Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The NTRA Should be Certifying Horses and Trainers, not Tracks

Magnificent filly Eight Belles broke down during the gallop out after the 2008 Derby and this was the nationally televised impetus to establish the Safety and Integrity Alliance.

Did anyone blame Churchill Downs or the track surface for the incident?

Of course not, so why are we now wasting time ‘certifying’ tracks in an effort to avoid another such catastrophe?

Courtesy of www.ratherrapid.blogspot.com we know that:

-Eight Belles worked and raced less than any other entry in the field at just 52 furlongs total for the first 5 months of 2008. Next lowest was Big Brown at 56 furlongs, and both careers ended soon after their heroic Derby efforts.

-Eight Belles worked/raced only 1 time each in December and January, and just 2 times in February. But when March comes along, Larry Jones ups the workload 300% for the next 6 weeks prior to her Derby start.

-To hell with paraphrasing, I need to directly quote the RatherRapid blog here as he is much more a horseman than yours truly:

“Now, Jones claims his filly was in perfect health going into the Derby. Unlikely. I will guarantee with my last breath that after that :58 work on 4/27 followed by the 2 minute lick under Jones’ 215 lbs 3 days later that this filly showed significant heat in exactly the area where she fractured.

How do I know this?

Again most trainers will understand you're unable to get away with this sort of back to back work unscathed. Never happens, and in particular would never happen with a filly this young, this tall, and this lightly trained. The probability: Pre-Derby this horse was showing heat in her lower cannons, which will explain why Jones went very easy from 4/30 to the Derby.

By Derby day with the light work the heat would have disappeared and EB's legs somehow passed State Vet inspection. Too bad they never put infrared thermography on her. I feel sure that those fetlocks and lower cannons would have lit up that machine like a Christmas Tree.”

I just don’t buy the fact that this was ‘just racing’, a bad step, or a fluke accident. I could go along with that if the injury happened to one ankle during some jostling the first quarter of the race. But to break both ankles after the longest and toughest race of her young life – there is something else at work here.

In March 2008 at the Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit in Lexington, the following recommendations were passed on by those in attendance:

Recommendation 2: Catastrophic Injuries
• Promotion of standardized pre-race exam protocol
1. Develop a standardized protocol and procedures for pre-race examinations

Recommendation 4: Education
• Develop continuing education programs for trainers

I offered my assistance, for free, multiple times and was ignored.

Here was my proposal:

Many years ago you would have been reading about the spate of deaths in equine endurance racing, where some competitions last 100 miles. In an effort to curb these deaths, the powers that be in that discipline instituted the Cardiovascular Response Index based on heart rate recovery after exercise. Now no horses drop dead in that sport, as they are disqualified if they fail the CRI.

Why can’t we do the same for thoroughbreds?

The basis for my recommended *Pre-Race Cardiovascular Fitness Test for Kentucky Derby length of 1.25miles/10 furlongs*, comes from the following publicized work:

*David W. Freeman, Equine Specialist, Don R. Topliff, Associate Professor of Animal Science, Michael A. Collier, Professor of Surgery, Veterinary Medicine. Monitoring Fitness of Horses by Heart Rate. Oklahoma State University, ANSI-9118

Relevant material from the report:

• The normal resting heart rate of a mature horse is between 30 to 40 beats per minute. Although the resting heart rate in humans can decrease dramatically as a result of physical conditioning, the resting heart rate of horses does not appear to change appreciably with fitness.

• Recovery heart rate below 120 beats per minute at 2 minutes post exercise and below 70 beats per minute at 10 minutes post exercise suggest the horse is adequately conditioned to the level and intensity of exercise.

• One method of monitoring fitness is to graph the heart rate response to an exercise bout of constant speed through the exercise program.

• As a horse becomes more fit, heart rate at a constant speed decreases. It is probable that an injury has occurred if heart rate increases sharply during a specific exercise bout.

• Careful monitoring of heart rate may assist in early detection of injury much sooner than is otherwise possible.

• Elevated heart rates may also be a sign of chronic fatigue, or ‘overtraining’ as it is commonly termed in the industry. The training program may have to be completely stopped and the horse rested for 30 to 60 days if conditioning fatigue persists.

For the Kentucky Derby length of 10 furlongs, I would recommend the following:

-Test to encompass 12s/furlong pace at 60-70% of race distance for these elite horses
-1.25 mile race requires 6 furlongs breeze in 1min12sec
-Taken and passed, no less than 3 days before race, no more than 10 – ideal would be 7 days out.
-Recovery heart rate must fall to 120bpm within 2 minutes, and 80bpm within 10 minutes of peak work speed. (2min period reflective of horse being cooled down properly, 10min period reflects fitness level/conditioning of horse for the effort.)

In my opinion we must strive to prove that a horse is conditioned appropriately for a 6 furlong effort the week before being asked to race 10 furlongs. Horses that have undiagnosed problems with bone remodeling, tendon or ligament stability, or systemic illness or infection will not pass such a test.

Secondly, with respect to continuing education for trainers, I feel my background in exercise physiology would be a big help in the desire for future catastrophic injury prevention.

From my experiences with local trainers, I understand there is a great deal of reticence to listen to new ideas. However, I do believe that my focus on enhancing racing performance is more attractive to horsemen of all backgrounds – the promise of faster horses earning a greater purse share can then be used to promote sounder, healthier racehorses.

My final enclosure is:
*D. M. Nunamaker, VMD. On Bucked Shins. Proceedings of the 48th AAEP Annual Convention. Orlando, FL. December 4-8, 2002.

Relevant material from the report:

• Traditional training methods of long, slow gallops for yearlings that result in bucked shins are a major cause of saucer and stress fractures later in life, injuries that can contribute to catastrophic breakdowns when racing.

The above is just one example of the research that has been done to help trainers mold sound and healthy thoroughbreds, but no system is in place to put this scientific work into practical application.

Some other topics to include:
-Proper warm up prior to race to decrease chance of injury
-Minimum training threshold necessary to ensure appropriate fitness/injury prevention
-How to spot the signs of overtraining syndrome
-Use of correct nutrition/diet practices to ensure proper recovery from exercise
-Establishing baseline resting heart rate data for each horse as a vital sign

Here we are in 2011 and the only progress made has been with regards to certifying track surfaces, starting gates, veterinary personnel, etc. – NONE of which was to blame for the demise of Eight Belles in the first place.

Now, you Larry Jones apologists are 100% correct in that he is a great horseman and possibly an even greater human being. But, if he believes the best way to build a sound filly is what he did in early 2008 with Eight Belles, he is sorely mistaken. Going slow with 215lbs aboard is no substitute for race-specific preparation via speedwork.

Please note I am not blaming this trainer, all others do the same.

The great Michael Matz was on HBO’s special entitled ‘Barbaro’ just last week – did you catch his quote after the accident?

“Maybe we had him wound a little bit too tight for this one.”

Hmm, very few preps, no works in between the Derby and Preakness, etc. and two dead horses that could have made history for the right reasons - instead of the wrong ones.

Sounds very familiar to me, but hey at least CD, PIM, and BEL are certified, right?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More Speedwork Plus Less Drugs Equals Faster Horses

OK, last few posts dealt with the stagnant thoroughbred winning times over the past 80 years, but what about other countries?

Let's go to France, where reader Gina at GallopFrance.com recently gave me some details on training regimens in her country. That got me thinking, what has gone on in the Arc de Triomphe, their flagship race, over the past century?

A glance at the above chart shows that the improvement in winning times, averaged over a decade, is nearly 500% greater than that of the American classics. 12.7 seconds is the improvement in the Arc, while the American races averaged a 2.7 second improvement.

Coincidentally, or not, a previous post regarding American winning times in the Hambletonian found very similar numbers:

Again, thanks to Ms. Rarick, we find that horses in her care in France are subjected to bursts of speed from 2-3 times each week. Also, training on the farm allows her to spend an hour a day per horse and she uses no raceday drugs, which are illegal in France.

Sound familiar?

I can only assume the great majority of the French trainers, like Freddie Head with the brilliant Goldikova, condition likewise. Slightly off topic, Goldikova will continue to thrill us in 2011 while Zenyatta is in the breeding shed, another casualty of the economics of racing in the US.

