Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Curious Case of Richard Dutrow: Conditioning Genius or Drug Cheat?

Flashpoint breezed 3F in :37 the day before his fantastic triumph over Travelin Man in the Grade 2 7F Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream this weekend. I love this move, babe.

Copying the practices of legendary trainer Carl Nafzger

with a blowout 24 hours pre-race instead of simply following the pack of supertrainers like Pletcher who allow their charges to go a full week prior to a race with no speedwork.

Now, here is where all horsemen chime in with the ol’ standby: ‘Horses are different, some can take more work than others, we never condition each horse the same.’ Bull. Trainers do condition all horses the same (see below) and each sound horse responds to exercise in the same manner. For instance, all horses have spleens, and all equine spleens work identically – that is they store red blood cells and inject them into the bloodstream upon the onset of extreme stress (i.e. sprinting 3F in :37 or blasting out of the starting gate).

(Click pic to enlarge. Two drops of blood – one of the left that is full of oxygen and one on the right that is de-oxygenated. Which kind do you want coursing through your horse during the first quarter in :23?)

So, when the gate opens all of our colts in the Hutcheson experience splenic contraction and 30% additional red blood cells are injected into the bloodstream. Here is where many bleed in the lungs, as the higher blood volume can overwhelm lung tissues that are unaccustomed to such stress, but that is a topic for another time. More importantly, every horse in the field has a spleen full of blood that is 5-7 days old, less one big exception.

Flashpoint: he who emptied and filled his spleen with fresh RBCs just 32 hours ago.

When blood cells lie sequestered within the spleen they become old, sticky, misshapen, and generally less able to transport oxygen to muscles – which is the key mechanism behind stamina. Fast-forward 60 seconds into the race and you have Flashpoint and Travelin Man side by side, at which point Travelin Man starts Travelin Backwards while Flashpoint cruises to a big win.

In January each raced at 6F with the Pletcher horse carding a huge 106 Beyer compared to Dutrow’s colt with a respectable 91. Pletcher spends Jan and Feb with cookie cutter 4F works while Dutrow throws in a 6F, some 5F’s, and the aforementioned 3F blowout. Yet all the racing rags will conclude that Travelin Man is a sprinter – nothing can be done about it. Nature (pedigree) finished its job 3 years ago, now you can Nurture (condition) for more endurance – or you can simply play the cards you are dealt. In this case, Dutrow traded in a few of those cards more astutely than did Pletcher.

Anyway, yesterday’s PPs for the Hutcheson gives us a prime example of how all trainers condition their horses in the same exact manner: conditioning to me defined as – how FAR, how FAST, and how FREQUENTLY they breeze and/or gallop. Here is a screen grab of the PPs in question (click to enlarge).

Travelin Man and Razmataz are conveniently placed side by side in this attachment. We can see each debuted this year at GP with 6F efforts. Then comes the requisite 14 days off after a race, Dutrow does this too (likely Lasix related says Kenny McPeek), and back to the 4F every 7 days breeze schedule.

Take this data, hold on to it, and watch Uncle Mo follow the precisely same regimen. To be fair, all I have is DRF published data, Pletcher and others could certainly do more behind the scenes, but I doubt it based on what I have personally witnessed on the backside with my stopwatch.

4F works accomplish nothing in the way of stamina in horses of this caliber. The first 40 seconds of such an effort is mostly anaerobic (without oxygen) work – so this doesn’t count in developing endurance. What you are left with in these 4F breezes is about 10 seconds of stamina building exercise, whereas Dutrow throwing in a 6F just a week ago for Flashpoint, accomplished 300% more endurance-specific work. And before that he was popping a few 5F moves while Travelin Man was stuck at 4F.

We have several hundred horses today that can run 8F in 1:36, but none that can get 10F in 2:00. In America we rightfully train for speed because that is how our dirt races are strategically run – but we ignore stamina in the process – and we don’t have to do so.

Uhoh, I got carried away and forgot about the ‘drug cheat’ part of this post.

Do I really need to elaborate? Of course Dutrow is a drug cheat, his record speaks for itself. He won’t deny it, and I am no Pollyanna – most likely all the thoroughbred legends of the past had some drugs in them to accomplish such great things – but they were also conditioned quite aggressively to match.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Conditioning via High Speed Treadmill

Top trainer Mike de Kock: "When your horse may not have the bloodlines or ability of their opponent, fitness is the one area where you can beat them. Treadmills allow you to get that extra fitness and "the edge". That is how important they are."

Mr. de Kock hits the nail on the head, and judging by his numerous successes in Dubai - this horseman isn't afraid to give a bit of credit to the use of modern technology within his operation.

