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Can California Chrome Win The Triple Crown?

By John Strassburger, June 03, 2014


In 1919, Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner.
As a horseman and as a racing fan, I'd very much like the answer to be: Yes, California Chrome will win the Triple Crown. But if I were a bettor, and my main interest in Saturday's Belmont Stakes was to make money, I'd bet on one or two of his rivals.

Why? Because, even if California Chrome is the extraordinary racehorse he appears to be, the Belmont Stakes will be the biggest challenge of his life, so far, for a number of reasons.

The biggest reason is that he's going to be facing a bunch of fresh horses, a bunch of good horses whose trainers have pointed them specifically to the Belmont. None of the four horses who finished closest to him in the Kentucky Derby faced California Chrome again in his Preakness victory, instead girding their loins to block him from being the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed did it in 1978.

Ever since California Chrome became the 13th horse since then to win the Triple Crown's first two legs, I've heard and read multiple theories on why no horse has done it since then. I don't think there is any single reason, but I do think that one factor is the curious phenomenon we're seeing this year, of which the above paragraph in symptomatic.

That is that, since 1978, the three Triple Crown races have grown steadily in public popularity and in prestige among trainers and owners. In the last 36 years, the Kentucky Derby, especially, has become a giant spectacle, the one race that millions of people who don't otherwise follow horse racing notice each year. And for owners and trainers, winning any of the Triple Crown classics has become a highly sought-after line on a potential stallion's resume, especially "Kentucky Derby winner."

But at the same time, "Triple Crown winner" has become less meaningful, much less of a priority for owners and trainers. Affirmed, along with Secretariat and Seattle Slew in 1973 and 1977, ran against many of the same horses in all three races. Those horses' owners believed that running in those races was an important thing to do. But not anymore.

Perhaps more importantly, I think that today's racehorses aren't as iron fit as horses of the past. The tendency today is to run horses with far less frequency than 30, 40, 50 or more years ago. Is this because Thoroughbred breeding has produced horses who are far more fragile, or is it just a another symptom of the growing cultural cautiousness regarding so much of our lives?

I can’t say for sure, obviously, but here are some numbers: Before Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby, he'd raced 12 times, winning 10 of them. Seattle Slew had won a comparatively few seven of seven starts, but Affirmed had won 11 of 13. Back in 1948, when Citation won the last Triple Crown before Secretariat, he'd raced 14 times before he stepped into the gate at Churchill downs. Citation, who was said to have bottomless stamina, had raced 29 times by the end of his 3-year-old year, winning 27 of them. He would race through age 6, winning 32 of 45 starts.

For California Chrome, the Belmont will be his sixth start of the year and 12th in his lifetime—about the same as the three previous winners. Will that mean he’s a little bit fitter, a little bit tougher, than his freshly prepared rivals? Will that give him the edge over them, or will he be too tired from his exertions?

As they say, that's why we run the race, instead of just postulating about it.

Fitness and freshness is the very narrow line you walk in training a horse for any sport, but especially for the speed and endurance sports of racing, endurance riding, eventing and combined driving. You have to push the horse hard enough, put enough stress on his systems, to develop and advance his fitness. But you also have to be able to see when to back off, when the horse would benefit more from a little bit of rest than from another hard workout or a competition. It's a sense that you have to develop from experience, because every horse is different and because even the same horse is different from year to year.

Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes we're horribly wrong.

I'm hoping that Art Sherman has guessed right in his preparation of California Chrome for this potentially historic moment. He, and the horse's "regular guy" owners, deserves it.

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My Three Examples Of Why You Can’t Train All Horses The Same Way

By John Strassburger, May 29, 2014


Amani was precocious but often disobedient as a young horse.
At last weekend’s Woodside Horse Trials, I did something I’ve never done before—I competed three homebred horses. It was a proudly fulfilling moment to think that we’d bred and produced all three of them here at our Phoenix Farm.

And these three horses are each an example of how horses mature and develop at their own speed and in their own ways. They’re a strong reminder to me that, as a rider and a trainer, you have to have your program—your method of developing horses—but that it has to be a framework, not an ironclad system. Sometimes you have to be willing to wait, and sometimes you have to be willing to push ahead faster than you would ordinarily. And you often have to be willing to do some things differently or in a different way.

The horses I competed at Woodside are:

Phoenix Amani, whom we call Amani. She’s a 7-year-old Irish-bred/Thoroughbred-cross by Formula One, who’s in her second season at preliminary but was making her first start of 2014. She recorded her seventh clear cross-country round in seven starts at this level, but she also had her best dressage test and her first clear show jumping round at preliminary, to finish fifth.