As discussed earlier, nearly all US based horses train trackside, going at speed once every 7-10 days, exercising a total of 12 minutes or less on average, and competing with Lasix and Bute.

I don't want to praise or condemn any country or style, but simply find what is the best for performance. For instance, there is no use of a stopwatch in France, while Americans use it for each breeze - I like this practice very much.

So all of you on here finding this site while searching for 'interval training for the thoroughbred' need to first make sure you are putting sufficient speedwork into your charges 2-3x per week before even worrying about such advanced conditioning matters.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Triple Crown Times Have Not Improved in 70 Years, Why?

Last week, the Thoroughbred Daily News published a 20 page article entitled “Do We Need A Sturdier Racehorse? You can access the entire work of Mr. Bill Finley at this link (free registration required):


Basically, the question asked was: What makes today’s racehorses start less and get injured more often compared to the horses of the ‘old days’? Reasons commonly given range from breeding, to drugs, to economics, to racing surfaces.

Admittedly this is a very complex subject. But one thing we do know, at least in the Triple Crown races, is that horses ARE NO FASTER today than they were 70 years ago. Not one bit faster, despite our best efforts to breed ‘the best to the best’ over several generations. Please reference above chart. (Raw data available upon request.)

Speed is a misnomer. No horse carries his top end speed for more than a few seconds in any race. I chart these efforts via onboard GPS system, much like Trakus does at Keeneland and other facilities. Stamina is what is missing from our horses these days, the ability to hold 95% of top speed for several furlongs.

Is it in the breeding?

Arthur Hancock: “We are breeding a weaker horse, we are breeding a chemical horse.”
Mr. Hancock shares the opinion of many horsemen today. However, a leading equine geneticist disagrees:

Dr. Ernest Bailey of the Gluck Center at the University of Kentucky: “Many breeders believe that horses have become less durable. I do have some reservations. 40-50 years is a very short time to manifest such an extensive change in the population. The onset of the problem is fairly abrupt, and is more consistent with a change in management. Gene frequencies change at a glacial place.”

Is it the drugs?

Trainer Gary Bizantz: “The veterinary community misled the American racing industry into thinking that increasing the amounts of medication we gave these horses would do numerous good things. It would make them run faster, their careers would be longer, field sizes would be higher, and they would get hurt less often. One hundred percent of what they said has gone the other way. Everything.”

Nick Zito: “How can you be over-medicated when a horse is just starting? If I end up with a horse that only races once or twice I can’t blame that on drugs.”

Is it the economics?

Trainers of big money horses, with big money owners, have to keep their winning percentages up over 20% in order to remain marketable, so they run their horses infrequently, and only when they have a good chance to win. Their main concern is residual value after a racing career ends. But what about claiming trainers at lower levels? Why do they follow the same pattern?
Breeders are in the business to sell horses and make money. I can’t blame them for breeding horses that people want to buy – and people want to buy a Super Saver, who wins the big black type race and is off to the breeding shed. Super Saver never had a published work over 5 furlongs in his brief career.

Is it the surfaces?

Bob Baffert and others think so. In all fairness, just a few years into the synthetic experiment, it’s probably too early to tell. The article goes on to mention how the bases of dirt tracks have changed over the years. Other countries racing over turf as opposed to dirt, generally report lower breakdown figures.

What is missing from the equation?

Back to Dr. Bailey, “Perhaps someone can identify a management change or a dietary supplement that has been universal and potentially devastating to the current generation of horses?”

Many old timers, and myself, believe that ‘management change’ is the current trend of trainers to train and race their horses much less frequently than in the past.

Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens: “The biggest change in racing is that people are of the opinion that you shouldn’t run horses very often. I can’t understand it. What’s going on, it’s a fallacy.”
Mr. Jerkens beat Secretariat twice within 8 weeks, once with Onion and once with Prove Out, both were running back in a week or less.

Trainer Ben Jones and Whirlaway: 1941 Triple Crown campaign included 20 starts including a Derby Trial win the Tuesday before the Kentucky Derby. Also, an allowance win BETWEEN the Preakness and the Belmont.

On the flip side, Todd Pletcher and others disagree, often referring to the Ragozin figures which are given credit for identifying the ‘bounce theory’, which states that horses coming off a top effort need time to recover, else they will run back poorly.

Adds trainer Chris Englehart: “When I see what trainers did years ago it makes me scratch my head, if I tried to do that with my horses, they would all be on the farm.”

I agree 100% Mr. Englehart. The key lies in the 2 year old season. If you miss that window of development, you will have to wrap your horses in duct tape to keep them sound. Here is the data to back that up:

A Jockey Club study showed that despite conventional wisdom, modern trainers are not pushing their 2 year olds hard enough. In 1964 a whopping 52% of the foal crop raced and averaged 6.9 starts, but from 2004-2009 only 30 percent started and averaged but 3 starts per horse.
Prominent vet Larry Bramlage: “Horses that make their first career start at age 2 earn twice as much as those who begin racing careers at age 3. In addition, these horses show less predisposition for injury. These data strongly support the physiologic premise that it is easier for a horse to adapt to training when begun at the end of skeletal growth which takes advantage of the established blood supply and cell populations. If you wait longer, until age 3, the musculoskeletal system is allowed to atrophy at the end of growth because of the lack of training stimulus.”

A very detailed exercise regimen was found by Dr. Nunamaker at the New Bolton Center along
with Dr. John Fisher, DVM, a trainer based out of Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland:


I have talked to dozens of trainers over the years, and found just one who follows such a program.

We all are regaled with the many successes of today’s super trainers. Multiple graded stakes winners and winning percentages up near 25% are common, yet we rarely see what happens to the hundreds of horses given to these trainers that never make the headlines.

Blogger Frank at RatherRapid took the time to document some findings that seem to show injury rates well over 50% from these stables:


The great irony is: Early race specific exercise and racing is obviously beneficial, but nowadays 2 year olds rarely breeze further than 5F, make 2-3 starts beginning in late Fall, and are then spelled. This ‘management’ dooms them to making fewer starts than the old timers, and running race times equal to those of the 1930’s, despite all the veterinary and technological advances of the past century.

If I had a horse in training, and I wasn’t a billionaire, I’d send him to this guy:

Gary Contessa: “I believe in watching a horse train, and if the horse is doing well, why not run them? Mighty Irish ran 4 times last month and that owner made money with a sub-par horse because of it. But she was good to go, so I ran her, otherwise I could have ran her once a month and lost money.”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Traditional Horsemanship gets Zenyatta beat

Synthetic horses were 0-10 on the dirt at CD until Race 9 when longshot Dakota Phone broke the skid.

Much like Zenyatta, he had a career mostly on synthetic with just 2 dirt starts.

But unlike the great Z, he got a fast work over the dirt surface this week prior to her start. A 3F move on Wednesday, just 3 days prior to his start in the BC Dirt Mile, which is one of my ‘tricks’ to squeezing out a few extra tenths come raceday, best used by Carl Nafzger with Unbrided:

Another trick is to break away from that stupid TV-friendly post parade and knock off a few 14 sec furlongs. Dangerous Midge did so in the BC Turf, perhaps by accident, and then came home a big longshot winner:

Back to Zenyatta’s heroic effort-

15-20 lengths back at the first turn, Jerry Bailey said it took her several seconds to get used to the track. Why not get her used to the track during a 6F work last week in the morning under the lights?

6F in 1:11 flat put her 10 lengths further back than she had ever been on dirt at OP.

Blame kept in front through the gallop out after the wire, didn’t shy away like females did for the past 2 years when hooked, but then again he ain’t Rinterval.

Commentators act like nothing could be done, she just didn’t like the dirt – well they all ran over the same surface, the difference is that other horses had the experience. She could have had it, but was kept at home instead so as to not interrupt her routine.

This is a game of inches, and you have to do all you can to put those inches in your column. A nice blow out 3 days before is one such edge.

Another edge is familiarizing yourself with a foreign surface, not just one race over dirt in the last 2 years against a field of 6, that isn’t good enough.

I’m not just guessing at this stuff, I collect GPS, heart rate, and blood lactate data on horses during training hours on a variety of surfaces. Through appropriate training on a surface, they can improve by 10% or more. All she needed was another couple of feet and she makes history.

