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     Training---the conditioning of the race horse, 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 racehorsemen 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 over estimated 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 does 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 YouTube video of Misty Rumor setting a new track record for 1.5 miles.

A YouTube video of Misty Rumor setting a new 2 mile track record at Praire Meadows.

      This is a typical training set line-up which may have been seen at most race tracks at morning work during the first part of the 20th century. I have transcribed a training article as it appeared in The Outing Magazine of June, 1908 that details the common training regime of that day. Click on the below link for that article:

How Race Horses Are Prepared (A morning at the track 1908)


A comparison of American speed records over the past 100 years.

John H. Davis

     John H. Davis was a well know and successful Thoroughbred race trainer during the latter19th and early 20th centuries. His biographical book, The American Turf with Personal Reminiscences (1907), gives us a glimpse into racing during that time period. I have copied his Chapter XXL, Training for a Race onto a web-site for your study. This chapter is primarily written with the Thoroughbred race horse in mind that would compete in long distance and, particularly, heat racing. His training program is designed to ready that type of horse for a form of racing which has been long extinct, but yet has much relevance for the longer classic distances seen occasionally today as it did then.

     To give you a very brief history of distances observed in Thoroughbred racing, I recite from The History of Horse Racing by Roger Longrigg:  "In England, four-mile races were rare by 1800, and dead, apart from a few eccentric exceptions, by 1850.  Heat-racing was dying in 1800, dead soon afterwards.  The classic races were middle-distance "dashes".  America observed this with disdain. There was a strongly voiced opinion that American racehorses should be bred from the old stock--the blood of Morton's Traveller, Fearnought, and Jolly Roger, imported when the English still ran proper races--and not the decadent sprinters of the new century. An English visitor in America, who not only visited the majority of the American races, but obtained the entree to many of the training and breeding establishments, was clear that the horses had more bottom than the English. He noted that three and four mile races, and heats were still frequent.  But American racing was changing as English had changed.  In the 1840s and the 1850s there was a swing away from 4-mile heats toward mile heats and "dashes".  Horses normally ran as three year olds, often as two year olds.  One reason that has been suggested is the Anglomania of American racing men; boys were educated in England and learned to appreciate longer programmes of shorter races, and to deplore the cruelty (or tedium) of four-mile heats.  Another probable reason is the need of owners and breeders to get an earlier return on their investment. A third is a change in the American as in the English thoroughbred, gradual but unmistakable, the result of selective breeding and of new importations.  As late as 1905 this was regretted:  "the English dash system of racing has become too popular on this side of the Atlantic for the good of our stock."

     So you see, the trend to continually shorten Thoroughbred race distances seemed to have been a trend in the sport even as far back as the 1700s. The funny thing is, that the conditioning of a race horse for the shorter dash heat racing is a wonderful way to give a horse superb "bottom" not equaled in our modern conditioning programs designed to ready a horse for the short dashes popular today. Our modern horses have no bottom.  John Davis offers a training program that he favors to create such fitness. It is certainly an interesting read and has much to consider. 

     Chapter XXL   Training For A Race

     Here is another interesting magazine article from Munsey's Magazine of August, 1900, titled: His Majesty the Thoroughbred, by Harry P. Mawson.

Hirsch's 1946 prep of Assault

An amusing photograph taken back in the day when a father's pride n' joy was not necessarily his sons, but a nice racehorse in the shedrow.

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