It’s science: odds are against Triple Crown winner

When the eight horses line up at the 2015 Belmont Stakes this Saturday, all eyes will be on American Pharoah as he attempts to be just the 12th horse in history and the first in 37 years to win the elusive American Triple Crown.

However, with wins at the both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, it’s not just history but also science that is predicting American Pharoah will more than likely not be crowned the champion at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, this weekend.

A recent article delves into the science behind “Triple Crown failure” with the most recent example coming just last year as thoroughbred, California Chrome fell short and tied for fourth place at the Belmont after taking first at the Derby and Preakness. Instead, Tonalist, who hadn’t raced in the Derby or the Preakness, claimed the top spot and raised the tempers of horse race enthusiasts and California Chrome’s co-owner, Steve Coburn alike. Coburn argued that horses should not be allowed to run in the Belmont if they didn’t compete in the two previous races in the series.

And according to science, Coburn may have a point.

First and foremost the article states that post-race recovery is no joke for a thousand-pound animal that can run more than 40 miles per hour. There are two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness, and three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont. That tight schedule means horses competing in the grueling back-to-back-to-back Triple Crown races have a big disadvantage against fresh horses.

The article goes on to explain that just like humans, horses need a lot of energy to compete in high-intensity exercise, keep their muscles strong and avoid fatigue. Humans store their energy, also known as glycogen, and burn it off during physical activity. However, as humans delete this energy, their bodies turn to fat storage next to keep itself going.

This not the case in horses. As the animal burns through its glycogen, its muscles produce lactic acid. The enzymes that break glycogen into glucose that the body can metabolize are sensitive; if tissue becomes too acidic, the metabolic pathways can’t function properly. In other words, the horses are running out of fuel and they have a harder time processing the fuel they still have. “They start shutting down,” Clair Thunes, a horse nutrition expert said in the article.

After a race is over, a horse’s body gets to work processing the lactic acid and restoring glycogen reserves. This process in humans takes about 24 hours, but in horses in can take several days.

However, there is another complication for horses that the article explains. Due to heavy excursion, horses can bleed into their air passages which is not only uncomfortable, but it also causes inflammation and scarring. Because of this, beginning in the 1970s, many trainers started giving their horses a special drug, which is a diuretic and lowers the overall fluid volume and reduces the risks of bleeds.

This drug causes horses to lose vital vitamins, minerals and fluid needed for recovery, through excess urine. Replacing those vital fluids can be difficult and can take three days for a horse to return to its pre-race weight. The article states that by this point, horses still haven’t re-balanced their electrolyte levels, which are essential for muscle conductivity and other bodily functions. The article also states that some experts say it’s no coincidence that the Triple Crown drought started around the same this drug became a standard in the racing world.

In addition to being the last race of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes is also the longest at a mile and a half. Most thoroughbreds also typically get three weeks to a month between tough races, while the Triple Crown allows for just a few weeks between each race.

According to the article, when a horse runs a tough race or has a longer distance run, its muscles begin to break down. Then, during rest, they are able to re-knit and adapt, just like a human’s muscles do.

“You have to give them time before ramping them up again over a new distance,” Thunes said in the article. The trio of strenuous races combined with minimal downtime pushes horses to their limits. For many horses, the time between the Derby and Preakness might not be enough time to heal completely, leaving them with even more muscular damage to deal with before the Belmont, she added.

However, for horses that don’t participate in the Derby, Preakness, or both, they are able to have a workout schedule that allows them to peak physically and mentally at Belmont.

For example, Mubtaahij, who finished eighth in the Derby, and didn’t run in the Preakness, has had plenty of rest so he could be pushed for hard workouts two weeks prior to the Belmont. Now, as stated in the article, his trainer hopes to keep him fresh by taking the week leading up to the race easy —which could make all the difference on race day.

Finally, there comes the issue of a horse’s bones and adds to the list of why it’s so difficult to achieve Triple Crown glory. According to the article, a galloping horse puts all its weight on a single leg. That limb bears three times more weight than usual when galloping on a straightaway and with centrifugal force, a load five to 10 times greater on turns. This can translate to skeletal microdamage in the horse.

“The skeleton is dynamic and the body is continually revitalizing the skeleton by removing damage and replacing it with healthy bone tissue,” Sue Stover, a professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said in the article.

While these horses are young and healthy, that damage can manifest as anything from bone strain to microscopic cracks. Couple this with a slower healing process that is a side effect of that diuretic drug discussed previously, and mild microdamage can manifest as discomfort and soreness.

Bones also become weaker between the time the body removes the damaged material and when it finishes rebuilding that area, the article states. This means when you race a horse during that critical period, you increase the risk of serious injuries.

When it’s all said and done, few will be able to blame American Pharoah if he does not win the Triple Crown this weekend. While, he may be the most talented horse on the track if all things were equal, when it comes down to it, you just can’t argue the science behind it all.

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UPDATE: American Pharoah beat the odds (and science) and won the Triple Crown!

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