Traditional horsemanship, where you keep your horse psychologically happy instead of physiologically primed, came back to haunt the Sherriffs camp. You simply cannot play that game with the synthetic wrinkle thrown into today’s game. Would you take Goldikova into the BC Classic on dirt after a career on turf, of course not! Not without a prep and a month of training over the surface, that is.

People realize that turf is different from dirt, and would never skip from one to another without much preparation, why treat synthetic differently?

One key principle of exercise physiology is that of Specificity. You get what you train for, in other words. Go back 10 years when all was dirt and this point is moot. But now we have ProRide, Cushion Track, and Polytrack and the rules have changed.

Blame won 3 other big races at CD and had the homecourt advantage, but could still only eek out a victory by a neck. Zenyatta is the better horse in my opinion, but could have been managed a bit better with respect to the surface question.

The streak is over Mr. and Mrs. Moss, give her a break, unretire her again, bring her back in CA next spring, head East for some dirt action against the boys, and win this thing next year by 4 lengths. Please. Then you can have your well deserved Horse of the Year award and go down as one of the best ever, regardless of gender.

Run this race again in a month and Zenyatta finishes on top in her customary style. She earned more respect from me today than she did in those other 19 wins, by far.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Zenyatta works vs the competition

Some hope here-

Looks like Mr. Sheriffs has made some adjustments, as many of her works the past month have been 6F in length, with one 7F thrown in. On synthetic of course.

By contrast, Blame has been on poly at Keeneland and only going the traditional 4 and 5F distances. Likewise for QR and others on dirt.

I assume, that many of them also gallop out another quarter quite aggressively.

From elsewhere in this blog I have criticized her chances based on lack of experience on dirt, but his seemingly minor adjustment may give her some help come raceday.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Synthetics are like a trampoline says Zenyatta's exercise rider

"She’s terrific," added Willard. "She couldn’t be training any better. She loves the dirt. I knew it two years ago, and I knew it going into Hot Springs (for the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park). She drives off it. It doesn’t have the trampoline effect like the synthetics."

Better than from the horse's mouth!

By the way, that Apple Blossom in which she was so dominant timed at 1:13 for 6F, while Saturday will be around 1:09 for 6F on a similar surface. So, Z will use much more energy to be close - or be 15-20 lengths further back than usual.

Ragozin, Thorograph, Beyer, all point to a disappointment for the legions of Zenyatta fans this weekend - and her backers believe that she transcends numbers/statistics. Gotta love this sport in that she finally gets to prove which side is right.

Some of you know, I collect physiological data on horses during exercise. Most of my data comes from Churchill and Keeneland, I've never been out West. From these numbers, horses breezing on synthetic experience much smaller lactic acid build up than those on dirt.

Amazingly, it takes 6F on polytrack to even get close to the lactic acid dealt with after just 4F on dirt. So after 6F of the BC, Zenyatta will likely be in uncharted lactic acid territory for her and still have a half mile left to go. Ouch. She is indeed the greatest racemare ever if she can overcome this against such a quality field.

Don't just take my word for it, get out there yourself and feel the differences.

Run 400m on blacktop(CD), again on your local high school rubber track(poly), and again on grass(turf). They will feel markedly different, both during the run and in the days after - and the stopwatch will differ greatly.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why Zenyatta Loses Big on Saturday

I debated a week before posting this, and decided to go ahead and risk looking like an idiot. First of all, I hope she wins and cements her HOY and status as one of the best ever. But that won’t happen on dirt.

Politics aside, synthetic and dirt are different, not good or bad, just different. Many of her rivals in the Classic have prepped the last few months on the hard surfaces out East, while she has remained in CA racing and training on the synthetic. Now if she was out there breezing a mile I would be happy, but 6F on synthetic is like 4F on dirt in what it takes out of a horse – not enough in my opinion.

Imagine taking batting practice against fastballs for a month, then all of a sudden seeing a curveball. Unless you are supremely talented, you likely need some practice in order to hit the curve as well as the heater. Different neurological coordination is required, different firing and relaxing of the muscles, different eye/hand coordination, etc.

Granted, she went to Oaklawn and won on dirt this spring, but none of those females have won a G1 this year and the Beyer pace figs rated the Apple Blossom as the slowest in 26 years.

Furthermore, she has a one dimensional running style not suited towards a speed favoring track. She has made her living walking out of the gate, laying 10 lengths back, and coming home strong. Essentially she runs a negative split, where her final quarter or half mile is faster than her first. Physiologically, that is the most effective way to maximize her effort – but she will not be allowed that luxury in the Classic, she will have to battle the lactic acid buildup in the final eighth like everyone else – only this will be the first time in her life having to deal with that pain.

Other trainers out West have started to see this perspective, after synthetic babies went something like 0 for 50 in the Kentucky Derby the past few years. Bob Baffert, for instance, took Looking at Lucky to Oaklawn for the dirt in March, and again took him to Hoosier Park last month for his final prep before the Breeders Cup.

Why did Sheriffs not do the same with Big Z? She won’t even get to Churchill until Tuesday, a few light gallops over the track and boom, it’s racetime.

At some point, the Mosses seemed to indicate that Zenyatta would travel East in 2010 and make the rounds on the dirt circuit, but that never happened. Why not, at the very least, bring her to Louisville a month early and get in several works over the surface?

Her handlers seem to think she is 10 lengths better on dirt, but I bet you there are 100+ trainers who think their charges are ready to excel next weekend, and only about 10 of them will be correct.

She is extremely talented of course, and if she can overcome the handicap of spending 99% of her life on a surface different than that at Churchill, she deserves the accolades she will surely receive with a rousing victory.

But, I see her running out of time to make that patented move and finishing out of the money.

Come November 7th I will either be a prophet or a bozo. Put your vote in the comments below, along with any suggestions about something embarrassing I can post as punishment should she win by 5.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nafzger's Secret with Unbridled

"The Derby is a day away. It's Friday. Time for me to use what I considered a small secret weapon with this particular horse. I had done it with him in nearly every race of his career, but had kept it secret from the press.

A day prior to each of his races, instead of just galloping him for exercise, I would have the rider gallop about a mile and then quicken the pace to do the last half in 52 and change - a light breeze.

I kept that a secret race after race because if he would have thrown in a dull effort, the critics would have said it was because he'd been breezed the day before.

But, Unbridled could do a half in 52 and change and not really be extending himself. Instead of squeezing a drop from the lemon, I was merely adding to the potency of the contents."

-from Traits of a Winner, by Carl A. Nafzger

Very smart fellow, he may not know why it worked, but it did and he kept it quiet to avoid the media onslaught of second guessers.

Now, if you are reading this you likely don't have Unbridled in your barn and a half in 52 the day before a race will be way too much. Try a quarter instead, or 3F 2 days out, etc.

The key is to empty the spleen and fill it with new, oxygen rich blood cells just prior to raceday.

Many, many such 'uncharted' works are taking place out there every day - not too mention routine gallops ending in a few 13sec furlongs. None of this makes the DRF, so don't read the form and think you know everything that goes on behind the scenes to condition a horse.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What can Thoroughbred Trainers Learn from Standardbred Conditioners?

For once in my life, I’ll try to stick to the facts and keep my opinions to myself, at least until a later date.
The fact is that harness racing times have improved markedly over the past 70+ years, while thoroughbred times have lagged well behind.

To keep things simple, I decided to use the winning times in the Kentucky Derby and the Hambletonian – the two feature races for each discipline, please see above table:

Both races feature a landmark effort to break the 2:00 barrier; first accomplished in the Derby by the immortal Secretariat in 1973, with the corresponding harness racing effort coming from Emily’s Pride in 1958 – both carding a 1:59 (for the purposes of this piece, I have rounded off all fractional times downward to the nearest second).

From the above chart, starting in 1930 standardbreds have improved winning Hambo times by 7.9%, while thoroughbreds of the same period have improved Derby winning times by just 1.8%. If you start analyzing the data at the time of the breaking of the magic 2:00 threshold the differences are even more striking – 7.0% for trotters vs. an imperceptible 0.08% for thoroughbreds.

