Old Timey Race Training

Training---the conditioning of the racehorse, can never be underestimated in its importance to the performance of that horse in competition. No matter how sound, how talented, how well bred your animal may be, that animal will always finish up the track without a proper conditioning background. One may know all of the herbal treatments and mysteries of keeping the performance horse perfectly sound, but without conditioning that animal will be doomed to failure on the track and ultimate lameness off. I have spent my entire life in the pursuit of conditioning horses to win. My idols, my role models of that life are several horsemen of the old school. All dead. They are all from a different era of training thought. I mourn their passing and the passing of their common sense conditioning philosophy.

The Hall of Fame trainers: Joe O'Brien (harness), Ben & Jimmy Jones (runner), Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (runner), and Woody Stephens (runner) were extraordinary men from the old school of conditioning. I had the luck to personally know and work under O'Brien. Fitzsimmons, the Jones boys, and Stephens, I can only admire from afar and pay homage here. All of these men understood that horses should not be coddled, if they were to perform to their limits on the track. They understood how important a foundation is in honing speed and insuring soundness. They understood that discipline on the part of not only the horse, but the trainer was paramount. They knew what Over-training really was, unlike most of my modern contemporaries. Over-training is so often thrown around by horsemen and the racing media that its true meaning has long departed any common thread of physiological truth. I secretly laugh whenever I hear a runn'n horseman say his horse is "sharp and sittin' on a win"--just because he was bucking and squealing on the walker or lead shank. These trainers don't have a clue what fitness really is. Truth be known, the fit horse is quietly composed like a steel spring while he is being walked. He never squanders energy by bucking and playing. You can often see an amusement in his eyes, but seldom will he act a fool. This is a distinction that is hard to differentiate by many horse people. The old timers knew how.

John Splan in his 1889 training text writes: "I think the tendency of most people is to overwork their horses--that is, they give them too much work at a high rate of speed. If you confine yourself to a working gait it will be almost impossible to overwork a horse." I marvel at the elegant simplicity in the truth of those two sentences. It will be almost impossible to overwork a horse at moderate to slow speeds. How true! Unfortunately, most modern race horsemen are speed oriented. They have no appreciation for the vital nature of slow speed track work--of slow jog miles in the case of the harness horse or gallop miles in the case of the thoroughbred. Speed Kills. A solid foundation of gallop miles (thoroughbreds) or jog miles (harness) can never be overestimated in importance. To take this foundation building further, slow breezes (thoroughbreds) and slow training miles (harness), should likewise, not be overlooked or skimped. On the other hand, morning bullet works--few horses need, though brilliant times do wonders for egos all around. One often hears that much hackneyed phrase: "Oh, he races his horses into shape." or "This horse will not train of a morning. He has to be raced into shape." Well, this practice may be all well and good when applied to only high speed works, but is deadly if that animal does not have the slow track works to support this racing into shape. Psychologically, the damage of racing a young horse and even an older seasoned horse without the proper training foundation can be devastating to that animal. Extreme, bone breaking fatigue can rip the heart right out of the unprepared race horse. Honesty and guts are the two coveted traits in a race horse that are the hardest to find and the easiest to extinguish.

My text, A Racehorse Herbal, will study the training methods and philosophies of preparing both the harness and thoroughbred race horse through the 19th and early 20th centuries. I will study how racing has changed with trends of shorter and shorter race distances with longer intervals between races. I have always been a proponent of route racing, particularly at the classic distances in thoroughbred racing. Unlike many authors, I have the experience to back me up. One of my better achievements was of an old claiming horse. I bought for $900. Misty Rumor, by the Oklahoma sire, Spread the Rumor, who lowered two track records for me at a mile & half at the Woodlands Race Course and the two miles at Prairie Meadows.

Misty Rumor, a cheap claimer I purchased for $900, which I worked on his rear-end soreness, and won a number of races with him in route races. I do an important section in my book on how often rear-end musculature problems are overlooked and found in Thoroughbred racehorses and how to treat them.

In my book, I will have a chapter on a number of past trainers' work charts ranging from 1908 up into the 1940s. It may be quite eye-opening how our modern training methods have changed and probably not for the good or for the increased soundness of the racehorse. Trainers include Bill Davis, Max Hirsch, and William Duke. I also have a section on how I trained my young horses to avoid bucking shins, which I never had one suffer from this common condition.

Weight & the Racehorse

Lastly, I would like to touch upon something that is not given much consideration in these modern times and should be. Weight. Personally, I have always been a stickler about weight. I once took a jock off of my horse because he couldn't make weight and this was in a 2 mile race. I knew it makes a big difference. My horse took a track record as a result. Every little bit, helps.

Many horsemen seem to think they cannot race without pre-race Lasix. It appears that quick weight loss from Lasix is the culprit to its performance enhancing affects from a number of completed studies. Could be! Certainly, a famous saying around the shedrow is that "Enough weight can stop a train"!Beyer suggests from his studies that 3.05 pounds equals one length at 6f---with that in mind, consider what up to a 20 pound loss of water from a racehorse on lasix might do! Trainers know that weight matters, but I doubt they are aware how much? They covet the lighter weights with weight allowances in the condition book and with the bug boys that can ride lighter! Using lasix to get that weight loss is not the best way to go about it. On the balance scales, you may get a degree of performance enhancement from pre-race Lasix weight loss, but at what cost, at what negatives? Just imagine how much better a racehorse would race if weight reduction was controlled by feeding and exercise which would negate Lasix's negative affects resulting in a combination that would surpass any lasix horse in a performance enhancement match race? Only problem, it takes much more work by the trainer to accomplish this when a needle a few hours before a race is so much easier! Take a look at my dehydration & electrolyte imbalance webpage for more food for thought.

While I am on my soap box here, I have one pet peeve that bothers me to no end on how our modern American horses are sent to race on a muddy track! I very seldom see any trainer prepare a horse for the mud by doing up its tail in a "mud tail". It was common operating procedure in the past. As anyone that has been around racehorses very long knows that the natural loose flowing tail is a major collector of mud that is thrown up from the track and can literally weigh pounds when that horse finally comes off the track! Just common sense can help many trainers win races, if they just think! In short, there are many ways to gain weight reduction other than chemicals!

Larry Wellman (1999) writes: "The effect of weight at other locations other then the center of gravity can have a significant impact on oxygen consumption levels. Myers (1985) found that the cost of adding a given mass to the limbs is significantly greater than adding it to the center of mass and that this effect becomes more pronounced as the limb loads are moved distally (towards the foot). Miller (1987) showed a 0.8% increase in oxygen consumption for ankle weights of 100 grams on human runners. A 600-gram weight at the center of gravity would result in the same increase of oxygen consumption. Relative to horse racing, any increase in extra weight carried along the leg and at the hoof could impact on a horse's performance. For example on a muddy or sloppy day a large horse (large hoof) could end up carrying extra dirt in it's hoof relative to a smaller horse (smaller hoof). Also the come from behind type of runner could have additional weight along the legs from mud being thrown back from horse's in front. This extra weight could be enough to cost a win. " Interesting stuff, eh? Just imagine how many grams would be lost if the four hooves were trimmed as short as possible and the ground bearing cup which can naturally catch & carry dirt around the track was very shallow resulting in less dirt weight being loaded during a race? The commonly seen low heel-long toe hoof trim does no favors for way of going, ease of going and weight issues! To read more, go to my hoof trim webpage.

Projected publication date, late 2024.