I can't vouch for the rest of the country, but here in the Bluegrass there's an air of excitement and anticipation: It's Kentucky Derby Week. Horse lovers and racing fans are putting finishing touches on First Saturday in May plans, securing the perfect Derby hat, and singling out race day favorites.
While much of my Saturday will likely be spent at the barn rather than the track, I plan to carve out a few hours of TV time to watch the Run for the Roses from home. This means lounging on the couch rather than battling the crowds, as well as reviewing my favorite moments via DVR rather than peering through hats and fascinators to catch the stretch run.
I tend to pick my Derby favorites, such as 2010 contender Stately Victor here, based on their athletic good looks rather than past performances.
Photo: Chad Harmon
I must admit though, my first in-person Derby experience, in 2010, was pretty special. Media pass in hand, I staked out a spot railside not far from the finish. I could nearly reach out and touch the horses as they strutted by on their way to the paddock and then again in the post parade. It was my first time seeing this caliber racehorse up close, and each one seemed more magnificent than the last.
It was Super Saver's year, but I remember noting my favorite as he pranced past--the lovely longshot Bluegrass Stakes winner Stately Victor. I chose him for his chiseled head, sport horse build, and hunter movement, and, of course, he finished middle of the pack. Each one of the contenders, however, exhibited a level of fitness rarely achieved in most of our horses. They were alert, glossy, and heavily muscled yet hovering around body condition score 4.5. These animals had been conditioned essentially since birth to gallop a mile and a quarter--the fittest barely blowing by the time they arrive back at their stalls. And to think they're only 3!
As I've learned from my Blood-Horse magazine colleagues, the show season conditioning strategy I employ with my horses (30-40 minutes daily flat work, much extension and collection, various jumping gymnastics, and regular turnout) pales in comparison to what Derby horses endure:
A future racing star's fitness program begins the end of his yearling year. Typically, Thoroughbred trainers start these youngsters at the walk, trot, and canter in groups of two or more, getting them accustomed to responding to a rider. Their daily routine then expands to include short, slow gallops on the track. By age 2 they're ready to enter real race training and conditioning, which includes longer, 1 ½- to 2-mile gallops.
A typical weekly exercise routine for a horse in top training might consist of four days of gallops (going 1 to 2 miles at approximately 16-20 seconds per furlong, or 1/8 mile) followed by one breeze (which is more like a sprint at 12-13 seconds per furlong for 3/8-3/4 miles), a day of 30-45 minutes hand-walking, and a day of jogging for a mile or more before starting gallops again. It's on this day of jogging that the trainer can best gauge the horses' soundness and energy level.
By this point, these horses are at such a level of fitness that they rarely get a "day off" (with the exemption of hand-walking and jogging days) pending soreness or injury. Commonly seen physical issues that might delay a racehorse's training and conditioning include shin soreness (essentially, microfractures or remodeling of the cannon bone), bucked shins, minor tendon strains, bone chips or spurs in the sesamoid and knee areas, and strained gluteal muscles (particularly when horses first start breezing).
So while, frankly, I don't think I'd ever have the time, patience, or desire to implement a racing-caliber conditioning program with my horses, it is fascinating to learn how different disciplines compare. How do you get your athletes in top shape?
(And just in case you're wondering, this year I'll be cheering Revolutionary and Will Take Charge on to the Derby winner's circle. I'm still a sucker for a pretty bay with a sport horse build and a 17-hand flashy chestnut.)