So, we have seen a roughly 500% greater improvement in Hambo winners versus Derby champs. Those of you who have read my work before know of my interest in the training aspect of the game, so let’s take a look at all the variables that may hold some answers to the above discrepancy.

Training and racing frequency

Thoroughbreds these days are lucky to get 6 starts per year on average, yet standardbreds often race weekly – even needing to qualify prior to racing. Thoroughbreds, taking into account a few weeks off from speedwork after a race, may see 12 sec/furlong paces for a half mile every 10-14 days. Standarbreds train in an interval fashion, working miles each week at race pace of 14 sec/furlong.

Use of technology

Thoroughbred trainers are avid users of the stopwatch, and sometimes the scales. Standardbred practicioners have utilized heart rate monitors, lactate analyzers, resistance carts, etc. for long before I entered the picure.

The first standardbred trainer I met was training a thoroughbred here at Churchill Downs, a former $5,000 claimer. After a few interval sessions at 1 mile with the HR/GPS monitor, his horse went on to win his next two route races by a total of 29 lengths – and was eventually claimed away for $50,000. Now with a new trainer and using the same old methods, that horse has done very little since.
A Lexington-based equine rehab center with a modern hyperbaric chamber reports that after harness races at the Red Mile, she gets a line of vans with sound candidates for post race treatment in order to enhance recovery. Despite being closer to Keeneland, thoroughbreds never make the trip unless a horse is injured.

Drugs, namely Lasix and Bute

Lasix became raceday legal back in the 80’s for thoroughbred racing, and starts per career numbers have fallen ever since, while Derby winning times have remained stagnant. The Hambo outlawed raceday Lasix and Bute in the early 90’s, yet times have continued to improve at the same rate.

Pre-race warm up

Nonexistent for most US thoroughbreds, their pre race routine consists mainly of walking in the post parade followed by a gentle trot next to the pony before entering the gate. Standardbreds often warm up a few miles prior to completion, with several furlongs of race-pace efforts.

Other factors

All thoroughbreds start from a standstill, while trotters get a rolling gate, which is much easier physiologically on the Hambo competitors.
Thoroughbreds also travel much faster than the trotters, which can cause more skeletal and soft tissue problems.
In US racing, most thoroughbreds have to start quickly and come home dead tired, while trotters actually often complete final quarters faster than the first ones.
Add these factors together and you can see that thoroughbred racing is probably tougher on the equine athletes, which can explain a higher injury rate – but not a lack of performance improvement.

Parting shot

I have one client, a self made millionaire here in the US, who insists to me that all big time TB trainers have a very good grasp of equine exercise physiology – but the numbers just don’t bear that out.

Somewhere, someday a thoroughbred owner/trainer is going to copy the training methods of the standardbred guys, instead of the thoroughbred elite, and make history. Only then will everyone else copy his practices and we’ll see Derby winning times in the mid 1:50’s on a consistent basis.

Maybe it will be us in 2020?:

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Thoroedge Racing Partnership - the only drug free stable racing in the US

Time to put my money where my mouth is. ThoroEdge Racing Partnerships is set for a January 2011 launch with 5-10 purchases of 2 year olds who are galloping regularly, but yet to begin formal speed training.

What make us different than the rest?
  1. 100% drug free racing, no lasix, no bute.
    Drug use for maladies such as coughs, colds, etc. is just fine, but drug abuse is not allowed. Vet bills to be shared with all investors.

  2. Action, action, action!
    Our economic model calls for 2 year olds to be trained in South America, where monthly costs are just $1,000. Without debilitating drug abuse, and through scientifically sound training methods, our stock will race every 10-14 days on average - like in the old days.
    Put just these two factors together, and you get 10x the excitement for your dollar vs traditional partnerships.

  3. Quality horseman at every level.
    Trainers with success in US-bases stake races, foreign assistants who have graduated from KY-based internship programs, and bloodstock agentswith decades of experience, make up the Management Team.

  4. Auctions are for suckers, unless you are the seller.
    All of our stock will be purchased privately, off the farm. If a seller doesnt allow me to monitor HR during a gallop - I'm not buying from him. Public auctions are where the world's leading breeders dump their unwanted horses - ones they have observed on the farm for many months that show zero hope. Some champions in that mix, but you have to spend millions to find them consistently.

  5. With our physiological testing regimen we are targeting the best athletes, not merely the potential pedigree superstars. The magic happens when a horse is moving, and his HR behavior indicates superior physiological ability in real time.

  6. Only those horses that can pay their way come to the US.
    With an average shipping cost of $10,000 from South America, our best prospects will need to win 3-4 races overseas before coming to the states.

  7. Our sport is horse RACING, not horse selling, not horse breeding - you want that other stuff, go join Team Valor, etc. Many of which, by the way, are fantastic organizations, just playing the game in a different manner than Thoroedge.

  8. Our ideal campaigner will, in his/her career, race until age 6 and make 50 starts. This can only be accomplished by judicious training/racing and keeping them sound with frequent paddock turnout time.

  9. All foreign races will be available via live webstream - perhaps not TVG or HRTV everytime out, but technology is pervasive enought to give us great coverage.

  10. Nothing noble comes without sacrifice. Sending stock to the southern hemisphere for 2 year old training effectively rules out the Kentucky Derby and other classics, but not the Breeders Cup or many other quality stakes races at ages 4 and up.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Ideal 2 Year Old Training Program

Pedigree and conformation are what you pay for at the sales.

Once you have your prospects, don’t simply train them like everyone else – invest a little extra time and attention, not money for once, and you can gain an edge on the competition by the time you get to the track.


My job is to comb through hundreds of pages of scientific studies put forth by the brightest minds in the equine industry and find things of use to my clients.

By far, the biggest discovery was a specific exercise protocol for 2 year old horses hidden within the landmark Maryland Shin Study by David Nunamaker of the New Bolton Center for Veterinary Medicine:


This study has been around for many years, yet my experience shows less than 10% of those who can benefit from the findings are actually putting the recommendations into practice. On a personal note, I work with an $11,000 yearling purchase that exhibits the same physiological ability of a Derby hopeful for an international racing concern that paid a six figure stud fee in 2008.

My filly adds speed work at the end of gallops twice a week, while the regally bred colt is trained in a traditional manner of 2 mile gallops with a breeze thrown in every 7-10 days. Both will be at the races this fall, stay tuned for an update – but for now let’s look at how YOU can condition your two year olds for maximum soundness and earning potential in the upcoming season.

Why is the practice of ‘legging up’ dangerous for racehorses?

Because 70% of traditionally trained two year olds develop some sort of repetitive loading injury in the shins, which compromises soundness and earning potential.

Old school trainers would often buck shins on purpose, in order to ‘get it out of the way’, rest and resume training. Although many live through this process and come out OK, Nunamaker found that over 12% of these athletes suffer saucer fractures later on in their careers.

Standardbreds don’t buck their shins because they train and race in the same gait, a trot or pace. Thoroughbreds have shin problems because they often train at varied paces – many slower than race pace.

They build ‘gallop’ bone, not ‘breeze’ bone. Therefore when breezes are introduced, trouble often arises. When galloping slower than a 2:45 pace, the cannon bone strikes the ground at an angle, and new bone rapidly forms to counteract this.

However, at breeze speeds of 13sec/furlong or faster, the cannon bone strikes the ground at 90 degrees, with more dense bone forming as a result on the front and inner surfaces of the cannon bones – which is ideal for withstanding the rigors of racing. Please see below:

Before we begin, I need to indentify two terms: classical training and modified training.

Classical training can also be referred to as traditional training and consists of many miles of long, slow gallops designed to ‘leg up’ the 2 year old for a future at the racetrack. Most gallops stop increasing distance at 2 miles, and paces are kept in the range of 18-20 sec/furlong, or about a 2:30 min/mile. Breezes are introduced at a frequency of once every 7-10 days and range from 1F to 4F in length, with speeds of approximately 13 sec/furlong. Sound familiar?

