It just does not seem logical that a pampered, well-fed, carefully vetted, meticulously exercised athletic horse is tired after only running for about 2 minutes three times in four weeks. The excuses given for why the racehorse California Chrome did not win the third leg of the Triple Crown a few weeks ago might have sounded reasonable to some, but not to many of us involved in sports medicine.
Chrome was trying to become the first horse in 36 years to win the Triple Crown, but instead finished fourth behind Tonalist in the Belmont Stakes. It wasn't even close. With the race now far behind us, we are left with the question what makes an athlete — animal or human — perform at their peak repeatedly and then suddenly, out of nowhere, perform subpar?
The answer may lie more in the mind than in the body, which is why the best training money can buy may not ever be enough.
From a physical point of view, the energy output required of a thoroughbred horse in horse racing is extreme, but very short. Tonalist finished the 1½-mile race in 2:28.52 minutes. Over the course of the race, a horse will consume a little more than 2 calories per pound. As an example, a 1,000-pound horse carrying 126 pounds of weight (jockey and saddle) would burn nearly 15,000 calories during the race. That's five days worth of calories for the average healthy active human male in his 20s to mid-30s.
As long as the animal remains uninjured, the physical recovery from all of that effort should be measured in days, as the stored glucose is rapidly replaced by hay and feed. The muscle soreness, from lactic acid build-up concentration, reduces quickly. Lactic acid levels increase immediately after exercise, reaching their highest value at 6 minutes, but then return to normal an hour later. This anaerobic muscle fatigue can be improved by the replenishment of glycogen with food.
Top racehorses have massages, walking times, rest times and feed times all calibrated to aid in this recovery, as do many elite human athletes.
What is immeasurable, although possibly predictable, is the state of a horse's mind when entering the starting gate. Many announcers commented on the serene appearance of California Chrome in the paddock and on the way to the track, with the horse's calmness in the gates perhaps connected to his unfortunate lack of spirit on the track.
For humans, similar flat performances can happen at the most inopportune times as a result of conditions known as unexplained underperformance syndrome. or overtraining syndrome. However, what the human has, hopefully, is the ability to psych-up for the event, to imagine the victory, to fantasize about the outcome. It is this ability to fantasize that separates the successful athletes from their equally talented but unimaginative peers.
The difference between visualization and fantasy is that the athlete visualizes and memorizes the course and tries to repeat the motions in the competition. Sometimes that works, but too often the reality of the event doesn't match the practice runs. The champion athlete is one who dreams of the big win and wills it to happen.
Remarkably, the same effect happens for patients dealing with serious injuries or diseases. Surprising results often seem to happen for those who set big goals and have the unbroken willpower to get the results.
California Chrome may have had all the horsepower in the world, but without the mind-set to win at all costs on that day, the race became unpredictable, leaving the illusive Triple Crown unclaimed for yet another year.