Last year the running style of what were at the time three of leading candidates for the Kentucky Derby – American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund, who ultimately took the first three places at Churchill Downs – caused us to consider whether we were seeing something of a change in the paradigm of the American classic thoroughbred. Each won of them had won their final preps, all at nine furlongs, and all after running sub :23.0 opening quarters. This made us wonder whether we were witnessing something of a sea-change with regard to the physiology of the modern U.S. middle-distance dirt performer. This contemplation is further fueled by our 45 year plus experience in competitive track and road running, and changes that we’ve seen, particularly in events that parallel middle-distance dirt racing.
As far as the U.S. classic dirt runner is concerned, our best analogy with humans might be the 800m (half mile) event. This would be both in terms of relative contributions of anaerobic and aerobic systems, and in that uniquely, as far as Olympic “distance” track events – 800m, 1500m, 3000m steeplechase, 5000m and 10,000m – are concerned, in the 800m the optimal pacing strategy is for the first half to be significantly faster than the second, as opposed to an even-pace, or even-pace/fast- finish which most efficient in the other events. Looking back, we can note that of the last 29 world-record performances in the men’s 800m, 27 were achieved with a faster first half, and by an average of 2 seconds.
So, if the 800m race is run the a steadily decreasing pace – as are most U.S. horse races on dirt – what of the finishing “kick,” something we talk about with regard to both horses and humans. I would suggest that while perceptively for the competitor the feeling in the closing stages of an 800m race is of “kicking” in reality what is happening is an intensification of effort, which merely serves to temporarily halt or slow the rate at which pace is declining, before deceleration again takes over. In general when the 800m runner, or the middle-distance dirt racehorse appears to be putting in a storming finish, he is just slowing down less than his rivals (this is often misunderstood by commentators, for example, one referring to the “explosive move” by Exaggerator in his final prep, where in fact he was progressively slowing through each of the last five furlongs, his “explosive move” being a quarter in :24.73). It’s also interesting to note that even with conservative fractions world-class 800m men are very rarely able run the second 400m faster that the first. Of the Olympic 800m finals up to 2004, the average first lap was 52.8 seconds, and the second lap was 53.4 seconds, and just as with middle-distance horse racing on dirt, there appears to something physiological which makes it very difficult to run the second half of the race faster, even when the opening half is relatively contained.
In addition to its anaerobic/aerobic contribution, and fast start/slower finish parallels to U.S. dirt middle-distance thoroughbred contests, the 800m event is also notable for having historically been a meeting point between the speedy 400m/800m type and the more aerobically based 800m/1500m type. If we consider Olympic Games and World Record performances over the last 40 years or so, it can be seen that dominance has wavered between the two types of runners. Going back to 1972, the American, Dave Wottle – an outstanding miler – equaled the 800m world-record and captured the Olympic title at 800m. One year later, Wottle’s record fell to a different type of runner in Marcello Fiasconaro, who also set an Italian record for 400m, and was among the world’s best in that event. Fiasconaro’s successor was the giant Cuban, Alberto Juantorena. He won both the 400m and 800m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, setting a new world-record (which he later improved) in the 800m.
Following Juantorena’s magnificent performances, the consensus was that the 800m event was likely to remain the domain of the big, powerful, speed-based 400m exponent. Rebuttal for the argument soon came in the slight form of Sebastian Coe. A two-time Olympic Gold medallist (and world-record holder) at 1500m, and with sufficient aerobic ability to defeat world-class 5000 and 10000m runners over four miles on the road, Coe would hold the 800m world-record for more than 18 years. Coe’s great contempary and rival, Steve Ovett, who defeated Coe to claim gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympic 800m, was even more aerobically based, eventually winning a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games 5000m.
When Coe’s record did fall, it went three times in one year, 1997, all to the Kenya-born Wilson Kipketer (who competed for his adopted country, Denmark). Kipketer’s final record, just 0.64 faster than Coe’s quickest time, also proved duarable, standing for 13 years, until it was the broken by the current holder, another Kenyan, David Rudisha. Rudisha has since lowered his own record twice, most recently in the 2012 London Olympics in what proved to be the greatest depth 800m of all-time.
