The Modern Road to the Kentucky Derby is a Farce


As we sit here for 3 *%$#@^* weeks with absolutely no Derby prep action it’s useful to remember what used to be:


4/14/37 – 6F win in Calvert
??? – 8.5F win in Chesapeake Stakes
5/4/37 – breezes 10F over sloppy CD track in 2:08
5/8/37 – wins Kentucky Derby in 2:03.2, 2nd fastest ever at the time
5/11/37 – breezes 9F in 1:56.4
5/15/37 – wins Preakness Stakes in 1:58.4
*works 3 times over BEL strip, 12f  each*
6/5/37 – wins Belmont Stakes in record time of 2:28.6


-The 1937 Kentucky Derby was his 3rd start in 24 days, yet trainer George Conway thought he may be ‘short’ as he’d never raced more than 8.5 furlongs up until this point.

-He worked the full race distance 4 days before each of the jewels of the Triple Crown.

-War Admiral breezed 4 times between the Derby and Belmont wins, over a period of 28 days. Back then, there was 1 week between the Derby and Preakness, yet he still worked 9F 3 days after his Derby win.

-EVERYONE worked and raced like this back then, this was no aberration.
See Assault and Max Hirsch:

Detailed training logs in that post for the 1947 Triple Crown winner, aka The Club Footed Comet.

Right about now is where the breeding crowd exclaims: ‘we don’t breed for stamina’ as the sole reason behind the deterioration of the American thoroughbred. Horseshit. Even professional geneticists ascribe racing performance to heredity just 30% of the time at best, with the remaining 70% due to environment: conditioning, nutrition, behavioral training, etc.

A major component of ‘environment’ is the frequency of racing and training. Check out Dale Romans’ stats over the past 5 years:


As the days between starts grow from 6-10 on up to 46-90, both winning percentage (3rd column) and in the money percentage (4th column) get progressively worse. Yet he insists on running the greatest number of horses off 31-45 days rest. Go figure.

Fast-forward to 2014 and a race earlier in the week at CD named the Derby Trial doesn’t even have qualifying points status towards the 2014 Kentucky Derby! Maybe it should be restricted to 2yo and we can call it the First Derby Prep – 370 days out from the 2015 race. Don’t laugh, that is where we are headed.

I will now light myself on fire.


About bpressey

Equine Exercise Physiologist

Posted on April 17, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. For those keeping score at home: from the pre-Derby work through the Preakness, War Admiral traveled 38+F in 11 days. And proceeded to work/race another 48F through the Belmont Stakes over the next 21 days. Total of 76F in 4 weeks. Today’s ‘athletes’ who make all 3 starts will race 31+F in 35 days, and likely work once at 4-5F, or even less.

    The modern thoroughbred’s fragility is explained right there. Breeding only sets the blueprint for athletic development; conditioning dictates how much of that blueprint is realized.

  2. Bill, save the kerosene for another day, great post, I’m hoping we can see some “old School” methodology break through come May 3, yet I’m still trying to figure out how Danza off 4 furlong works manages as he did at Oaklawn,?

  3. Nature or nurture?

  4. My theory: modern day ‘wild animal’ style training gets you freakish performances, but no consistency – despite ever lengthening rest periods. Good horses were never bouncing in War Admiral’s day – never.

    Plus those 4F posted works are ended with quarter mile gallop outs in many cases, so they are not as short as they look.

    Danza won on genetics/nature, not on conditioning/nurture. He will flop in his next start Derby day. On the flip side, a consistent mile worker like Samraat is going to run a near 100 Beyer every start, but is less likely to ‘freak’ a la Social Inclusion.

  5. The weakness of the thoroughbred has been written about and proclaimed for years, if not centuries. You are right, we need to train them to be strong.

    Check out my post on the subject:

    • Thanks for commenting Doug, I have enjoyed your blog over the years.

      I try to simplify it greatly. Let’s assume that one factor dictates equine athletic performance. It’s not true but helps for this example. That factor will be mitochondrial density. As you know, mitochondria are the energy powerhouses of the muscle cells. Genetics sets the blueprint as to what is the maximum value in a horse, but training dictates how much of that potential will be realized. Proper conditioning develops more mitochondria, which in our simplified example, wins more races. We could do the same thing with another physiological variable: capillary beds – you are born with a certain amount, genetics dictates your ceiling, but only training/racing can increase the number of capillaries developed between arteries and veins, leading to improved oxygen metabolism….and racing performance.

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