An American In Gold Coast: Intern Reflects On Differences In Training Methods

by | 01.18.2017 | 1:15pm
Waterhouse (right) with training partner Adrian Bott (left) at Magic Millions

When friends ask University of Pennsylvania student Philip Antonacci what he did over winter break from school, he'll have a more interesting answer than most. Antonacci spent his break on Australia's Gold Coast, following up on a summer internship with trainer Gai Waterhouse last year. Antonacci, 23, spent his two-month summer vacation studying Waterhouse's training methods and learned how she selects yearlings during the Magic Millions Gold Coast Yearling Sale.

Waterhouse is a training powerhouse in Australia, member of the Australian Racing Hall of Fame, trainer of 2013 Melbourne Cup winner Fiorente, victor in over 100 Group/Grade 1 contests, and one of the top-end buyers at the country's sales. For Antonacci, who is part of the third generation to work the land at the Lindy Farms Standardbred operation in Somers, Conn., his summer internship with Waterhouse was a study in contrasts. Antonacci's family also keeps Thoroughbreds in training with Wesley Ward, and in his limited time observing Waterhouse's operation at Randwick, he saw more similarities to the American Standardbred than the American Thoroughbred.

According to both Antonacci and Waterhouse, the biggest difference between training and campaigning horses in the United States and Down Under is furosemide (Lasix). The dehydration caused by the bleeder medication is the prime reason Waterhouse said American horses couldn't keep pace with a training program like hers if they wanted to.

Although Australian Thoroughbreds don't put in official timed workouts (which is also true in Europe), Waterhouse estimates she might have her horses do speed work similar to a breeze between one and three times per week, depending upon fitness. While European horses spend long periods on either side of their daily work walking, Waterhouse's horses spend long periods jogging, sometimes up to two miles a day, sometimes over hilly ground. Horses usually go in sets, jogging on a hack on the long route between the barn and the track.

Horses also run back much more quickly, not just at the lower levels (as is sometimes seen in the States) but at all levels. Some of the horses competing in Saturday's Magic Millions Gold Coast Raceday were wheeling back in less than two weeks, and in many cases, closer to seven or ten days.

“It's a different style,” said Antonacci. “Her horses can withstand a lot more, so she puts a lot more work into them. I think it comes down to a different style horse.”

That endurance can come in handy, given the relentless speed of the typical Australian race. It may seem counterintuitive to give a sprint horse endurance, but Antonacci said most successful horses are breaking quick, relaxing in the middle of a race, and sprinting home strong, similar to turf racing in the U.S. with tighter fractions. That closing kick has to last the length of the stretch.

To Antonacci's eye, the Australian Thoroughbred bears some resemblance to the American Standardbred. The average hoof size is larger than the American Thoroughbred, the bone more substantial throughout, and most have a frame that supports the large hindquarter typical of a sprint type.

Antonacci at the Magic Millions Gold Coast Yearling Sale

Antonacci at the Magic Millions Gold Coast Yearling Sale

The durability of the build may also help explain something Antonacci didn't see so much in his time on the track with Waterhouse: the traditional 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. influx of veterinary trucks streaming through the stable gate. Vets are around, but Antonacci saw relatively few horses getting prescriptions to replace rest for chronic stress injuries, which he thinks is a credit to the industry's ability to keep its horses sound.

“I was here for two months and never saw a single breakdown. How long could you be on a backstretch in the U.S. and not see a breakdown?” he said. “There could be something to be said about that style of training. If you put the work into them, when they do go to race speed, they're prepared for it.”

Waterhouse also focuses on developing young horses' brains and has the luxury at Randwick of several different training grounds to mix things up. She can send a horse over a sand track (they typically train over dirt, despite the fact they're running on grass), or send a hot horse around the facility with a pony for a few days. Young horses learn to pick up leads, do figure eights, and do some lateral work more typical of dressage horses. Truckloads of horses go to the coast and work in the ocean, even in the winter.

Then, a day or two before a horse is scheduled to make a start, Waterhouse sends them to the infield of a bullring at Randwick where she has a group of jumps set up and schools them over fences – even if they're not steeplechase horses.

“She tries to do a lot to keep the mind fresh, which I think is also part of her success,” said Antonacci. “With other trainers, it's a system. She tailors her system to her horses.”

Waterhouse said one of her secrets is constant reassessment. Together with training partner Adrian Bott, she may revise a horse's plan for the next day several times between one workout and the next, based on body language and behavior.

Waterhouse trainee and Melbourne Cup winner Fiorente

Waterhouse trainee and Melbourne Cup winner Fiorente

Antonacci suspects, and others in the Australian business agree with him, that all this exposure to different sights, sounds, and activities, probably makes Thoroughbreds in Waterhouse's barn calmer and better able to take on new experiences when retrained for new careers.

“The Thoroughbred gets the stigma of being high-strung, and coming from a Standardbred background, they're usually great riding horses after,” he said. “But here, I never noticed anything that wouldn't make them good aftercare horses. They last long, they stay sound; how could you beat that as a riding horse afterwards, right?”

But of course, the fact that Waterhouse's methods work for Australian Thoroughbreds doesn't mean they'd be right for Americans. U.S. racetracks are limited for space and facilities compared to Randwick, and in many places, training a horse off a fully-equipped farm may prove expensive. The Australian Thoroughbred is built differently, and its genetics are also different. There are different surfaces, race conditions, different weather (several people theorized the long, hot daylight hours here require more durability from horses). Whether the comparison is apples and oranges or oranges and tangerines, Antonacci is eager to learn more. He's hoping to apply for Godolphin Flying Start when he graduates college, and in the meantime is trying to absorb everything he can to make his transition from trotters to Thoroughbreds complete.

“I think the Thoroughbred business has a little more runway right now, and has a lot more of a global market,” he said. “I'm just trying to diversify a little bit, and find a more sustainable product in Thoroughbreds than Standardbreds, but I love them both.”

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