Phoenix Bellisima, whom we call Bella. She’s a 5-year-old Dutch Warmblood/Thoroughbred-cross, by Palladio, for whom Woodside was her third and final novice start before moving up to training at the end of June. She finished second, with effortlessly clear cross-country and show jumping rounds.

Phoenix Promiscuous, whom we call Piper or Pooper. He’s a 5-year-old Hanoverian-bred gelding. Woodside was his first beginner novice start, and I thought I was going to win the dressage in the warm-up. But he had some baby anxiety in the ring, for which the judge nailed him, before recording faultless show jumping and cross-country rounds.

Here’s how they’ve been different to develop:

Amani was precocious but often disobedient as a young horse. At 3 and 4, when confronted with something new or unexpected, her immediate reaction was to rear and spin. It took work to convince her that was the wrong answer (although she’ll still do it at times). She was always a very gifted and careful jumper, but her belief that she’s the most beautiful and special girl in school and that the body beautiful must never be soiled was why she often reacted that way to jumps.

Once I convinced her that was the wrong answer when jumping (about halfway through her 4-year-old year), Amani has moved along quickly competitively. She did beginner novice and novice at age 4, then spent her 5-year-old year doing training level. At the beginning of her 6-year-old year, I moved her up to preliminary.

Her weakness, though, has been dressage. It’s partly attitudinal—“I don’t want to work that hard!”—but it’s partly conformational.  She has a short, uphill neck, which is great for jumping, but it makes it rather hard to get her round and working through her topline. By last fall, it was clear that she would rarely place at the upper levels if we didn’t more fully address that problem. So she spent last October through March doing almost nothing but dressage, primarily with my wife, Heather, and last weekend showed that paid off in numerous ways. Developing her back and topline will be a continuing work in progress.

As you can see, Bella and Piper are the same age. In fact, they were born only 17 days apart. But their progress as riding and competitive horses has been vastly different. Even though they’re both fabulous movers, they’re physically and mentally very different horses.

Basically, Bella reminds me mentally of a sled dog—she has a very quick brain and a workhorse mentality. She’s like an Iditarod dog, the kind where you have to be sure the sled is securely tied to a stout tree before you put on the harness, and then you better be in the sled and ready to go before you unhook the sled.

Piper is an extremely willing and kind horse, but his body has grown and matured much more slowly, and his brain works much more slowly than Bella’s. In fact, we often laugh at him, because sometimes I swear you can see the brain cells connecting and trying to form a thought.

I started competing Bella exactly a year ago, taking her to a schooling dressage show in early May (where she was very green!) and then starting her eventing at the introductory level at the end of June. (I wrote a blog about it then.) She then did two beginner novice events and one novice (clear cross-country in all), before she developed a cough that sidelined her completely for two months. Then she did her next novice in April before Woodside, where she proved to me that she’s ready for bigger fences.

Basically, she has always felt, at home and in competition, as if I only had to show her how to do something once. I recall that moment, the second time I took her cross-country schooling, when she grasped that cross-country is a series of jumps and began looking for the next fence and taking me there. That’s a trait that some horses take numerous events and schooling, through months or years, to develop. It’s like endurance horses looking down the trail or cutting horses looking for the next cow.

Piper didn’t compete at all until last November, when I took him introductory, following one cross-country school and no schooling shows at all. That was because we weren’t sure what we were going to do with him. He was supposed to be the perfect horse for Heather, but we hadn’t yet accepted that he’s simply too big a mover and jumper for her back, which she’s injured several times, to handle. (That’s why we’ve now reluctantly decided to sell him.)

But, looking at Piper this weekend, standing in the stall next to Bella, I thought, “I think it was a good idea not to push him. I don’t think he was ready before this. He’s like that tall, uncoordinated boy in school—the one who trips and stumbles and can hardly run, but in his senior year becomes the star of the basketball team.”

He now looks like a handsome, mature horse, and he learned a lot about his job this weekend. I’ll be competing him again in a few weeks, and I’m really looking forward to feeling how much he’s improved.

Just for fun, here's a cute video of Formula One (sire of Amani):


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Wear Riding Helmets—It’s How To “Mind Your Melon”

By John Strassburger, May 21, 2014


Always wear an ASTM/SEI-certified helmet, like this Charles Owen skull cap.
I would think—more than 20 years since the creation of the ASTM/SEI standard for riding helmets and thousands of pages of research into head injuries—that wearing an ASTM/SEI-certified riding helmet whenever you’re riding couldn’t even be a topic for debate. But, somehow, it still is.

