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…


  1. Interesting insight about the spleen, equine physiolgy and the warm-up of DROSSELMEYER...too bad there wasn't anything Kent knew of to put himself on his toes and avoid the trouble that may have lost them a chance at the Derby. Perhaps you should focus efforts at educating trainers and owners how to warm horses up for works and races in order to do away w/ Lasix?

    As for the HR handicapping...if you've got any more of those nuggets, please let the amateur know ;-) !!! My account could sure use more $22 winners!

    RE: Synthetic vs. Dirt...I thought that it wasn't necessarily the distance of a work on synthetics, but the speed that caused soft tissue/repetitive strain injuries? If workout times are identical, on dirt the "stress" is more skeletal (hoof slide through the dirt into the base: skeletal concussion as a result of ground reaction force from the hard base) than musculotendinous while synths are more musculotendinous stress (surface returns force back to the horse at a greater velocity than the force at initial contact) and less skeletal.

    It is my understanding that when there is failure of the skeleton on dirt or the muscles and tendons on synths, the result is a catastrophe on either type of main track.

    I know from reading quotes/articles, Bruce Headley would beg to differ on the "ideal scenario" for preparing a juvenile...his belief is a horse needs progressively faster works, over progressively longer distances on the dirt to properly prepare the skeleton for race stress. His sounds like a bone/tissue remodeling theory.

    That said, I believe your theory has some basis...the key to it is that MINE THAT BIRD was prepared at Woodbine where races on Polytrack are typically run like European races: hard hold, strong finish.

    He didn't get that type of ride at Sunland Park in two races, but Borel followed instructions in the Derby and the rest was history. His big key also was the solid foundation at two, something that PIONEEROF THE NILE also hindsight no surprise they ran 1-2.

    Thought-provoking stuff! Thanks and love your addition to the TBA stable!!!

  2. I've tried to convince trainers that Lasix can be used as an edge on top of a proper warm-up - some listen, some don't. Too many guys want a proper warm-up to work miracles but it doesn't work that way, the horse still has to be in shape.

    When I say dirt is more stressful, I mean as measured by overall heart rate recovery which quantifies oxygen debt incurred. What the nature of those stresses is, I have no idea.

    What training regimen is best, and I get many, many questions about interval training, is really not my focus - my emphasis is on using HR/GPS gear to objectively quantify results in each individual during the mornings, instead of waiting for race performance to determine fitness.

    Thanks for the comments AC!-

  3. Interesting article. I enjoyed reading it. :)

  4. where can one purchase hr/gps gear?

  5. Hi Kimmeastar, drop me an email at and I can give you the details.