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How Weather Affects Kentucky Derby Contenders

Posted by Loren Hebel-Osborne on Sat, Jul 6, 2013 @ 11:35 AM

According to the National Weather Service, Louisville, Kentucky is rated #3 on the Top 10 Worst Spring Allergy Cities. The study advises that tree and grass pollens will be at their peak in mid-April and early May.

So what does that have to do with winning the Derby? Well, horses are not unlike humans and can suffer allergic reactions to poor air quality and pulmonary infections just like us. Itchy, watery eyes, scratchy throat, running nose, coughing and lethargy are all symptoms for horses too! Breathing problems are second only to lameness as a leading cause for poor performance.

Even the most muscular and fit horse cannot perform at its best if it cannot receive adequate oxygen due to mucus or infection in the lungs. Muscles, like other body tissues, utilize oxygen to convert food to energy. During racing, not only does the intake of oxygen become paramount, but the exchange and removal of carbon dioxide through exhalation is crucial. Add to that that horses are termed nasal obligate breathers, meaning they breathe only through the nose. During a race, a horse takes in approximately 1,800 liters of air every minute. That's about 475 gallons total - or think about forty 10-gallon garbage cans of air per minute!

"We are already seeing an increased number of cases of pulmonary infections in horses that live here in Kentucky - it's just awful," said Dr. Richard Fischer, veternarian at Churchill Downs for over 42 years. "When the horse is not competing, we can help them with an antihistamine, a bronchodilator or an anti-inflamatory drug. Unfortunately though, horses can't race on that medication and most withdrawal times are 3-5 days - longer for antihistamines. It might be especially tough on a horse to ship in from say California, have a reaction and not be able to receive any medications for it."

"I would have to believe it to be especially important to ship a horse into Churchill Downs early, let him have a work, and then scope him to determine what's going on. Staying heathly is always the biggest challenge for any Derby contender, but I'd say I'd have to agree with you that if a horse handles this spring weather well, he might have an advantage too," Fischer added.

Determining whether a horse is handling a new climate well can take some careful scrutiny and can be best observed in the early morning training hours, so be sure to book a backstretch tour or attend "Dawn at the Downs" breakfast at Churchill Downs Derby week. Observations, without the use of the veterinarian's endoscope include:

  • Eyes should be clear and bright - no discharge in the corners of the socket.

  • Does the horse cough, but otherwise does not appear to be ill?

  • Do the nostrils flare even when the horse is at rest?

  • Does the recovery time of normal breath beats after the training take longer than when he was in a different climate - or longer than 10-12 minutes? You may hear a trainer say "that horse couldn't blow out a match" after its workout - in other words, the horse did it with easy and wasn't winded.


The most important factor is heard and not seen. Listening to a healthy horse's breath at the gallop is clear with a strong exhale and cadence. Horses should not appear to pant or have hesitation in the gallops for frequent swallowing. No noise like gurgling or wheezing should be audible.

Lastly, the position of the horse's head coming off the track is another indicator. Horses who have their heads low walking off the track are telling us that they have some drainage occuring in the nasal passages or lungs.

So when comparing contenders' past performance records that include track surface (dirt, turf and polytrack), track condition (fast, good, muddy, sloppy) and speed figure comparisons for the day, don't discount environmental conditions which can also play a factor.

And, for all our QuintEvents' Derby Experiences customers (considered shippers) who are allergy prone, take heed from this article too when you are packing. As "My Old Kentucky Home" lyrics foretell, "the meadow's in the bloom," you might want to have a few extra medications on hand for race day.

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