I was reminded of that the other day when I saw a video piece done by event riders Dom and Jimmie Schramm, who’d just heard about a young girl who suffered a serious head injury in a riding fall. Like me, couldn’t believe some riders still dismiss wearing helmets for a variety of superficial and moronic reasons.

With the Twitter hash tag #mindyourmelon as a means to spread the word via social media, Dom extols riders in all disciplines to protect their heads by wearing a helmet. “It’s time to declare war on the b.s. of people still riding without a helmet,” he says. I agree, completely. No one, under any circumstances, has ever been allowed to get on a horse without wearing an ASTM-SEI-certified helmet at our Phoenix Farm.

Their video shows Dom’s friend and fellow Australian Boyd Martin throwing away the straw hat he used to wear while riding and putting on an ASTM/SEI-certified helmet. Martin’s fervor is understandable, considering that his wife, Silvia, is still recovering from a severe head injury she suffered in March when the horse on which she was sitting while teaching a lesson stumbled and fell. The extent of her recovery is still uncertain. 

The video also shows several other four-star riders, including Hawley Bennett-Awad, Allison Springer and Lauren Kieffer, exhorting riders to follow their example and wear their helmets. Says Buck Davidson, America’s leading event rider, disarmingly, “The first thing I do every time I go to ride a horse is get my Charles Owen helmet. Even though there’s not much to protect, it’s the only one I’ve got. Mind your melon.” Amen.

Remember that 2008 Olympic dressage rider Courtney King-Dye ruined her extremely promising career, and nearly lost her life, because a young horse she was schooling tripped and fell in a dressage arena in 2010. It was her fall that provided the impetus for USEF rule requiring ASTM/SEI-certified helmets for dressage and that changed the FEI rule to allow them for dressage.

I know at least a dozen riders whose riding careers—and even their lives— were saved by wearing certified helmets. Yes, they’re all either event riders or steeplechase riders, and they’re required to wear an ASTM/SEI-certified helmet in competition, but I don’t know anyone in either sport who doesn’t wear a certified helmet almost every time they ride today.

ASTM/SEI-certified helmets have saved my life, twice—and I firmly believe that I’d be a blithering vegetable today from all the other times I’ve fallen off a horse in my life if my parents and my Pony Club upbringing hadn’t required me to wear the best helmet available from the time I started to ride at age 5.

And let me emphasize this: All but a handful of those falls were while riding at home or training somewhere else, not while competing.

The first of my two catastrophic falls did happen while competing, in a steeplechase race, in April 1992, only about two years after the ASTM/SEI standard was introduced. It was my horse’s first hurdle race, and I would discover that she was really too careful a jumper to be a hurdle horse. She didn’t want to brush through the plastic brush on top of the jump rolls, and from later looking at a photo of the jump where we fell, I could see that she was so focused on not touching the plastic brush that she didn’t put her landing gear down in time. We crashed into the ground like a wingless airplane.

I still remember only the start of the race, and the first thing I remember after the fall is lying in what must have been the hospital emergency room. After that, then I only recall snippets of the next two or three days. Fortunately, I didn’t break anything, and two weeks later I rode the same mare in another hurdle race, which we finished. Wasn’t I worried? Well, I was younger and braver then, but the good thing about a head injury like that is that it’s liberating—since you don’t remember what happened, you don’t have a reason to worry about it.

The second calamitous fall was a reminder of why you must wear a certified helmet whenever you’re riding or training at home. It was four years ago last weekend, actually, and I was getting on a 3-year-old for the first time, a horse whose two older brothers had been the easiest horses in the world to start under saddle and who seemed to share their temperaments. She didn’t.

My butt never touched the saddle—she launched me sky high, and the last thing I remember is flying through the air. I came down head first, breaking my right occipital bone, my left collarbone, the first two ribs on my right side and the third and fourth ribs on the left side. Plus, I dislocated my right shoulder.

I woke up to the sound of the helicopter circling to land in our front field—and feeling like beavers were gnawing my insides apart. That night, I imagined all kinds of outlandish events happening in the intensive-care unit, and the only thing I remember about the next day is a few moments of being transferred by stretcher from the trauma hospital where the helicopter took me to my regular Kaiser Permanente hospital. And then I don’t remember anything about the first of the two days I spent there, except a few moments of my wife, Heather, bringing our son to visit me. But I couldn’t tell you what day that was.