Modified training can be referred to as scientific training, as its specifics have been devised from Nunamaker, John Fisher DVM, and others through rigorous testing and evaluation of several hundred 2 year olds over the past 2 decades. The gallops typically are shorter, from a mile to a mile and a quarter, and speedwork is introduced much earlier. Twice each week a gallop ends with speed work, starting with 1F in 15 seconds, and ending 3 months later with 3F in :40.
Here are the study details with pictures:

A – Group 1 – traditional training on a dirt track, this horse bucked his shins
B – Group 2 – traditional training on wood chip surface, even less new bone than Group 1
C – Group 3 – control group turned out to pasture, cannon bone still mostly round
D – Group 4 – modified training group, thick/dense bone on front and inside of shin
E – Table of results – green line represents racing 3 year olds, our 2 year olds in Stable 4 (black line) demonstrate superior bone growth compared to this group of seasoned competitors, without even racing yet!

After this initial study, Nunamaker and others went about testing their findings on a larger scale; where 226 two year olds were followed from 5 different stables over a period of 11 years.
Stable 2, with frequent breezes and modified training, was found to reduce the likelihood of bucked shins by 98.6%.

Training traditionally, Stables 1 and 4 had the largest incidences of bucked shins, with weekly breezing found to increase the chances of bucked shins by 36.4%.

Even if they didn’t buck, overall development was compromised by the failure to build race-appropriate bone and tendon strength as a juvenile.

So we now have ideal bone growth in our 2 year olds, imagine how this type of training similarly optimizes the condition of ligaments, tendons, muscles, nervous system, blood chemistry, capillarization of lung tissue, etc.?
For instance, my 2 year old filly will make her debut without Lasix – as her lungs have been exposed to the pressures of speed over dirt in a very gradual manner throughout the past 4 months and the vet suspects, much like her bones, these structures will be well suited for racing.
Modified 2 year old training at Fair Hill in Maryland
Dr. John Fisher, DVM at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland has been fine tuning this protocol for many years within his own stable.

Young horses are broken to ride in the fall and are able to gallop one mile in 18-20sec/furlong pace by the end of December of their 1 year old year.

The principle Dr. Fisher operates under is that the bones of a young horse need to experience the strains associated with racing speeds as soon as possible so that bones can begin to remodel appropriately.
A side effect of this practice is that all other systems of the equine body do as well, especially the tiny lung sacs that cause so much problems later on when they bleed (EIPH).

Rick Arthur DVM has expressed the need for cannon bones to be elliptical in shape, rather than round. Thicker bone development is desired on the inside and front edges in order to better withstand the rigors of racing.
Galloping at 18sec/furlong and slower exposes bone to a stretching, or shearing, type of tension while breezing causes compression like forces which foster bone growth that is ideal for racing.
The message to take home here is simply not ‘more speed is better’ but that when you progressively load bones with exercise specific to racing you get an ideal result: bones as strong as a 4 year old, with soft tissues to match, according to Allen Goodship, PhD at England’s Royal Veterinary College.
Details of Modified Training Protocol developed by Dr. John Fisher at Fair Hill Training Center:
-Fisher Stage 1
Finish 2 gallops (TUE and SAT) with final furlong in :15 for 5 weeks.

-Fisher Stage 2
Finish 2 gallops (TUE and SAT) with final 2F in :30 for 5 weeks.

-Fisher Stage 3
Gallops are extended to 1.25 miles twice per week.
Finish 1 gallop (SAT) with final 2F in :26 for 4 weeks.
Finish 1 gallop (SAT) with final 3F in :40 for 3 weeks

From ‘On Bucked Shins’ by Nunamaker, with respect to the above exercise protocol:

“This training program has shown no increase in the injury rate of young horses.

An excellent by-product of this training program is the mental development of these 2-yr-olds. Because of the very relaxed atmosphere of walking to and from the racetrack, these individuals exhibit no anxiety about their work.

For this training program to work the rider cannot be in a hurry to get back to the barn and on the next horse. The 2-yr-olds are not anxious about speed work because it has been in their weekly schedule since the beginning of training.

All the animals walk back to the barn. Walking is a great exercise that does not seem to negatively influence bone modeling or remodeling.”

Another take on the same concept from Dr. Jack Woolsey, DVM:

Distance Speed/Pace Total Time Frequency Duration
1F 15 sec/furlong :15 2x/week 2 weeks
2F 15 sec/furlong :30 2x/week 2 weeks
3F 15 sec/furlong :45 2x/week 2 weeks
4F 15 sec/furlong :60 2x/week 2 weeks
2F 13 sec/furlong :26 2x/week 3 weeks
3F 13 sec/furlong :39 2x/week 3 weeks
4F 13 sec/furlong :52 Every 5 days 2 weeks

*31 breezes in 16 weeks, starting Jan. 1st and ending April 15th – conversely, traditionally trained 2 year olds may get worked from 2-4F on average 12 times before heading to the starting gate.

*Notice how speed is kept constant as distance increases, then as speed increases, distance drops back off. Excellent example of changing exercise variables to induce positive adaptations, in this case as one variable is increased (speed) another is decreased (distance) in order to avoid overtraining.

This is the exact protocol I used with a client in the US who made a very modest purchase at Keeneland last fall. At first, local trainers told him he was going to ‘kill’ this filly with all of the speed work. Now these same guys think that he has a future stakes winner on his hands. The confidence that a young horse gets from being given achievable physical goals that progress logically is astounding.
The Science Behind the Results:
The overriding principle of exercise physiology is that of Progressive Overload. Doesn’t matter if you train a horse, human, camel, or greyhound – every living being grows stronger when stressed in a progressive manner. By simply manipulating the variables of frequency, duration, and intensity – you force the physiological systems to adapt in an effort to survive, i.e. grow stronger.
Another key scientific term is Specificity. The closer the resemblance of the training is to the competition, the better the results. Nunamaker proved this over the past 20 years: gallops build a certain type of bone, and breezes build another. It’s the breeze bone that is needed to race safely. ‘Legging up’ may very well indeed aid in aerobic conditioning as well as development of other soft tissue systems, but the long slow gallops of the past are detrimental to bone structure – which is the key system in any developing 2 year old thoroughbred.
How to verify the program is actually working
In order to objectively measure actual performance in the mornings, I use a heart rate monitor/GPS setup and calculate V200, which is the speed of movement when HR hits 200bpm, about 85% intensity for most horses. In effect, this is maximum cruising speed.
I consult with hundreds of horses around the world and I see V200 numbers ranging from 16mph to 28mph. Typically 2 year olds in training range from 20-23mph. However, at the age of 2 this filly is now at 26mph, which is exactly where some 2011 Derby hopefuls are up at Saratoga – classically trained colts of course with ideal conformation and perfect pedigrees.
This is what a gallop looks like on my software when a 2 year old on this type of training regimen is progessing nicely:

Now here’s the tricky part – how to define when a horse is able to gallop a mile in 2:45 ‘comfortably’ and therefore ready to begin the program?

Also, how can one determine if the twice weekly speed works are too much for the individual?
Again I rely on the horsemanship of my customers, along with quantitative data gleaned from my HR/GPS equipment.
If a horse typically shows HR of 80bpm when walking to the track but one morning just won’t drop below 110bpm – the workout is aborted.
If that same horse typically gallops at a 2:30 pace on non work days and shows a HR below 200bpm I am happy, but if one day he suddenly spikes to 212bpm – he is taken off the work tab immediately.
More specifically, I define ‘comfortably’ as being able to gallop the required mile in 2:45 and exhibit a recovery heart rate of under 120bpm within 2 minutes of finishing the exercise, with this measurement taking place during the gallop-out via onboard equipment. Once a youngster passes this ‘test’ he is ready to begin the conditioning protocol outlined above.
In summary:

Don’t take my word for it, but look to people way smarter than myself like David Nunamaker, John Fisher, and Rick Arthur for ways to structure training of your 2 year old in order to give yourself an edge over the competition.
Horses will still pull up lame on this training schedule periodically, as in any other regimen – but your success rate and ROI will improve considerably when you utilize science and technology to the maximum at a young age when your prize prospect can set the stage for a firm foundation to last throughout his/her racing career.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I Blame Trainers for Lack of Triple Crown Winners

I'm sure I'll get skewered for this post from all the trainers out there, but here goes:

We can't even have more than one Triple Crown RUNNER this year (Dublin as of this time), much less a winner.

