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,, 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

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


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.