You know, a main argument usually used for wearing a helmet is the effect a head injury will have on your own life. Well, if you’re so brave and cocksure that that argument doesn’t persuade you, think about the effect on the people around you if you die, if you can’t work, or if you spend the rest of your life (perhaps decades) as a vegetable.

The effect my fall would have on Heather was the first thought I managed to form in my addled brain, as soon as the paramedics had given me some kind of fabulous pain medication and as they were wheeling my stretcher to the waiting chopper, M*A*S*H style. I managed to think, “Well, I’m clearly going to live, but, my god, is Heather going to be OK? I wish I hadn’t done this to her.”

She was incredibly, incredibly brave—that day and for the weeks to come—but, no, she wasn’t OK. She thought she’d seen me die, right in front of her, leaving her a widow with our 6-month-old son. She swears she couldn’t see me breathing for several minutes as I lay there in our ring. It’s a memory that still haunts her, and it’s why we changed our business focus from starting young horses, because I don’t get on babies for the first time anymore. I’m not going to do that do her again, if I can help it.

So, if you think your head is nobody’s problem but your own, look around you and think again. Think about your family and your close friends, and consider the effect that smashing your melon would have on them. Do you want to do that to them?  I hope not.

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Your Horse Trainer’s Program Needs to Suit Your Goals

By John Strassburger, May 15, 2014


I often tell my son Wesley that “can’t” is a word I don’t understand.
The students who take riding lessons at most barns around the country are almost always either adult amateur or junior riders. And those two large groups of people can be subdivided into several categories (sometimes even more than one category), including the category every trainer likes to work with: athletic, brave, hard-working, with the resources to have good horses, and committed to your program.

But for most of us trainers, riders who fit into that category are pretty rare birds, kind of like California Condors. So, the most common categories for the adult-amateur rider riders in your barn are: I’m Really Serious—But Time And Money Crunched; I Want To Learn But I Don’t Want To Compete; I’m Only Here For Fun; Re-Riders (aka former child stars now returning to the saddle, but often not accepting that they aren’t as brave or as able as they were 20-plus years ago); Terrified But Determined; and Terrified But Not Really So Determined.

For junior riders, the most common categories include: I Want To Make A U.S. Team by the Time I’m 25; Horse-Obsessed Barn Rat; More Talent and Drive Than Dollars; I’m Here Because My Friends Are Doing This; and Horsies Are Purty. We’ve also often seen the sudden onset of teenage hormones: “I really want to ride; I really want to ride—Oh my god, did you see that guy!?” Then it’s, “Mom and Dad, you can sell my horse.”

Since riding students have such a varied set of personalities, goals and dreams, it’s a good thing that trainers’ personalities and styles are almost as varied as their students. Most good trainers already tailor their approach to the student who’s in front of them, but any trainer with the experience necessary to properly develop horses and riders has a theory and a program or methodology that overarches what and how they teach.

The truth is that some riders and trainers fit together better than others. Sometimes they fit is like a hand in a glove, but it can also be as bad as oil and water. Sometimes you sense that right away, and sometimes you don’t discover it until somewhere down the road. Usually, though, the fit is somewhere between those two extremes.

We trainers are human, and that means that we’re necessarily products of the environment in which we grew up. From horse and non-horse experiences, we all have priorities in our lives and in our businesses, and we do some things better than we do others. One trainer might be especially good at solving horses (or riders) with problems; one might work best with beginning or novice riders, while another might work only with high-goal riders already competing at a certain level. One trainer’s life might allow them to teach at dawn or until late at night, while another’s life or priorities require students to take lessons only between 10:00 and 6:00.

Riders have to decide how their goals, lifestyle priorities and finances mesh with those of any trainer they’re considering. Rarely is there a perfect answer, and the right answer this month can certainly change, for a variety of reasons in a few months or years.

 My wife, Heather, was the product of a pretty strict European training model. The emphasis was on doing things correctly and pushing yourself. It wasn’t really a spot for the weak of heart or for those in the “I’m Only Here For Fun” category. They did develop in Heather her tremendous natural feel and a gift for the dressage work, but one of the trainers was naturally gifted over fences and unable to explain his technique to Heather, who’s always struggled over fences.

 As a trainer now, Heather is known for her ability to break down and carefully communicate all the minutia involved in every aspect of riding. She can explain concepts in a variety of ways to help each student understand. She also works extremely well with people who have confidence issues, because she’s dealt with confidence issues herself. So she has an innate feel for when to push and when to give someone space.

