice’ from Jones: “you ain’t got enough sense” – likely Jones was merely giving Nerud a simple prescription for ‘one size fits all’ conditioning, rather than imparting his own personal methods, which he learned through a lifetime on the backside.

Nevertheless, throughout the book we still see 5-6F works in blazing times, some of which were of the public variety in the afternoons between races.  We also see pre-race blowouts. Neither practice is common these days. I seem to remember watching Curlin in a public workout at Churchill Downs a few years back – and I know both Carl Nafzger and Rick Dutrow blew out their 3 Derby winners within 12-36 hours of post time.

We also see mentioned that Fager worked essentially every 5 days. Nothing like Preston Burch and the others going every 2-3, but a bit quicker turnaround than today’s customary 6-7. Remember, the Maryland Bucked Shin Study done by Nunamaker and Fisher pinned bone remodeling to take place every 2-3 days, concluding if someone waited 5 days or longer to stress bone again, overall cumulative development of density would suffer. And, if bone takes under 5 days – everything else goes quicker; ligaments, tendons, lungs, etc.

The book spends quite a bit of time on the Dr. Fager vs Damascus rivalry, and the story is truly amazing. Fager seems to represent our modern conditioning/racing style: weekly works at 5F or less, and well spaced out races. Damascus is old-school in his approach under Frank Whiteley. My Damascus book from the Bloodhorse Thoroughbred Legends series has not yet arrived, but everyone knows he raced 16 times at age 3, versus just 9 for Fager (still more than today’s ‘greats’).

Funny, before one of these matchups Nerud sent Fager through another public workout: 5F in :56.8.
So much for going slow!

Dr. Fager vs Damascus was a draw, each winning twice. Whiteley’s entry of a rabbit muddies the picture, as does the various weights carried to post. Both greats often carried 130+ in these matchups. Fager himself carried 134 in setting a long-standing mile record in 1:32.2.

Later on at 4, Fager had one of the greatest years of all time in 1968. His regular exercise rider tipped the scales at 150 and weather was no hindrance to workouts, as is often the case today. During a deluge at Saratoga, the good Doctor went 5 panels in :59, under no pressure whatsoever. Today’s conditioners merely move the work back – 6,7,8 days since last breeze, who cares, right?

As I hinted at above, Mr. Haskin also prefers Damascus, even though he was commissioned to author the book on Dr. Fager’s magnificent career. Great post from him in the Bloodhorse here, from 2009:

Damascus and Dr. Fager rarely lost, and those they lost to were Hall of Famers in their own right – as well as several of their conquests: names such as Buckpasser and In Reality. Compare the Past Performances of these 2 vs. our modern day heroes, such as Zenyatta. Blame, her lone conqueror, will be a mere footnote to history, and no one can remember who she beat now, much less in 50 years.

At stud, both had quite notable careers, but yet again Damascus outshone Fager through his offspring.

Lastly, Fager seemed to be willing to rate early in his career, but later on was known as a wildman on the lead.  Surely all those brief 4-5F works contributed? I think too often that trainers fail to separate the two: TRAINING for behavioral factors, versus CONDITIONING for physiological fitness. Longer, slightly slower, works of a mile can teach horses to relax on the bit moreso than dozens of quick 5F sprints. Will we see that from Damascus under Frank Whiteley?

Up Next: review of Damascus title from the Bloodhorse Thoroughbred Legends line, currently priced at $2.50 – but I must warn you it seems to take 7-10 days to arrive, even when shipping here to Louisville.

The (Sorry) State of the Union


Just random thoughts today:

I must get to South Africa someday; pristine beaches, horses, varied altitudes for training/racing, and some of my favorite trainers. Many in the US don’t realize: Mike de Kock takes bloodstock from SA and NZ, spends months in quarantine – and still wins on the Sheikh’s homecourt in Dubai. Every year.

The Sport of Kings. The kings are not the owners, not the trainers, not the vets, not the breeders, not the fans, but the horses. And the horses are suffering. Threadbare conditioning. Legalized drugs. Ever slowing times at distances past 8F. Fewer starts per year. Yuck.

Briefly to drugs. I’ll not call them ‘performance enhancing’ because they aren’t. They may allow a lame/sore horse to run well, but they don’t result in faster race times. Every other sport rife with drug use ‘sports’ faster times, more home runs, bigger/stronger athletes, etc. Not horse racing. Why? Well for one; those other sports are full of Type-A personalities who take drugs to train harder and more frequently. It’s not a race day thing for them – it’s an adjunct to their conditioning regimen. But for horses it’s just a way to make it into the gate held together by duct tape. Big difference.

I’ve also developed a personal philosophy on the topic: Calling a successful trainer a cheater (when he is not) is worse than cheating itself. And cheating is rotten as hell.

What we have now can be termed ‘wild animal’ conditioning, vs. the old days when we had true metabolic/physiological conditioning that obeyed the rules of exercise science. A few quotes on the training of 2 year olds:

-Preston Burch: “After a few weeks of long, slow gallops not less than 2.5 miles daily, the youngsters are ready for a bit of breezing.” (It must be noted that Burch’s yearlings breezed 2-3x per week in December.)

-Graham Motion: “I certainly breeze some of the 2-year-olds on Lasix, even if they haven’t been bleeding previously,” said Motion.

Great. That’s just wonderful insight.

Of course, every ‘horseman’ blames the breeders for the fragility of the breed. In spite of the fact that even expert geneticists admit that heredity accounts for only around 30% of performance, with the rest due to environmental factors. Breeding for speed may surely get you horses with ‘blueprints’ that include weaker bones at birth. But conditioning them like Hall of Famer Preston Burch will still develop them into iron horses.

The genesis of the current ‘wild animal’ style of training can be traced to the influx of previous Quarter Horse trainers into the thoroughbred game. Baffert, Lukas, etc. and their mentors believed (rightfully so) that long gallops in a QH sprinter served to lengthen stride, which may take away from early speed leaving the gate. And that gate break is everything for a race lasting just 220-440 yards. But importing that philosophy to thoroughbreds was a mistake, in my opinion, and I believe the statistics bear that out.

Yet, Mr. Lukas also made another change, this one brilliant: he became our first supertrainer, with strings of 25-40 horses in multiple locations every season. One horse goes down, another fills in immediately. Conversely Woody Stephens rarely had more than 25-40 horses in training at one time vs Lukas’ 150+. Horseracing became a numbers game, not a conditioning game. Two vastly different business models.

So we head into another Triple Crown season where a 3yo will win the Kentucky Derby in 2:02+ and/or the Belmont in 2:30+. Even on fast tracks, those times would have been losers decades ago. From 1972-1996 no winner of the Belmont went 2:30 or slower. Who ended the streak? Lukas and Thunder Gulch. Now from 2010-2013 every winner went slower than 2:30.

A sorry state of the Union, indeed.