Altitude training? · 4.05.09

It has been pointed out elsewhere that Mine That Bird might have had a physical advantage in the Derby. He spent the six months before the Derby at Sunland Park, New Mexico — elevation 3,789 feet (about 3/4-mile). The average elevation in the state is 5,692 feet (over 1 mile). Louisville’s altitude is 466 feet (thank you Wikipedia). The effects of altitude training on humans has been well-known at least since the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City: mainly an increased red blood cell count, which allows more oxygen to be supplied to the muscles allowing higher performance.

Does living and training at higher altitudes have the same physiological effects on horses, and do those effects translate into improved performance at lower elevations? A quick Google search reveals sites like this and scholarly journal articles like this. The Kentucky Derby’s past history includes the story of Canonero II. The 1971 winner spent most of his career racing at high elevations in Venezuela (altitude of capital city Caracas, where most major races are held: 2,953 feet).

I’m not saying that “altitude training” explains Mine That Bird’s 51-1 stunner. It might be part of the answer — along with the late scratches of Quality Road and I Want Revenge, the sloppy track, Calvin Borel’s ride, etc. Or maybe, just maybe, Mine That Bird is the real thing: a horse who’s putting it all together at the right time to become a star.

Update: This article in the New York Times brings the theory into the mainstream. See comment #15 for handicapper Steve Davidowitz’s sceptical take. Hat-tip: PJMIII at the Thoroughbred Champions forum.

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What do you think?

  1. Not far fetched as many an Olympic athlete, most notably Lasse Virin, used blood doping to win the Olympic marathon after taking blood out at altitude and then exchanging it on race day.

    Dr. Timothy Yatcak · May 5, 08:34 AM · #

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