I don't need to go into training regimens of the top 3 year old contenders - because they are all essentially the same; gallop 1.5 miles a few times a week, never breeze further than 6F on dirt, no speed work 2 weeks after a race, breeze 0-1 times between the Derby and Preakness, etc.

Every trainer laments the spacing of the Triple Crown series, then goes back to breezing once every 6/7 days and racing every 5-6 weeks in preparaton for such a challenge. Like Einstein said, "Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, while expecting a different result."

During this 30+ year drought, I think we can safely assume all trainers copy off of what the big boys like Pletcher and Baffert do. Similarly, back in the 30's and 40's, everyone was also copying what the trainers of those throughbred champions where doing, there just isn't much evidence of what that was exactly - until I found detailed training schedules on the legendary Assault (pictured above) in a great book entitled "Training Thoroughbred Horses" by Preston Burch.

Assault won the Triple Crown in 1946 for his trainer Max Hirsch, who also got 2/3 of the way towards immortality with Bold Venture in 1936 and Middleground in 1950.

And away we go, all data courtesy of two thoroughbred hall of fame trainers:

3 – 4F in :48
4 – Won Kentucky Derby by 8 in 2:06 on sloppy track
5 – walked at CD
6 – shipped to Pimlico
8 – 3F in :40
9 – 8F in 1:45
11 – Won Preakness Stakes by a neck in 2:01 on fast track
12 – shipped to Belmont
16 – 4F in :52
18 – 3F in :40
20 – 4F in :48
22 – 8F in 1:44
24 – 3F in :35
25 – 1.25 miles in 2:05 (:50, 1:15, 1:40, 2:05)
28 – 4F in :50
29 – 1.5 miles in 2:32

1 – Won Belmont Stakes by 3 in 2:31 on fast track
5 – 4F in :52
7 – 4F in :51
9 – 8F in 1:43
11 – 3F in :36
13 – 8F in 1:43 at Aqueduct
15 – Won Dwyer Stakes by 5 lengths in 2:07 on fast track

To summarize:
A Triple Crown AND Dwyer win within 6 weeks.
16 breezes in that time, averaging nearly 6F per effort, in 12-13 sec/f paces.

Currently our runners such as Super Saver and Lookin at Lucky, while still fantastic specimens, cannot breeze/race 4 times in this period, much less the 20 of Assault and no doubt all others during 1930-1948 when we had 7 Triple Crown champs.

Assault's mother never ran a race, and the colt himself had a foot injury early in his career. Today he would have been trained/raced like he was made of glass - instead of iron.

So, what happened? Did we stop breeding for stamina? Did we stop training for it?

Probably a combination of both, with economics no doubt the driving factor behind many decisions. Plus the introduction into the thoroughbred game of quarter horse trainers who seldom train aggressively cetainly didn't help matters.

Human training has evolved through science and technology over the past 50 years.
As a result, athletes are faster than ever, with lower injury rates in all sports.

Conversely, thoroughbred conditioning has went backwards during this time while our racing times fail to improve and lameness and bleeding runs rampant.

Horses improve and get better after being allowed to recover from a bout of appropriate exercise. The more of these sessions you squeeze in, the more development you can expect.

Every sound elite thoroghbred recovers from a half in :48 within 2-4 days - yet is forced to wait a week or more before sprinting again.

Humans know they can't lose weight exercising once a week for 20 minutes, exercise science has proven you need 3-4 of those sessions each week in order to see results. If there is too long a break between exercise bouts, the positive adaptations made by the body come and go - there is no cumulative effect.

Every horseman should read the work of Preston Burch, as well as David Evans - the father of equine exercise physiology:


(nice long free preview above)

Don't just train harder, train smarter.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Using exercise physiology to handicap races

Drosselmeyer - we all saw his performance in the Louisiana Derby; terrible trip and an impressive third place finish. But, how many of us noticed the aggressive warm up given to him by Kent Desormeaux? Breaking away from the pony after the post parade, Desormeaux cranked him up to a quick pace for about a quarter mile down the straightaway. When asked why, he replied: “I wanted him on his toes.”

Contrary to popular belief, such a relatively fast paced warmup will not cause a well-conditioned horse to tire prematurely. As a matter of fact, due to the uniqueness of the equine spleen – a warm up away from the pony has a multitude of benefits that can add up to a winning edge.

Unlike other athletes, the horse stores a large percentage of red blood cells in his spleen. When that gate opens and the race is on – the spleen contracts and shoots up to 30% more blood into the body. Many vets believe this contributes to bleeding as the arteries are not yet dilated enough to handle the increased blood viscosity.

So in failing to contract this spleen during the warmup (away from the pony), you are dooming your athlete to dealing with this increased blood thickness during the first quarter mile of the race, as his arteries are not yet dilated to counteract the increased blood pressures. Lasix will surely help matters, but why not take advantage of the post parade warmup too?

Additionally, red blood cells sequestered in the spleen for long periods of time can become oddly shaped and less able to carry oxygen to working muscles. The practice of blowing a horse out with a quick 3/8 breeze 4 days before the races addresses this problem – but how many trainers put this into practice on a consistent basis?

Observe the pre race warmup if possible, as an aggressive one may not make all the difference in the world, but it surely can help buy you the few extra lengths needed to overcome other obstacles. I’ve spent many a day after the Derby at Churchill watching Calvin Borel do this consistently.

I once consulted on a 4 year old colt who was 0-9 lifetime, a private purchase here in Louisville. His first work was a half mile at Churchill for his new trainer, and it was so slow it ranked 52nd out of 53 that morning. But, I had my heart rate/GPS monitor on him and his heart rate recovered to 94bpm within 90 seconds of that breeze – so we knew he had much more in the tank. He was then entered him into a MSW at Mountaineer and was a wire to wire winner paying $22.00. Any handicapper relying on speed of works would have been scared away – because a stopwatch only measures the workload and completely misses the horse’s physiological response, which is often times the missing piece of the puzzle.

Now with regards to everyone’s favorite subject these days: synthetic vs. dirt surfaces.

Physiologically, horses training on dirt are subject to as much as 50% more stress than those training on synthetics. Not all stress is bad, as the horse is a living organism that can adapt to stress and become stronger. So a 6 furlong work on the polytrack at Keeneland requires as much fitness as a 4 furlong breeze at Churchill. Dirt will make you fitter, but also increase the risk of injury – truly a double edged sword. Take note of the work tabs of the horses and don’t count multiple synthetic works of 4 furlongs or less as being enough to develop maximal conditioning.

I think that Mine That Bird may have stumbled upon the ideal scenario last year. As a 2 year old with still growing bones, he spent his time on the soft stuff up at Woodbine. He then shipped to Sunland Park and prepped extensively on the dirt for several months before his unveiling during the Derby.

That seemed to work out very well for him and his connections…

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ahmed Zayat: behind the scenes of a world class operation

From a magnificent piece in today's DRF:

"Zayat loves to gamble. But in selecting and preparing his Thoroughbreds, he tries to hedge his bets by using as much science as he can in identifying runners. A hands-on owner, he applies analytical technology to his horses' early training, calling it "an added tool and an edge in a guessing game."

"We film every breeze, even on the farm, and try to analyze nanoseconds," he said. "Some people say it's corny, wacky-wacky stuff, but, for example, we do heart measurements, too. It's all about the amount of oxygen you're pumping out, and if you have a better heart function, you're better able to carry speed at a higher distance and get a classic horse."


Wonderful to hear a top performing owner willing to do whatever it takes (legally) to get an edge on the competiton. One point of clarity however; it's not ALL about the oxygen capacity or VO2 max, but it's a huge factor.

One human study looked at VO2max: and was suprised to find out the athlete with the highest scores didn't always win. That's when the concept of Running Efficiency came out. Namely, the largest oxygen capacity is nice, but only if you move in a way to maximize that fuel. So these large heart sizes touted at sales won't always predict racing performance, but it's a start.

Lance Armstrong didn't miraculously improve his VO2 max after cancer, but he did increase his power/efficiency by a whopping 8%. He did this by increasing pedalling cadence - what we would call foot turnover in a horse. Stride length is meaningless if turnover is low. You can't teach a horse to have faster turnover, but you can count strides in a furlong to see who has higher values and act accordingly.