In the context of what we have observed about a possible sea-change in the type of horse that is most effective in U.S. dirt middle-distance contests, what is particularly notable about Rudisha’s epic London 800m run is that his second 400m, run in a time of 51.63 seconds, was actually slower than that run by Wottle in his 1972 world record-equaling effort. However, just like Dortmund, American Pharoah and Firing Line, Rudisha went out extremely hard, covering the first 400m in a blistering 49.28 seconds, 3.62 seconds faster than Wottle in his record effort. Thus, what appears to set Rudisha apart is the ability to set an extremely fast pace without then slowing down significantly more than runners who adopt a more conservative strategy. In the same way, the opponents of Dortmund, American Pharoah and Firing Line had made little impression on this trio in the closing stages of their signature Derby trials.
Although he rarely competes at distances other than 800m, there is little doubt that Rudisha – whose father was an Olympic silver medalist in the 4 x 400m and whose mother was an Olympic 400m hurdler – is physiologically a 400/800m type. This means a runner who possesses a high-proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibre to give the “speed reserve” to make the very fast first lap at least relatively comfortable, coupled with a very high ability to either shuttle lactate, to buffer its effects, or tolerate a lactate build-up (or more likely a combination of all three). It also means that Rudisha’s ferocious opening pace has transformed the event from a fast middle-distance race into an extended sprint, taking it to a point where it would very difficult for the more aerobic 800/1500m type to be competitive.
We think it is at least possible that the drive towards speed in the North American thoroughbred has begun a shift which has seen it forge a middle-distance dirt type that has a high-proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibre combined with great lactate tolerance (which needs to be inate in the horse, as lactate tolerance training is so enervating, it’s very unlikely a thoroughbred could tolerate it). At the same time, the very limited opportunities for dirt runners at beyond nine furlongs has probably led to a diminishment in the level of the true staying dirt runner. So it may well be that, that we are breeding more “David Rudisha” types, horses have too much speed for their more aerobic rivals to get to grips with them. They certainly pose a difficult tactical dilemma for their opponents: to leave them alone on the lead is to concede the race, to go with them in the early stages is to likely engage in mutual destruction. Just two years ago, Bayern (trained like Dortmund and American Pharoah, by Bob Baffert, whose program seems to suit this type), a horse fast enough to take the seven furlong Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. II) in 1:20.79, was able to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) when granted an unchallenged early lead. And for a classic example, consider Shackleford (inbred to Dr. Fager, the archetype of this kind of horse), an exceptionally speedy horse who dueled through an opening quarter of :22.69 in the 2011 Preakness Stakes (gr. I), and was still able to hold off the late charge of a true middle-distance stayer in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner, Animal Kingdom. We’ll also note that another factor changing the balance as far as the Derby is concerned is that the speedier animal is generally more precocious, which means they are more likely to be able to perform well in the qualifying events, and more likely to be closer to their physical peak at this stage in the year.
And so to Nyquist and this year’s Derby. Using figures from Trakus, we see that the first half mile was run in :45.6 seconds by Danzing Candy (another horse who set fast fractions and didn’t come back in the ) with with Nyquist second in :46.05. Danzing Candy still led after three-quarters run in 1:10.15, with Gun Runner and Nyquist close behind. The race was decided in the next segment, from the three-quarters to the mile. Nyquist covered that stretch in :24.79 seconds, which was surpassed only by Suddenbreakingnews (who ran :0.15 seconds faster, but was still back in fifteenth, with about 14 lengths to make up) and was matched by Exaggerator (who remained 8½ lengths adrift). It took Nyquist :26.14 seconds to negotiate the final furlongs, with six of his pursuers closing faster, but it was too little too late, and Nyquist who split approximately :58.1 and :63.31 for the first and second halves of the race still had 1¼ lengths to spare.
Looking at Nyquist’s Kentucky Derby effort, and considering that he ran fractions of :21.9 and :44.56 on his debut at two, and clocked 1:20.71 for seven furlongs to win the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) first time out this year, we’re fairly sure that ten furlongs is not Nyquist’s optimal trip, and that he’s likely to remain better over shorter. That’s not knock a horse who has remained undefeated in eight starts at two and three, who has shown considerable tactical versatility, and who has now scored from five to ten furlongs, just a reflection on the modern North American classic thoroughbred. That such a horse is winning a Kentucky Derby suggest that we’ve become so much better at producing this type, that they are just a notch above a horse like Suddenbreakingnews, for whom ten furlongs could well be his optimum: our stretched out milers are so superior to our true middle-distance horses that they can beat the latter in their own territory (or we’re better at making David Rudisha’s than Coes and Ovetts).
As far as Nyquist’s stud career is concened his aptitude is a decided plus, especially since his sire, Uncle Mo, was almost certainly the same type. In part two, we’ll look at Nyquist’s pedigree and the sensational start to his stud career made by Uncle Mo.