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.


  1. Anonymous comment emailed to me from standardbred trainer:

    Twenty five years ago I required all my horses to score down after the post parade at a 15 second 1/8 mile. 3 of every 4 that did this performed better.

    Some, maybe the same, but none worse.

    Perhaps some horses didnt dump their spleens so sometimes I asked my drivers to score down twice to make sure the spleen dumped.

  2. Different Beyers for T Man and Flashpoint, but same Sheets fig from debut, i understand.

    Interesting post, in any case.

  3. No all horses are not trained the same.What may look to you on paper as similar training schedules are not.Each horse reacts differently to the distance and time of their workouts. Horse dumping their spleen as we call it is a well known fitness factor that can't always be done close to a race with every horse.
    Training horse on paper is much easier than real life.

  4. Anon-

    Thanks for the feedback. Can you please elaborate on which type of horse cannot be blown out? I have had even cheap horses benefit with a 2F blowout 3 days prior to a race. I did specify above such a horse must be sound.

    Again, I hear your point often but I don't often get any real life examples to learn from.

    IMO, the training of horses is very much an art, but the conditioning is quite a bit of science. I feel many put too much emphasis on the art and too little on the science - a mix of each is best.

    'art' is subjective opinions formed over time and very useful, 'science' is objective data collected during exercise that can provide a different perspective.

  5. Interesting and informative... very nice work!

  6. Just in case Anon doesn't make it back here, I think I have his answer for him.

    If I tell a trainer to do something like a blowout for a horse, and the horse doesn't run well - he'll never try it again. And he'll often tell anyone who listens that I don't know what I am talking about.

    Too often if someone like me can't turn a cheap horse into a star next time out, my methods get criticized as being 'junk'.

    The first commenter had it right; many run better, none run worse after a spleen dumping blowout.

  7. Bill
    Funny you mention all this.This technique was one practiced exclusively by Mr. Lucien Lauren.Look at some of Secretariats blowouts the day before.Most were 3f in :34 or 5f in 57.You are correct,in my opinion.Trainers in the old days did it right.

  8. Thank you kimmeastar-

    The great minds of this industry will tell us you cannot do that today because horses are so much more fragile, but trainers of the 1940's were complaining of the same thing!-

    One day, a quality outfit with a quality 2 year old will take heed and give us our next Triple Crown champ, winning the Derby in sub 2:00 to boot.

    IMO, this will only happen for an organization that treats horseracing as a sport, not a business. May be the year 2111, but it will happen.

  9. hey, i just stumbled on here. nice job!

  10. Bill! I was just reading a Seattle Slew biography, and he also did a 3f blowout (in 34.4 the day before the Derby) before each of the Triple Crown races.

    I'm still trying to dig up when the "less is more" style of training started, and I found an interesting quote from Billy Turner on Frank Whiteley training Ruffian. Because, aside from these pre-race blowouts, Slew was much more lightly-raced than his contemporaries (the Derby was Slew's 7th race, For the Moment's 13th, and Run Dusty Run's 15th).

    Billy Turner on training Slew (just before the March 26, 1977 Flamingo):
    "We don't have a precise work schedule for this horse. We send him out early, but what he does depends on how he acts, how much control the boy seems to have of him. I've only worked him 15 times and never more than three-quarters. [Slew's 1st lifetime breeze was in June 1976.] He always wants to do too much. You're always hoping for something less. I hate to send him out with a pony in the afternoons, but there's the fear he'll run off.
    "I always hoped to have a good horse, and I studied Ruffian so that when and if I did get a runner, I'd be able to make the right decision once in a while. I think Frank Whiteley was terrified every time he worked her. She was a whirlwind. He'd have Dave on a pony 3/16 down from the wire, and a pony boy a quarter-mile down, just in case the boy couldn't get her pulled up. I think Ruffian accomplished more off less work than any horse I ever saw. She was so free running, just a beautiful filly. I guess there is a parallel with Slew. He's so strong it scares you."

  11. Louisa-

    Tracking back to find the start of the 'less is more' philosophy has led me to pin most of it on Lukas and his staff of minions. Quarter horse trainer brings quarter horse methods to thoroughbreds, for better or worse.

    To confuse matters, this was also around the time of the 'supertrainer' who no longer trains for sport, but for economics. He wins simply because he has more owners, more stock, and more margin for error - not because of superior conditioning.

    All trainers are terrified when working horses like Uncle Mo, and I can't blame them. If you have 50 2yo's a year, and 25 get hurt when you only work them minimally, it sure as hell is hard to convince them to work more often, instead of less.

    Besides, there is no objective data being used, it's all subjective opinion, which makes it even more common to proceed with an overabundance of caution. However, too cautious leads to a higher risk of injury.

    Horses get hurt, it's a fact of life, but all sound ones will benefit from a blowout. It won't make them all world-beaters, but it will improve them by a few lengths.

    Now, if you are a claiming trainer and yours are all compromised somewhat, that is a different story.

    P.S. Lukas was quoted in a book called 'Winning Trainers' that he never worked horses, and never sent them fast. But look at the PPs now, and with less monied owners to work with, ol' DWL has changed his ways a bit. Good for him.

  12. Bill,

    Further to this interesting discusiion, have a look at pp 156 - 162 []. I'm afraid one has to read it a couple of times to get the idea quite straight, but it did seem to work [see "Does it work?" section at front of site].

    AS far as "Winning Trainers" is concerned i thought that by far the most interesting washarness trainer Fred Kersley - and in fact he has since had great success with runners.