This isn't swimming and it isn't a slow moving water treadmill at your local veterinary or rehab center. Use of a treadmill at conditioning paces from 20-40mph is increasingly common around the world.

The goal of any conditioning program is to give your horse exactly what he needs to get better, without increasing the risk of injury. Horses on treadmills:

  • are not subject to rider error, and love to run with no one on their backs
  • can exercise precisely at the intensity needed for improvement, and not one step too fast
  • do not take 'bad steps' due to surface failures
  • can be observed by vets and farriers, who can intervene with suggestions
  • never miss a training day due to bad weather

Here is one example of how treadmill conditioning works with traditional horsemanship in order to influence racing decisions:

In 2005 Lee Freedman, was mulling over a horse called Benicio, which he had bought to run in sprints. He carried out treadmill tests and found that, despite being bred for shorter distances, the horse would excel over longer trips. That year it went on to win the Victoria Derby, the top contest for three-year-old stayers in Australia.

So, how does using this piece of equipment give you precisely what your horse needs to improve? Well, having him in front of us allows us to easily gather heart rate, gallop speed, and blood lactate info in order to quantify how fit he is now, and prescribe what his physiology needs to improve.

For example we would end up with exercise parameters like this to improve stamina:
'Gallop 1 mile at 20mph on a 6% incline'

Using the incline allows us to take even more pressure off the front cannons and to more deeply involve the propelling musculature of the hind end.


Dubai/South Africa: Mike de Kock

'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.

Read more:

Australia: Michael Kent and David Hayes

Although Kent left school at 14 to pursue a career with racehorses, his language is full of scientific jargon as he explains his methods. ''We're really concerned with one very simple concept: how to give a horse the maximum amount of work during exercise with the minimum amount of stress.”

Read more:

USA: Kentucky Equine Research

KER typically uses high speed treadmills to gauge the efficacy of their feed and/or nutritional supplementation. Simply put, researchers have long known that physiological terms like V200 and VLA4 are positively correlated with future racing performance and earnings. Mr. Joe Pagan recently put his money where his mouth is, purchased 4 yearlings at Keeneland, trained them on a treadmill in his lab, and recently finished 3rd with Harry and 4th with Ticky in their respective MSW openers at Turfway Park.

So, there you have it - keep in mind these things are not cheap, a top of the line model like this one below, with all the trimmings, will run close to $100k, but I feel the trainers above will testify that it has been a very wise investment.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Thoroughbred Genes Expressed on the Track

Every time your colt’s heart beats during a morning gallop, how far does he travel?
If it’s 6 feet, you are never going to win a race with him, time to cut bait and save yourself the aggravation. If it’s 14 feet, don’t think of selling because you are going to be fishing at the stakes level.

We call this the Thoroughbred Efficiency Score in feet per beat: (Distance in feet)/(time in sec)/(avg. heart rate) x 60

(For example: 660feet/22/165 = 10.91) - 6 feet up to 14 feet is the range of possible outcomes

70-80% of all energy in a TB race is aerobic in nature, meaning with oxygen, even during 6F ‘sprints’. This is your cruising speed as is very predictive of your ultimate success, or failure.

Think of a human miler who races for approx 4 min vs our Derby colt running for 2 min.

If you take 2 humans who can each run a 4 min/mile, the winner will be the one in practice who can accomplish more quarter mile intervals in :50sec – as in a competitive race he will have more physiological strength to count on in trying to hit 3:55. Because of the nature of equine conditioning this is not safe to do, so we need an onboard HR/GPS monitor to gauge what is going on internally, without running him to death via repeated intervals.

All horses can gallop a furlong in 15-25 seconds, but the amount of aerobic fuel required to do so differs greatly. And when you stretch them out to a race of 6-10F in 11-12 second splits – the one who is more metabolically efficient will excel as he will go the furthest before fatigue sets in.

Please look for me this September at the Pedigree and Genetics Symposium in Lexington where I will be giving a presentation on the intersection of genetic expression and real world measures of metabolic efficiency. The genesis for this idea comes from The Genetics of the Horse by Ann Bowling and Anatoly Ruvinsky, most notably pages 458-460:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Interval Training an Iron Horse, with PPs

Antrim County was claimed at CD for $7,500, interval trained, raced 9 times in 5 months, and lost back via the claiming route for $50,000. Not a bad ROI for this gelding out of Giant’s Causeway paired with former standardbred trainer Jay Wilkinson in Louisville. That’s roughly $10,000 additional value per month, for a single horse! Quite ironic that he also won the Claiming Crown Iron Horse up at Canterbury Park in this stretch. When I dissect his conditioning below you will see just how fitting the title ‘Iron Horse’ is in this case.

