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.


  1. That makes sense to me, I totally agree with you and the comparison to human athletes and their ability to get stronger with more workouts is obvious. I am wondering why these horses are not getting out and exercising every day instead of being trapped in the barn.

  2. Interestingly enough, a couple of the recent Almost-Triple Crown winners had some "unusual" training regimens as well. If I recall, trainer Tim Ritchey had Afleet Alex doing two-a-days during his training, and by the time the Belmont rolled around, he was still an athletic powerhouse, winning by 9 lengths.

  3. Hello, brother! Nice to see someone with exactly my same sentiments. You may be interested in how the old timey trainers trained besides Burch, GO to my website for some more examples:

  4. As a former human athlete (although not elite level), I know I improved only through a consistent, tough training schedule. In fact, we'd overtrain for races... if we were racing a 400m, we'd practice a 500m race.

    I'd think the same principle applies to horses.

    And if the reason trainers don't do that is because the horses can't physically handle it... perhaps that should be taken into account when buying horses. If trainers bought for longevity as well as speed, I think we'd see some drastic differences in breeding. For the better, in my opinion!

    Having racehorses race on fragile bodies does so much harm to the sport, IMO! Bring back the tougher horses - I'd rather have tougher ones who go for longer than the brilliant flashes in the pan who frequently are retired way too soon.

    Just look at the last couple years... so many of the top horses never even made it to the Derby, or into the summer. How can that not hurt the sport?

  5. Bill, Northern Dancer breezed 3/8 ths in 35 and change the morning of the Derby.

    The media trains the horses today. Could you imagine what would happen if a trainer did that today?

  6. My opinion - the horses are more specialized today, bred so and trained to be at super peak fitness on a particular day (note that many top trainers "open gallop" their horses between workouts and though unpublished I bet they go 13 sec furlongs/52 half pace - I saw Sidney's Candy and Paddy O Prado do it on Derby week). Baffert and Pletcher will kill you with a super peaked horse on Derby Day but they cant hold the peak for 3 races. I doubt Assault had the same opposition so his peak was probably the Belmont.

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  8. Our horses make fewer starts today because they are trained to be razor sharp when they do run. Otherwise they won't be competitive. I really don't like that fact, but it is an honest assessment and we shouldn't suggest that modern trainers are inferior to their predecessors just because this is the world they live in.

    Horses havn't changed much in the past 50 years, training methods have evolved in order to be competitive.

  9. I'm not sure I buy the 'razor sharp' excuse. The average winning Derby time from 1960-1980 is almost 4 tenths of a second faster than the average winning time from 1990-2010.

    If today's horses are such finely tuned athletes delivering peak performances on Derby day, shouldn't the average time be faster than horses of years gone by?

  10. Bill,

    Think it would have been better had you acknowledged Earl Ola's contribution for this post.

    John Pricci

  11. I think your "quarter horse trainer" comment was off base. There are several guys out there who have derby horses who were not quarter horse trainers who have much the same results as Lukas and his group, Baffert, and presume you are putting Asmussen in that group as well even though his family worked thoroughbreds. While I think you appropriately noted that horses are now bred for speed and not stamina, you failed to note that the horse with the best shot to win the triple crown rarely wins the Derby these days, for which there is no simple answer.

  12. Billy Turner breezed Seattle Slew 3 times, all fast works, between the Preakness and the Belmont.

  13. Good comments. The only other factor left out is that foal crops are so much larger than in years past and thus there are more numbers of horses at the highest competitive level and thus the reason why it is tougher to string together three wins in the Triple Crown. But as I keep posting, people have found a horse that can win $1 million in six or seven lifetime starts out earns a plodder who grinds out $150,000 over 60 races. And the yarling buyers will pay $16 million for a The Green Monkey in hopes of getting the horse that can win a quick mill before breaking down. Breeders have done the math, whether it is killing the industry long term or not, what else do they do?

  14. To T.N. Trosin-

    Maybe I should have written quarter horse trainING - the practice of bottling them up 23 hours a day and relying on their 'fight or flight' response to kick in race day - that practice has kicked out zero Triple Crown winners in 30+ years - trust me, it will change some day.

