Using Exercise Physiology to Handicap Races

By Bill Pressey, Horse Training Science 

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?

So 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. Pay attention to 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...

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