Skip to main content

All eyes will be on Kommetdieding (Elusive Fort) on Saturday, April 2, as he runs in the Grade 1 wfa HF Oppenheimer Horse Chestnut Stakes before making an attempt on April 30 in the Grade 1 wfa Premier’s Champions Challenge to become the first horse in SA history to win both the Durban July (now sponsored by Hollywoodbets) and WSB Met as well as an open Middle distance Grade 1 on the Highveld.

On paper it does not look as if any horses can stop him from the latter achievement, but will the altitude factor affect his performance?

A study of the effects of altitude on racehorses has never been done for the reason that South Africa is the only major racing country in the world where it is considered an issue.

However, South African trainers have their own theories learnt through trial and error over decades of practice.

Five-times national champion trainer Geoff Woodruff is well qualified to speak about the impact of altitude, having trained out of Cape Town as well as Johannesburg, while he has also campaigned extensively in Kwazulu-Natal.

Looking at the production of haemoglobin from a practical point of view, he said, “You tend to have to work them harder at altitude. In order to get a horse fitter it has to reach a stage where it is in oxygen debt. Incrementally, you will work the horse to reach this stage until it is fit enough to race, and at altitude horses need to be fitter to race because the oxygen content of the air is less.”

It stands to reason a horse trained at high altitude that will start going into oxygen debt at the two furlong mark in a Johannesburg race might still be debt free by the furlong mark when raiding at sea level.

Woodruff recalled El Picha (Tough Critic) had a naturally low “blood count” (haemoglobin measurement).

He had won seven races in Cape Town, including a Grade 3, by the time Woodruff moved to Johannesburg to take over the yard of his brother-in-law, Tony Millard.

However, he reckoned that in El Picha’s first three months in Johannesburg his blood count improved “out of sight”. He reaped the benefit by going on to win two Durban July’s in succession as well as the Summer Cup and he also finished second in The Met. 

However, Woodruff is adamant it takes from three months to six months for a horse to acclimatise in Johannesburg, unless the horse is a sprinter or sprint-miler.

He cited the case of a horse called Parade Prince (Parade Leader).

This horse had run eight times in the Cape as a three-year-old in the 2008/2009 season without a win before arriving at his Johannesburg yard.

He promptly won a maiden over 1450m by four lengths, but then took six months to find his feet before winning five races, all over a mile, in the next seven months.

However, he said an extenuating factor in his thinking was the long almost 1500km journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg, which might also have had an effect on the horses he brought from the coast up to the Highveld. 

When raiding from the coast to high altitude, it is generally accepted horses taking part in sprints up to a mile have a better chance and it is better to arrive as close to the race as possible.

Alistair Gordon, who was based at Summerveld, said, “Sprinters are better off and up to a mile you’ve got a chance. But there are no rules. Some horses handle altitude and others don’t. I had a horse called Saintly Lady (Peacetime) that won a Grade 1 in Johannesburg, but couldn’t win a B division race in Durban. I’ve also won races up to two miles on the Highveld. We used to travel on a Thursday for a Saturday race, but the roads weren’t as good back then. But, I remember the November Handicap (a Grade 1 over a mile) once being postponed for a week due to rain. The Durban horses had to stay up there and should have had no chance according to the theories, but still filled five of the first six places.”

Admittedly, Durban was the strongest racing centre back in those days. 

Woodruff also pointed out that Summerveld, from which most KZN horses raided, is at an altitude of over 700m, despite being only 35km from the sea.

“It is already more than a third of the altitude of Johannesburg and from there a horse can get away with a run over any distance,” he said. “I remember David Payne finishing first, second and third in the IGN Gold Bowl over 3200m at Turffontein in the 1980s. He took his most fancied couple, White Tie Affair (Sir Tristram) and Sweet Secret, up for a preparation run over 1800m and left them up there. He raided with the outsider of the party, Golden Peak (Peacetime), from Summerveld. Golden Peak won (at odds of 25-1) beating White Tie Affair (evens) and Sweet Secret (Peacetime) (20-1) into second and third.” 

That result might also have proved Woodruff’s theories on acclimatisation in Johannesburg, which, as mentioned earlier, he reckoned took three to six months.

Woodruff reckoned horses could need five to six weeks to recover merely from raiding the Hollywoodbets Scottsville course in Pietermaritzburg from the old Clairwood training centre at sea level in Durban, even though the altitude in Pietermaritzburg is only 650m.

“Horses take quite a chemical shunt at altitude when raiding from the coast and need time to normalise,” he said. 

This, coupled with the arduous journey, is perhaps one of the reasons Cape Town horses seldom raid Johannesburg.

One point of agreement among trainers is that coastal horses campaigning on the Highveld hit a flat spot roundabout three weeks after arriving.

Dennis Drier had twelve winners during a two month campaign on the Highveld in the 2006/2007 season. 

He said, “For the first three weeks of my campaign all of them ran to the form I expected. But they hit a slight dip at the three week mark. Some of them weren’t finishing their work and were a bit off their feed. But two weeks later they were back to normal again.”

Gavin Van Zyl, based at Summerveld, has had much success on the Highveld including on his current campaign. 

He said, “I was told by a top trainer that the flat spot starts at the 19 day mark. Personally I have found that the horses will be flat between the 19th and 21st day.”

Another factor that some believe plays a part in a successful raid or campaign of the Highveld is the weather.

During rainy seasons, oxygen concentrations tend to be higher because the rain interacts with oxygen in the air as it falls.

Mike Bass, a many-times Cape Champion trainer, had success with his three-year-old gelding English Garden (Camden Park) in a Highveld campaign in 2011 where he won the Grade 1 SA Classic over 1800m, and another Cape Town horse, the Vaughan Marshall-trained Top Seller (Al Mufti), finished second.

English Garden was subsequently an unlucky second in the SA Derby.

English Garden spent the first month at altitude doing slow work and Bass reckoned the wet weather over this period had also contributed to the success of the Cape campaigners.

Furthermore, English Garden was a known “bleeder” and scientific studies have shown that Exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH) has a higher prevalence and greater severity at sea level.

However, this might be due to factors other than altitude, for example non-sweating in thoroughbreds is associated with high temperatures and humidity and there is a correlation between non-sweating and EIPH.

Kommetdieding will have been on the Highveld for just under five weeks when running in the Horse Chestnut on April 2.

The Highveld has also had a huge amounts of rain since he has been there.

According to some of the anecdotal evidence stated above the altitude should not effect him as he will be over the three week flat period and there should be plenty of oxygen in the air due to the wet weather.

However, other bits of the evidence create some reason for concern.

His trainer Michelle Rix said last week an analysis of his blood had showed him to have adapted to altitude much better than they had believed he would.

Of course there is one theory that states, “A horse who is good enough will win on the moon.”

But only the race will tell.

Picture: Kommetdieding at home in Cape Town (Chase Liebenberg).