Anyway, you can collect some HR data without any equipment.
Just head to the barn, stand with your horse for a few minutes until he is calm, place your hand on his heart (behind the left front leg) and count beats for 15 seconds. Multiply by 4 and you have bpm.

Resting HR should be from 25-40bpm. Do this for 5 days and find out what is normal, or baseline, for your horse. Then check every morning, if that number is ever 10% higher - that can be a very early sign of illness, injury, or infection.

P.S. Thanks to the folks at Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance, http://www.tbablogs.com/, for accepting me as a new member this week - I am truly honored to be associated with such a great group.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mike de Kock: Top Dubai Trainer Uses Science to Win

'It's great for problematic horses,' he said. 'When he came back from his pelvic injury, Eagle Mountain would have spent two months in England only on the treadmill. It is definitely less attrition on the horse and a better controlled, balanced workout at the heartbeat that you want. '


I have spent hours online trying to read between the lines in an effort to determine what top trainers are doing with their charges in the morning - info that you cannot simply get from the published works on DRF. Earlier we found Aiden O'Brien and Coolmore using heart rate/GPS gear at Ballydoyle, now we find Mike de Kock using treadmills, fantastic!-

Often times I prescribe a set pace that is ideal for a horse on a certain day in order to say, achieve optimal aerobic development. Think a 4:00 lick, or 15mph, for example. I then watch in vain as the rider is unable to control the wild animal and they gallop by me at 22mph.

As Mr. de Kock has discovered, treadmills alleviate this problem. Find the ideal heart rate/pace scenario, enter it into the treadmill, and you are GUARANTEED a workout that is perfect in terms of stress: optimizing development and minimizing injury risk.

Although he and I have never spoken or met, I know Mike is a subscriber to this blog, so a big 'Thank you' goes out from ThoroEdge Equine Performance, with best wishes for the upcoming $10 million Dubai World Cup.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A New Way to Select Yearling Prospects

Pedigree, conformation, biomechanics, heart score, etc. are facts and figures put on paper meant to predict future thoroughbred performance.

But races are run on the track, not on paper.
The real magic takes place when a horse is moving.

Traditional means of evaluating yearlings has been limited to measurements/observations taken at rest – and therefore miss a very important piece of the puzzle.

Luckily, the recent economic downturn has made consignors much more willing to allow access to behind-the-scenes information in an effort to sell their stock.

Physiological testing of yearlings provides you with an inside glimpse of how efficiently all of the horse’s systems work together during the stresses of actual exercise.

No longer do you have to rely on assessing potential, now you can select based on actual performance during the pre-sales conditioning regimen.

I will have this data on over 100 yearlings being prepped for the Saratoga Select Yearling Sale this fall.

For instance, V200 is the velocity/speed achieved at a heart rate of 200bpm (beats per minute) and is indicative of the aerobic capacity of the thoroughbred.

This aerobic capacity is a measurement of the horse’s ability to utilize oxygen to fuel the demands of exercise, higher speeds at V200 will lead to better racing performance.

Research has given us the following values for V200 in thoroughbreds:

• V200 range for foals at 6 months of age:
8.51mph to 11.93mph

• V200 range for yearlings:
9.94mph to 13.24mph

• V200 range at start of 2nd year:
11.93mph to 14.91mph

How do your prospects match up?
Which grow strongest during the pre-sales training regimens?

Whether you are a buyer or a seller, this data can help you to dramatically increase your Return on Investment.

More information online at www.thoroedge.com/yearling_selection

Bill Pressey
ThoroEdge Equine Performance
Louisville/Lexington, KY USA
“Measuring performance, not merely potential.”

Monday, March 15, 2010

Eclipse was 'famously average'

ScienceDaily (June 14, 2007)

Eclipse was never beaten when he ran from 1769-1770 and was retired largely because of the lack of competition. Super stallion Eclipse's descendants include Kauto Star and Desert Orchid and almost all thoroughbred racehorses.

Professor Matthew Binns, an equine genetics expert from the RVC, who is part of the project, said: “Eclipse was probably the greatest racehorses in history. He won 18 races and usually by 10 or 20 furlongs. Flat races were much longer in those days. Genetics is playing an ever bigger role in equine science as researchers try to understand what horses more susceptible to disease or more likely to break down in training.”

The RVC has also set its Structure and Motion workgroup on to Eclipse. Experts at the Royal Veterinary College combined what was known about the heroic horse from his paintings, CT scans of his skeleton and reports of his races and created computer models of the horse.

Using portraits of Eclipse and contemporary accounts of the horse running the researchers reconstructed one of its legs and have discovered that its legendary speed may have been due to its 'averageness'. In short, a great racehorse needs to be more than just quick footed - it must also be rather average.

The research involved analysing Eclipse's skeleton to develop models of horse movement. Using the models the research team built 'theoretical limbs' on a computer and tested answers to questions on not only why Eclipse was so fast but also why horses can remain balanced when each leg is off the ground for 80 per cent of the time during gallop and what limits a horse's maximum gallop speed.

Dr Alan Wilson, who led the study, said: "All the factors for speed were perfectly matched. A key ability for a fast horse is to be able to bring its legs forward quickly, which is difficult for large animals with long limbs. Eclipse was smaller than modern racehorses. Rather than being some freak of nature with incredible properties, he was actually just right in absolutely every way."


May have been tough to spot with observational means at a typical sale these days, but once put into movement - Eclipse would have exploded off of the physiological charts.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What can Rachel Alexandra Learn from Lance Armstrong?

The great cyclist trains with an eye on science, in that he completes a fitness test at regular intervals during training for the Tour de France. If Rachel had such tests, we would know in advance if she was ready to run or not.

Forget this past week, she very well have needed a race in her after powderpuff 6F breezes. The key is the Apple Blossom, wouldn't the owner/trainer like to know if she is ready?

”Armstrong's fitness testing facility was located a few miles north of Girona, on a hill near a golf course, where the road was exactly 1000 meters long, and rose 98 meters.

The most important number is watts at lactate threshold, as determined by power meter, heart rate monitor, and lactate testing strips. Threshold is how much power the rider can sustainably generate, without going into the red zone. Furthermore, this number is further crunched to watts per kilogram at threshold, taking into account the rider's current bodyweight.

6.7 watts/kg he enunciated, if you are near it, you can win. If you are not, you cannot.


Aiden O'Brien at Coolmore knows this, here is a quote from him regarding the great stayer Yeats:

"You ask most horses to go a mile and a half and that is the limit, but with this fellow his heart is only getting up to 180 beats at that stage."

John Magnier, the Coolmore Stud managing director, whose wife, Susan, owns the winner, described the satisfaction of winning the Irish St. Leger.

“Aidan has been training them differently this year, and this race has always been in mind for Yeats,” Magnier said.


That difference is heart rate/GPS/lactate monitoring -

For instance, we can determine, in a yearling, what the equivalent to Armstrong's 6.7 watts/kg is in order to predict likely future racing success.

I have already discovered, along with O'Brien, that a horse going a mile in 2:00 or better, keeping his heart rate below 200, is a stakes winner.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

It's the horse, stupid!

What a joke, NTRA Safety Accreditation of tracks to 'ensure' equine safety. A noble premise, I guess, but totally missing the mark in my opinion.

How about requiring the horse to pass a 'stress' test before being allowed to race?

Let's make the trainer prove his/her horse is fit to complete a 6 furlong breeze within 2 weeks of raceday, before being allowed to enter a faster, longer, more demanding event?

Take the Kentucky Derby for instance, 10 furlongs over dirt. The most elite equine athletes in the world should be able to first handle a 6 furlong breeze in the 2 weeks prior to the big day.

Your proposed starter better show us that he can breeze 6 furlongs at Churchill in a reasonable time, say 1:15 or better (from a gated start would be nice, but I know that is asking too much) AND demonstrate, via on-board heart rate monitor, a recovery heart rate of under 120bpm in the first 120 seconds after starting his gallop out. This data collection takes about 30 seconds.

You see, running several sub 13sec furlongs builds up an oxygen debt in a horse. When the breeze ends, the athlete has to pay that debt back through an elevated heart rate - the quicker that heart rate sinks back to below 120bpm, the faster the oxygen debt was repaid - the fitter/sounder the horse. Any pre-existing conditions that could lead to a fatal breakdown will be exposed via improper recovery heart rate.

