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.



About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on February 4, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Again, Bill “the Book” Richardson says, “Drugs strengthen the weak and weaken the strong.” What’s mysterious about the most probable results of that?

  2. Bill:

    I come to this site all the time. I believe a lot of your philosophies are valid; and we have been using heart monitors for quite a few years. I certainly do not agree with all your ideas…but I respect them. You have proven to me you are knowledgeable, and work hard at it.

    So why am I writing now?

    Two reasons:

    1. I was an Asst. Trainer in a barn right next to Woody’s for five years. For you to think Woody only had the 40 horses in training at Belmont is just rediculous. His brother trained close to a hundred of their horses at the farm. Woody did train harder, no question about it. And the results speak for themselves. But please understand this (and I do not mean this as a crack against Woody…I loved him), when a horse he had sored up or had no talent, they went to the farm and were replaced by a sounder or more talented horses. Woody had only had 40 stalls, but they were the runners.

    2. You took a quote of Graham Motion’s completely out of context. Graham is one of the most humane and honest trainers I know. To my knowledge and I could be wrong, I do not believe Graham used a heart monitor until Animal Kingdom went to England. But his training program is both elegant and productive. I also know from vet bills, that a lot of the “pre-race” meds many use do not occur under his care.

    That’s it…love your blog!

    • Good points all. I certainly defer to your estimate of Woody’s stock rather than mine gleaned from reading. I don’t advocate harder conditioning for every single horse, but certainly for the more talented ones. During the years Lukas made 1000+ starts, Woody was making 250. Without exception. He got much better results than today supertrainers based on consistently much lesser numbers.

      Mr. Motion has never had a drug positive, so he certainly deserves much respect. What I found sad was that during a trainer roundtable the question was asked about conditioning young horses: and all US trainers responded to some extent on how they did(or didn’t) use Lasix. Nothing about long gallops, nothing about 2x weekly exercise, but the drug regimen took center stage. That being said, I am certainly guilty of taking the remark (slightly) out of context for my selfish purposes. He was quoted precisely as I related, however.

      I was disappointed when I read Woody’s book that no mention was really made as to conditioning specifics. I had hoped for a Preston Burch-like story with detailed work schedules. I remain dedicated to bringing back old-school conditioning methods mixed with modern technology and science. One day a top trainer with top stock will implement my methods and become a world beater. Then ideally the masses will copy his protocols and we’ll have massive improvements in stamina and soundness.

      I would love to talk with you (offline and confidential) about your use of the HR/GPS gear. I pride myself on making the data actionable for horsemen on a daily basis. Thanks a ton for taking the time to comment!

  3. Bill:

    I wouldn’t want quote Graham, but I believe his feelings are close to this: if Lasix was removed for ALL horses, he would have no problem with that. But from my conversations with him, as long as it legal, it is a med that allows a horse to fulfill their potential, rather than the belief that it is a med that enhances a horse’s performance.

    To the quote you had in your blog, I think Graham meant if he thought (from careful observation and endoscopic history), that a horse “might” have the potential for a problem, he would use Lasix prophylacticly.

  4. This discussion we are having is really the whole point of my post; we should be talking about exercise regimens designed to lessen bleeding; not pharmaceutical interventions. I used Mr. Motion’s quote as our best respected horseman to illustrate this point. From my reading I took that every 2yo in his barn received Lasix as a preventative measure. But yet again, if you know different from personal experience – I defer to you.

    Older claimers? Give it to ’em. But regally bred 2yo yet to race? I think not.

    Oh for the old days: “Horses worked a lot harder in those days,” Jerkens said. “The strain on them in the race wasn’t as much as the strain is on them now. They trained almost as hard in the morning as they did when they ran.”

    Or another old timer: “In his early years as a trainer, Mel Stute would regularly blow out his horses two or three furlongs the morning of the race. He learned this from his late brother Warren, who also trained in California for six decades.”

    When you ask trainers about how to manage the condition; they shouldn’t answer sounding like your local Walgreen’s pharmacist, they should sound more like these 2 old railbirds.

  5. Point taken.

    • Please keep in touch and please keep commenting, I really enjoy hearing differing perspectives. Guys like you are some of the few links to the days of Woody Stephens and old time methods and I really value your input. Many trainers today have never seen a horse run without the aid of Lasix. They’ve never seen a horse work every 3 days and thrive. 30%+ of their stock every year gets injured racing every 5 weeks, galloping 1.25 miles, and breezing 4/5F every 7 days – the concept of more frequent exercise as a good thing scares them to death.

      All of my theories that you disagree with? Please constructively criticize anytime, as it’s rare I come across someone willing to exchange differing perspectives in a cordial manner. When I pitch my theories I have to keep reminding myself it’s not ‘my’ conditioning solution, but simply those of trainers in the early half of the 20th century who won more races with quicker recoveries carrying more weight over longer distance than any conditioner today.

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