Breathing Easy: The Effects of Weather at the Kentucky Derby

Posted by Loren Hebel-Osborne on Tue, Aug 5, 2014

Weather can be a deal breaker in horse racing. Many race fans and spectators don't realize the elements can affect a race horse in the same ways they can affect a person. Take a look at the Kentucky weather conditions around the time of the Kentucky Derby, and learn how these elements play a role in the training and conditioning of the horses.

Breathing Easy Can Be Hard

According to the National Weather Service, Kentucky is rated number three 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 Kentucky 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, runny nose, coughing, and lethargy are all symptons 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 into 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 fact that horses are termed nasal obligate breathers - meaning they must breathe only through the nose - and you can see a major problem.

During a race, a horse takes in approximately 1,800 liters of air every minute! That's about 475 gallons total. Think about that - 40 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, a veternarian at Churchill Downs for over 42 years. "When the horse is not competing, we can help them with an antihistamine, a broncodilator or an anti-inflammatory drug. Unfortunately though, horses can't race on that medication and most withdrawal times are three to five days - longer for antihistamines. It might be especially tough on a horse to ship 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 healthy is always the biggest challenge for any Kentucky 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 best be 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 on Kentucky Derby week. 

Observations, without the use of the veternarian's endoscope, include:

  • Are the eyes should be clear and bright with no discharge in the corners of the socket?
  • Does the horse cough, but otherwise 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 trianing take longer than when the horse was in a different climate or longer than 10-12 minutes? 

Just Listen

The most important factor is heard and not seen. A healthy horse's breath at the gallop should be clear with a strong exhale and cadence. Horses should not appear to pant or have hesitation in the gallops for frequent shallowing. 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 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 Derby Experiences' guests who are allergy prone, take heed from this article too as you are packing. As "My Old Kentucky Home" lyrics foretell, "the meadow's in the bloom" so you might want to have a few extra allergy medications on hand for race day.

See the Kentucky Derby Ran LIVE! 

Now that you know how the weather and shipping can affect a Kentucky Derby condender, it's time to secure your place to watch the running of the Kentucky Derby LIVE! 

With Official Ticket Packages direct from Churchill Downs, you can experience the 141st Kentucky Derby with unparalleled access and coveted amenities! With packages including access to some of the best seats in the grandstand and clubhouse, and with exclusive in-track hospitality access complete with premium open bars, complimentary food buffets, private wagering stations, and much more, it's the ultimate Derby experience.

Additionally, luxurious accommodations in Louisville and transportation to and from the track each day are also included!

Get more information on how you can attend the 2015 Kentucky Derby with Official Ticket Packages today by calling 1-888-384-7088 or by visiting Derby Experiences website for more information.

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