She is unfailingly kind and forgiving to her students, but some people would say that she’s “too nice.” Some riders need a trainer who’s aggressive and pushes hard and “doesn’t sugarcoat it.” The world has plenty of trainers who will do that. But the type of student who thrives with a trainer like Heather would curl up and fall apart with a more “drill sergeant-type” trainer.

I trained for several years with a former Calvary officer (I don’t know that I ever knew his first name—he was “Col. Johnson” to everyone), and thanks to him and to my German parents, I’d say that I had that tough mentality regarding riding (and life) installed early. The Nike slogan “Just Do It” would describe most of my upbringing, or “Lead, Follow or Get the Hell Out of the Way.”

I’ll admit that I struggle sometimes with my own approach when teaching, but we find that, for some students, I make a good counterpoint to Heather’s style. She builds them up, and I tell them to just go and do it. “Can’t” isn’t a word I recognize. I often tell my son that.

The key is finding the style that works best for you and your horse, finding a trainer whose philosophy and program works best for you and who is able to adapt it to suit you and your horse. Compatibility is the goal, and not every trainer is right for every students, or vice-versa.

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Did You Like The Rolex Kentucky Broadcast? We Did

By John Strassburger, May 07, 2014


Our biggest Rolex Kentucky TV broadcast criticism: We’d have liked more cross-country coverage.
The week after the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event has become the traditional time for airing the NBC broadcast of America’s premier eventing competition. This started because they used to run it immediately before the Kentucky Derby, as a lead-in, but it’s run standing alone for several years now.

In the horse world, few things are more controversial than the content and presentation of this annual broadcast. And this year has been no exception.

In the past, the producers have attempted to give the broadcast a live feel—culminating by showing the top 10 horses doing their show jumping rounds in their entirety, following pretty extensive cross-country coverage of the major players and about 30 seconds of dressage. In fact, for the last decade or so, the Rolex Kentucky show jumping has been shown live in Europe. They didn’t do it this time, though, and I don’t know why.

This year, a completely new production team took a different tack, by presenting the event more like a feature than a newsy sports broadcast—profiling about half a dozen riders and their horses, showing some relatively lengthy interviews, and interspersing it with snippets of competition. Think an NFL Films version of a Super Bowl, versus what you watch on Super Bowl Sunday.

Not surprisingly, people who couldn’t attend Rolex Kentucky in person or watch the extraordinary coverage available online on USEF Network have been, judging from online comments, rather disappointed by the new show. If you wanted to watch the full round in any phase of a given pair, you were out of luck. If you wanted to see a strictly linear recounting of the competition, you weren’t going to be happy.

But, honestly, I thought it was a good idea, an improvement over past presentations. In today’s world of instant Internet and tablet coverage, there’s no point in pretending that it’s live (or nearly live) coverage, because we know it isn’t. It’s silly to even pretend that viewers (at least most of them) are watching the TV show to find out who won. That news is a week old.

The new, featurey focus on several riders, showing them behind the scenes as well as in competition, made the viewer feel personally invested in their outcome. The format also allowed some of the best, in-depth description of how the sport and its scoring works that I’ve ever seen.

My wife, Heather, has been competing in eventing since the ‘80s, and her non-horsie parents still don’t understand the scoring—but this broadcast would have helped them and others like them. Heck, they even answered the question I’ve gotten most frequently from the non-initiated over the years: “Why is it called a three-day event when it runs over four days?”

OK, it wasn’t perfect. We’d have done some things differently. A graphic overview of the cross-country course would have helped viewers understand the enormity of the undertaking. Actually, more cross-country coverage in general would have been better—it’s the phase that always captivates people.

Still, I think this was one of the most successful depictions of eventing I’ve ever seen. Our riders came across as thinking, feeling, intelligent, normal folks. Our horses were shown with affection and brilliance. The story was compelling and easy to follow. All of those are good things on a TV show.

But, most importantly of all, the broadcast showcased, in words and pictures, the extraordinary bond between the riders and their horses. And that, to me, is the true heart of our sport. The extraordinary level of trust and care between horse and rider shined through in nearly ever scene, and it had to choke you up a bit.

It’s always fun to see horses on TV. It’s even better when at the end you feel like they got it right.

Oh, and California Chrome sure got it right in the Kentucky Derby the day before. Those of us who live here on the West Coast  are really hoping that a California-bred will break the Triple Crown jinx after 37 years!




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