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.