    All, every single one, of the Triple Crown champs were able to breeze a mile in under 1:40 during the mornings - without breaking down, yet none of todays ever get the chance - and we end up with a 2010 Belmont without any who even ran in the first two jewels.

  15. The stars of horse racing are the HORSES. We barely remember the horses who are one race wonders. The fans NEED longevity to keep the sport viable. I can hardly wait to see how Brass Hat and Silver Edition do this weekend. We want to love our horses - not just place a bet.

  16. A lot of things have subtly changed over the last 30 years. The horses are built differently, more muscle on a lighter bone structure, pushed to grow faster with super feed. Raced differently, most win on the lead, going slower each furlong. Although most races in America could be won by a horse that can do 8 furlongs at 12, a 1:36 mile, you couldn't give that 12 second horse away in a 2 year old sale. 90% of all races today or a mile or less, 60% --6F or less. Natural distance horses don't have many places to run. Think of it like car racing. You can build a super fast car that will blow everyones doors off in qualifications, big power, gas guzzlers, tiny fragile chassis and gears. But it won't last 500 miles. Some part of the complex grouping of fragileness will do it in.
    Hummm..sounds like todays race horses.

    I remember when Dark Star won the Derby trial on Tuesday and the Derby on Saturday. Unfathonable today.

  17. "the practice of bottling them up 23 hours a day and relying on their 'fight or flight' response to kick in race day"

    On that point we are agreed, though that wasn't the way I was taught one should train a running quarter horse either.

  18. Or from the trainer's perspective:

  19. Training methods have also changed because there are scores (at least) of horses in one training barn. Basically 'public education'. In order to condition the masses, unique individuals are all put through the same darn ringer. One teacher for one hundred students. So. We get the best of the mediocre.

    Lexington, born in 1850 had to run 2 and 4 mile heats. Sometimes two heats in one day. He ran in the slop, and was a master of the racing scene.

    Individual Conditioning. Conditioning. Conditioning. It takes the time that no one has anymore.

    Horses who 'don't make it on the track', are sometimes retrained for 'Eventing', a very demanding sport. Gallop 14 miles with jumps over natural terrain. Hills and dales. OMG.

    I also agree that particular emphasis has to be made on breeding for the 'chassis'. All the parts of the horse are sorely tested when they are pounded before physical maturity.

    Oh, and since when was running in a circle, or an oval natural for a horse? Repetitive motion causes carpal tunnel syndrome in humans. It has its deleterious effects on horses, too.

    Breed better and fewer horses. Condition properly, and cross train. It takes time. Without these things, the cost is: wasted horses.

  20. The reason = lasix. Take lasix out of the equation and you will have Triple Crown winners again. Bill Finley makes the case in his recent column at ESPN.

  21. From what I can tell, there are three premier reasons we are still looking for a Triple Crown winner, and none are the trainer. The statement "Every trainer laments the spacing of the Triple Crown series" is NOT true. Trainers like Nick Zito have NEVER said they thought the race schedule for the triple should be changed.
    There are several other false assumptions in your blog, but I don't feel like picking it apart; they are easy enough for any well versed horse racing enthusiast to pick out.

    Here are my three reasons why we haven't had a triple crown winner since Affirmed:

    Bad Luck: Charismatic had the ability. He had it all and he broke his leg at the end of the last jewel -- he still finished third. There are a myriad of other cases such as this. Injury to a horse (before or during the Triple Crown run) that likely would have won all three. There are also the situations in which a horse (Afleet Alex, etc.) gets a terrible trip in a messy and full Derby field.

    Competition: An exceptional racehorse has to run against another would be Triple Crown winner, and falls short in one jewel. In the case of Alydar/Affirmed, the would be Triple Crown winner actually lost all three. Still, Sunday Silence, Real Quiet, etc. . . . had the chance to win and lost to another arguably worthy candidate.

    Bad horse: For some reason (call it luck, kismet, whatever), a horse that does not have the pedigree and/or talent to be a Triple Crown winner manages to win the Kentucky Derby (Big Brown, etc.). Maybe they get lucky and win the next one (most of the potential field is either injured or scared off) -- then they flop at the Belmont.