Now, this horse was handled by D. Wayne Lukas to start, then Bernie Flint, Cody Autrey, Mike Maker, Clifford ‘Jay’ Wilkinson, and finally with Bret Calhoun. 5 household names and Mr. Wilkinson, who I doubt many of you have ever seen on TVG or HRTV. Jay is a former police officer, former harness trainer, and an old fashioned horseman with an open mind. Yet, Jay is the only trainer to get top performances out of Antrim County, and no Ragozin bounces – which every other trainer failed to avoid despite much time between races. Standardbred trainers and thoroughbred trainers are VERY different and only one of these two disciplines are actually improving in measures of stamina:

I can say with all certainty, that none of these ‘supertrainers’ ever sent Antrim County 6F from the gate at CD in 1:14 during the middle of a racing campaign.

Here is that work captured on my HR/GPS gear: (blue line is speed, red line is heart rate, x-axis is elapsed time, note the 58bpm HR while standing in the gate on a hectic training morning) - click images to enlarge

I can also assure you that none of these guys had Antrim County gallop a mile in 1:48, walk/rest 5 minutes, and gallop another in 1:40 during the madhouse that is Churchill Downs in the morning. But Jay did that too – and was scared to death in the process:

Jay: “Bill - I have a race in 6 days, what the hell are you doing to me!”
Exercise rider: “He pulled my arms off, you are gonna kill him and me!”

But the team was soon rewarded with 2 wins at 1.5 miles each by a total of 29 lengths. Turf at Kentucky Downs, dirt at Mountaineer Park, no matter – this is the definition of an Iron Horse. No BS here, PPs are included above.

29 lengths, wire to wire, never seeing the stick – or any other horses either for that matter. I don’t care what class of races these are, this is the definition of STAMINA, and you don’t get it from 4F works spaced 7 days apart unless it is already present by virtue of winning the genetic lottery.

Study those lifetime PPs, or catch this horse at the Fairgrounds in 2011 and you will see he has reverted back to normal. 4F works have become the norm and so have Beyer Speed Figures in the 70’s. What a waste.

Jay’s Beyer numbers during his 9 starts (with 7 wins) over just 5 months? 86-90-90-88-90-86-97-84-89.

That 97 was Antrim County’s best career number out of 67 starts, and it came at age 5 with the trainer working for an outfit called Boys Haven here in Louisville that employed as stable hands teenagers who have met some misfortune in their lives. DWL’s barn was right across from Jay’s at this time on the CD backside and we walked by it on our way to the track with Antrim County every morning, small world.

Without objective, quantitative physiological feedback from your horse, interval training is akin to a death sentence. I get hundreds of people finding this blog searching for ‘thoroughbred interval training’ – so I finally bit the bullet and put up a real life example for all to see. Try these methods without appropriate HR/GPS gear at your own peril, and don’t blame me afterwards.

I know, and will show anyone truly interested, how and why Jay was able to pull this off. I am sick of hearing anecdotal evidence of guys who say that they interval trained a horse and it didn’t work. It does work, if prescribed in the right situation and in the right dose. Many only try the tactic when they have a horse that has already proven to have no ability, expecting a magical outcome. That ain’t how it works, folks. When instituted properly, it moves up (relatively sound) claimers more than a few price points as evidenced by Antrim County – and if anyone has the guts to try it with a stakes horse – well, Afleet Alex comes to mind. He turned out alright.

Now do you need interval training to succeed? Of course not, not with owners like Moss, Repole, Zayat, etc. But this isn’t just about winning. It’s about maximizing the genetic potential of each athlete – a ‘supertrainer’ doesn’t need to do that as he has a never-ending supply of royally pedigreed stock, but most others are not as fortunate and need to consider ROI.

Comments, as always, are welcome from one and all – good and bad, as that is how we learn new things.

P.S. If you need a full and clearer .pdf of the PPs, drop me a line at

Friday, February 4, 2011

Training when off Feed, and Winning

“He’ll push a horse to a level, and then hold it there until he adapts. It might be off in its food or have some filling in its legs, but he’ll just decide to keep it at that level. After another run or two it’ll suddenly start eating, or the filling will go down. Sometimes it doesn’t and he has to back right off or send it to the paddock, but he’s a genius at knowing which ones to push. He’s not often wrong. Tommy calls it the ‘sound barrier’. He pushed them and if they take it and eat up and go on, they’re the ones at might be champions. You can tell in June or July of their yearling year (which ends on Aug 1st in Australia). So they are not yet 2 year olds. If they go off their feed but do OK in a barrier trial, then they might be a useful horse. If they fall away, you might as well get rid of them.”

