Monday, July 22, 2013

Guest Blog: Natural EPO for your Horses

by Mark Cramer
Let’s connect the dots between the results of the 2013 Tour de France and getting the maximum performance from a race horse. One secret might be uncovered if we explore the seemingly amazing second place finish in the Tour de France of the 23-year-old Colombian rider, Nairo Quintana.

Though beaten for the yellow jersey by the experienced favorite, Christopher Froome, Quintana won stage 20 in the Alps, won the King of the Mountain award for the best climber, won the white jersey for the best young rider and won his place on the podium, all this in his debut Tour de France.

Nairo Quintana      photo
Quintana does not look physically endowed for cycling. Most Tour riders are tall, with long legs. Quintana is 5 ft 5 in. To compensate, he bypassed the European prep races and stayed in his native Colombia, working out in his home region, where the altitude varies between 9,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level.   

“Training at such high altitudes encourages the body to create more oxygen-carrying red blood cells — and that gives him a natural “advantage” over other riders,” according to an AP article that was picked up in newspapers around the world. The Colombian said he was “very thankful” to all those in cycling who have fought doping. His high altitude training produces the same effect as the banned EPOs, but it’s entirely natural.

Research on high altitude training for race horses has mixed messages, but an experiment in 2004 with a training track in the Alps produced several over-achieving winners when horses descended and raced at low altitude. If they remained long enough at the lower altitude, their performance reverted back to the usual, so the idea is to keep a horse in training at the high attitude and only ship to sea level just before race day. Most humans and horses would need time to adjust to the thin air, so high altitude training should, at first, be lighter than what it would be at sea level.

Going to these new training heights could be complicated. The track at Ruidoso seems like a good candidate, at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. Ruidoso is a 750 mile ship to Sam Houston Race Park at sea level, and 550 miles to either Lone Star Park or Remington Park.

The idea first came to me by chance in the early 2000s when I came down from my home at 12,000 feet above sea level in Bolivia to attend the Claiming Crown at Canterbury Park.

I changed planes in Miami. Once off the plane, I began behaving strangely. I volunteered to lift people’s heavy suitcases off the carrousel. I climbed stairs instead of taking the escalator. I looked like the OJ Simpson Hertz airport commercial.

Other behavior changes crept into my life. At Canterbury Park I said “no thanks” to a ride into Shakopee and walked instead.  Anything within my range of sight was redefined as “within walking distance”.

I was writing the “barn notes” for the track website, watching workouts and interviewing trainers, jockeys and grooms. One particular horse on the program looked intriguing. In the past performances he was outclassed. He was shipping in from Arapahoe Park, at above 5,000 feet.

Two days earlier, I’d seen a longshot make it to the Canterbury winners circle after having shipped from Arapahoe.  

I reached the trainer on his cell phone. He told me he was rolling through Iowa.

“You timed your trip at the last minute,” I said. “Are you trying to make the most of the high altitude training?”

“Damn right I am,” he said.

His horse finished fourth in the superfecta at huge odds, and all you had to do was box him with the three favorites in order to collect.

Back to La Paz, Bolivia, I began my own training, first walking, then jogging, and finally, months later, running on a track with a view of luminous glaciers. My biology had adapted to the altitude. I would run up to 10 kilometers in La Paz and hike in the mountains at 17,000 feet.

With no racing in Bolivia, I took a flight to neighboring Chile, on the Pacific coast, to play the horses. I squeezed my running shoes in my backpack. Once checked into a hotel, I went for what I thought would be a brief jog along the beach. I ran, I ran some more, and I continued running. My endurance seemed as infinite as the Chilean desert, where it hasn’t rained in 200 years.  

I lack the expertise to comment on attempts to simulate high altitude horse training, such as Simulated Altitude Training (SAT) or Intermittant Hypoxic Training (IHT). Nor can I derive any firm conclusions from reading research abstracts, such as “Hematological changes and athletic performance in horses in response to high altitude (3,800 meters),” American Journal of Physiology –Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology (Wickler & Anderson, 2000), which examined the performance of four Arabian horses, one quarter horse and one Shetland pony.

Thinking without nuance, I can see some logic. The higher the altitude, the less oxygen you inhale per breath. EPO (erythropoietin) is supposed to boost the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, thereby increasing aerobic capacity (VO2 Max) and endurance. The natural EPO is the body’s gradual compensation for the lack of oxygen intake at high altitude.

Mountain training certainly worked for Nairo Quintana, who used to bicycle 10 miles to a rural school as a teenager. My old samples of Arapahoe shippers were far too small to be empirically valid. More recently, though, a skillful horseplayer friend provided me with some new evidence. “The Arapahoe Arabian shippers to the Northern California fairs has been a great angle for the past couple of years,” he said. It’s a 1,200-mile trip from Arapahoe to the California fairs.

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