You see, there already exists a precedent for using a heart rate monitor in conjunction with equine racing.

Many endurance races of 30 miles and over require the checking of an exercising horse’s heart rate during several checkpoints throughout the course.

Should the heart rate fall outside of the normal ranges, the horse is disqualified from the competition and immediately examined by trained personnel.

Watching a horse walk is not enough. We already have a ton of subjective opinions, it's time to add some objective numerical data to the picture.

Rachel vs Zenyatta, who wins in April?

Those of you who know me, know my feelings that the science behind exercise physiology can both optimize training and selection of racing thoroughbreds, as well as objectively quantify things such as surface differences.

In the development of Tapeta, Sir Michael Dickinson, with the help of noted researcher George Pratt from MIT, that dirt surfaces are 50% tougher on horses than are synthetics, namely Tapeta.

It took me a few hundred heart rate/gallop speed charts here in KY between Churchill and Keeneland to come to the EXACT same conclusion.

So, let's think about how that impacts training. Here are the recent breezes from both superstars prepping for the big race at Oaklawn:

Zenyatta Track Dist. Time Surface Condition

2/26/2010 HOL 6F 1:13.20 All Weather Fast B
2/18/2010 HOL 6F 1:14.00 All Weather Fast B
2/11/2010 HOL 6F 1:13.80 All Weather Fast B
2/3/2010 HOL 5F 1:01.60 All Weather Fast B
1/25/2010 HOL 5F 1:00.20 All Weather Fast B
1/17/2010 HOL 5F 1:01.40 All Weather Fast B
1/6/2010 HOL 4F :48.00 All Weather Fast H
12/21/2009 HOL 4F :49.40 All Weather Fast B
12/7/2009 HOL 4F :50.40 All Weather Fast B

Rachel Alexandra

3/2/2010 FG 6F 1:13.60 Dirt Fast B
2/24/2010 FG 6F 1:14.00 Dirt Fast B
2/18/2010 FG 5F 1:00.20 Dirt Fast B
2/12/2010 FG 5F 1:03.80 Dirt Sloppy B
2/6/2010 FG 4F :50.60 Dirt Fast B
1/31/2010 FG 4F :52.00 Dirt Fast B

Source: drf.com

Both fabulously bred animals, but the large edge here goes to Rachel.

Everytime Zenyatta breezes 6F on artificial surface, she only gets what Rachel would accomplish going 4F on dirt, in terms of fitness/conditioning.
Remember this come post time at the Apple Blossom.

I see Rachel near the front, Zenyatta in her customary last position. Zenyatta will certainly pass many of them in the stretch, but Rachel will hold her off by a few lengths due to superior physiological conditioning these past several weeks.

That being said, dirt is much more likely to cause injury to Rachel during this prep time. No such thing as a free lunch.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

11 Stakes Wins in One Year-

Damascus, a prototypical iron horse.

The intervals between his races during his 3 year old year were:
2 weeks
3 weeks
1 week
2 weeks
3 weeks
3 weeks
10 days
3 weeks
1 week
3 weeks
1 week
16 days
26 days
28 days
2 weeks

And he got stronger as the campaign wore on. I have no specific info, but horses during those days were often breezed 1 mile in between races that were a week or so apart.

Today's superstars rarely make 11 starts in a career. Who is to blame: breeders, trainers, or the economic model? I blame the latter, you are crazy to race for $750k purses when you can head to the breeding shed and make that in 6 months with no injury risk.

But, the above shows that horses get stronger if trained/raced properly. They are not inherently fragile. If given the correct exercise stimulus, then allowed to recover properly - they grow stronger. They are living organisms built of cells that follow the laws of science.

Run an automobile with a 200HP engine at 210HP, and you blow the engine.
Run a horse with a 200HP engine at 210HP, he grows into a 210HP engine. Now you can run him at 220HP safely, etc.

Problem is, you have to quantify both how big an engine he is now, and what his next workout should be in terms of speed/duration/frequency. Quantification is done by collecting data: both from the workout AND his physiologcal response to said workout.

That takes extra work and attention to detail. If you are happy with your current strike percentage, then I am happy for you. If not, you must do something different in order to expect different results in the future.

Look back to the days of the iron horse for lessons and put them into practice in today's environment for a true edge on the competition.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Equine Exercise Psychology

"Indeed, genetic alone is not the determining factor for success or failure.

But, rather it is the mind of the horse that is in complete control of the will, and thus performance, on and off the racetrack.

This makes it very clear that while physical ability is important, the mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete. "

-Kerry M Thomas

This guy is fantastic, talked to him at length earlier this week and he really has a handle on an area of performance that NO ONE actively trains to improve. Please check it out.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

'Backyard' Training facility

After my trip last week, I am giving serious thought to leasing a local farm with 70 acres, a house, and a few barns to do some 'experimentation' on my own.

There will be no formal training track per se, as I will ship 1x-2x a week to a nearby facility for speedwork, but I will have several gallops of varying lengths and inclines, in addition to a host of other 'toys' designed to improve conditioning.

I am not a horseman, I am an equine exercise physiologist - so I will have someone else in charge of all farrier, vet, and horsemanship stuff - yet I will prescribe and monitor all training variables based on heart rate/GPS data as well as blood lactate levels, following the laws of exercise physiology.

Let's call this Feedback Based Training, where each individual athlete determines his/her own level of progress. No longer will all speedwork be regimented into half mile breezes every Thursday, for instance.

  • horses will work left hand turns and right hand turns equally to develop balance
  • horses will warm up and cool down extensively
  • training hours will be from 6am to 6pm when weather permits
  • horses will be turned out frequently, especially after racing, to speed recovery
  • nutrition will be monitored to the calorie
  • owners will be provided with all data indicating progress/development
  • as little veterinary interference as possible, unsound horses will not run/train
The horses will come from a few places; inexpensive claiming stock owned by family, younger 2 year olds from various clients here in the states, and possibly a few others from overseas.

Should be fun! - I will no doubt publish any and all findings in this space for you to review and/or comment on. I hope to be up and operational within late 2010 - should all go well.

Training in Argentina

Just got back into the US from a trip to South America for a client, what a fantastic experience! (that is me on the left in the above pic, along with local contact Juan Manuel)
We visited a few tracks and a private training center in and around Buenos Aires - with most work being at San Isidro. Early in the week was spent at an amazing farm nearly 4 hours south of the city.

Much more info to come in future posts, but for now here are some of the main differences I saw in their training programs:

  1. San Isidro had 2500 stalls and 5, yes 5 dirt training tracks, arranged in concentric circles where you can stand 10' away from a horse breezing on the rail
  2. Trackside barns are owned by the owners, no stall rent to pay.
  3. Barns are all U-shaped, where horses can see each other, and the courtyard, all day long.
  4. Horses are hand walked to swimming pool in afternoons, which is nice as it was over 100 every day last week.
  5. Grooms are in attendance 24 hours a day, different shifts of course, but always someone attending to horses.
  6. Many gallops are done in bareback fashion, near a 2 minute lick, with tack only being used on official breeze days.
  7. In general, 14 days prior to a race the horse is worked the race distance, and again 7 days before race he/she is blown out half the race distance
  8. Horses often breeze strongly an eighth or so in front of the grandstand during the post parade, roughly 10 mins before entering the gate - THIS IS MY FAVORITE PART AS THE SPLEEN IS EMPTIED AND ACTS AS A NATURAL BLOOD DOPING PERFORMANCE ENHANCER.
  9. Horses may stand in the starting gate for a few minutes before the race, this stinks in my opinion.
  10. For my client, the race rider (who is a top 10 jock), gallops and breezes as many as he can manage every morning - and is very active in providing feedback

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Trainer Jonathan Sheppard Gets It-


(click above for full article)

There are no furlong markers, no bustle of horse traffic, no tractors, and certainly no official clocker. The master of this field, Jonathan Sheppard is doing things that no horseman has done before.

"I don't think Jonathan's operation is comparable to anything anywhere," said trainer Graham Motion. "His system, the way he trains on his farm, it's very different from what you would see anywhere else."