Quote from ‘Winning Trainers’ by Ross Staaden on TJ Smith, who won 33 consecutive training titles in Australia:

I will hold off on my opinion until a later date with a much more detailed post – but suffice it to say I don’t think there is one US based trainer who would continue training when a horse goes off his feed or gets filling in his legs, much less breeze 2-3x per week on a 2 year old. There is also not one US trainer who can boast 33 consecutive training titles. Sh!t, I have to add a disclaimer or I am going to get blasted with negative comments, so here goes:

*I understand that some horses can thrive under more work and some cannot. However, it seems the greatest trainer in Australian history saw fit to give each developing horse an intense workload similar to that recommended by Nunamaker at the New Bolton Center; , observe the results, and only then make a decision on whom to push forward with, and whom to back off on.

In contrast, many US based trainers don’t take that risk – they simply go easy on everyone, hence the common 1.5 mile gallops and 4F breezes every 7-10 days. What I often hear is that young horses are just not psychologically ready for that kind of regimen, but TJ Smith didn’t let that stop him. You can argue with my blog posts, but you can’t argue with his success. Triple Crown winners of the past breezed a mile between the Derby and Preakness, even when those 2 races were just a week apart! – This year, all will get 2 weeks off and the most anyone will do is a 4F cakewalk, many others will get nothing – and the streak will continue.


Donn Handicap Picks (in order): Morning Line, Rule, Giant Oak, I Want Revenge, Square Eddie, Fly Down, Ron the Greek, Eldaafer, Hear Ye Hear Ye. My first shot at handicapping a race based on my theories. We'll see what happens...most are conditioned the same, so it’s tough to find any perceived angles. If all goes well this weekend I will publish how I came up with this outcome, if not – well I’ll just refine my ‘system’ a bit and try again.

P.S. I don’t mean to overly criticize Uncle Mo and Todd Pletcher in earlier posts, but I have to use a current example in my comments. From those I know in the industry, they tell me that Mr. Pletcher is actually one of the most open-minded individuals when it comes to stuff like this. So, I will keep using him and his Derby hopefuls, hoping that one day he Googles himself, finds this blog, and gives me a shot at changing the way he looks at conditioning his fantastic stock. Uncle Mo is either the next Secretariat, or the next War Pass. We will soon have the answer, and I genuinely hope for the former for the sake of Mr. Repole, the connections, and the sport as a whole.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Uncle Mo: Why Winning the BC Juvenile is a Bad Thing

No 2 year old Breeders Cup Juvenile champ has been around to ENTER a Belmont Stakes since 1985, not win, not hit the board, we are talking not even able or qualified to enter. That to me is a much more incredible streak than our lack of recent Triple Crown champions.

Legend Street Sense seems to be the only one that missed the race by choice; all others were either hit with the injury bug or simply not accomplished enough to continue after lackluster beginnings to their respective 3yo seasons, albeit just months after top 2yo campaigns ended with BC victories.

In fact, during this 25 year window, we only have 3 Preakness starters (Looking at Lucky, Street Sense, and Timber Country), as 22 out of the 25 other BC Juvenile champs were unable to attend. As Charles Barkley would say; “I may be wrong, but I doubt it.” I had to look it up 3 times to believe my eyes. Yet, time and time again Steve Haskin comes out with his list of The Derby Dozen in January with the BC Juvenile champ typically placed in that number one slot, no thank you DRF – his last 6 picks at this early stage have a single 10th place effort to show out of one start.

Not coincidentally, of this somewhat less than stellar group, Street Sense is the sole Derby winner and Carl Nafzger was known to breeze his other Derby champ, Unbridled, 4F the day before the Derby:

(again I don’t expect you to believe me, click this link or read his book entitled Traits of a Winner)

So, we can rightfully assume that Street Sense was conditioned a bit differently than some of his other competition, which lines up just fine with my theories and observations, thankfully.

What else am I missing here? The top 2yo performances in November, followed by nothing 95+% of the time just 6 months later?

Is this just horseracing and the fragile thoroughbred, or can we add anything to this mix to turn these numbers around over the next 25 years?

Can we credit pedigree for 2yo precociousness and then turn around and blame pedigree for 3yo disappointments in the same damn colt?

Other trainers in this group include – Lukas 5 times, Baffert twice, Pletcher, Zito, etc. Some big names, and some not so big names.

With just one Derby win from the group, that of Street Sense and Nafzger, this certainly does not bode well for Uncle Mo.

In summary:

25 BC Juvenile champs:
Ky Derby – 11: 1-0-1
Preakness – 3: 2-1-0
Belmont – 0: 0-0-0

P.S. Chief’s Crown was the 1984 champ, at the first BC held, and hit the board in all 3 Triple Crown races that year. If during reading the above, you already knew this, you are one sharp horseperson. Of course I had to leave him out until the end to hammer my point home, as all good bloggers do. Politicians would just bury this info, however.