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.