Pre-race blowouts, which happen three days before a race at the most, have become increasingly uncommon in the modern-day American racing scene. After having the opportunity to watch the works every morning of the week leading up to the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, I was surprised to see the majority of American horses on the track for such a leisurely gallop during this time frame.
Having been a competitive swimmer, I take note of the different training styles between swimming and horse racing. I particularly observed the dissimilarities between how swimmers and American racehorses prepare prior to competing. Swimming and horse racing are obviously two different sports, but they have parallel goals: strength and endurance.
These pre-race blowouts are crucial because thirty percent of a horse’s red blood cell count occupies the spleen, which only contracts when a horse is asked for his best effort. When the spleen contracts, it shoots all its red blood cells into the blood vessels. The spleen then fills with newly oxygenated blood cells. These new blood cells that will be used on race day do not only carry more oxygen to give more energy to a horse’s muscles, but also these lighter cells are more easily moved through the vessels.
Shortly before each race at a swim meet, I would jump into the pool for a short, relatively aggressive warm-up to loosen my muscles, and sharpen myself for the upcoming event. I have never understood why America’s equine athletes do no more than a light canter in the post-parade before they break from the gates, going from zero to forty miles per hour in only a few strides without what I would deem as a sufficient warm-up.
Aside from the benefits of warming the tendons, ligaments and muscles, a proper warm-up has another important effect on the racehorse in particular: EIPH (Exercise Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage). When the spleen sends the additional red blood cells into the horse’s blood vessels, the capillaries need time to expand so they can withstand the pressures of the newly added blood. The vessels in the lungs end in air-sacs called alveoli which are enclosed by capillaries, a tiny group of blood vessels about one percent of the thickness of a human hair. On average, one horse alone has about three hundred billion capillaries. When these capillaries burst due to pressure, bleeding in the lungs ensues.
The common protocol in other countries is to breeze the horses one furlong to ¼ mile at a twelve to thirteen second clip for each furlong. This takes place five to seven minutes prior to post time. The short sprint contracts the spleen and sends the blood cells into the system. When the horse reduces his speed, the capillaries are given time to dilate safely before loading into the gate. If horses are not given this warm-up, and break out of the gate at full speed, the capillaries are overwhelmed by the excessive red blood cells, resulting in bleeding (EIPH).
The mutual complaint among horse racing enthusiasts of all kinds is that the Thoroughbred has become a weaker breed. The present-day horses have a sizable presence of the “iron horses” from the bygone years in their pedigrees. Consequently, it is nonsensical to believe that the overall quality of the breed has lowered enough to support such a theory.
Perhaps we should take a look at the differences that separate the past and present in the how the horses are conditioned. Our modern day training techniques should be held accountable and adjusted to accommodate the technology and knowledge so readily available. Pre-race blowouts and post-parade warm-ups seem to be a great place to start.