Reinventing the Wheel - the Kurt Equine Training System
By Niki Sweetnam
The combined forces of Italian trainer Daniele Camuffo and the enigmatic Turkish businessman Mehmet Kurt have brought to fruition a project first dreamt up by Kurt himself more than a decade ago.
The Kurt Equine Training System has been endorsed by some of the world’s leading veterinary surgeons and research groups, and the results of horses trained on it are already beginning to speak volumes for its future potential. From 12 juvenile runners this season, 3 have raced and all have won or placed, showing no signs of physical or mental stress at any stage.
A specialist equine vet for more than 30 years, it was Italian Marco Astrologo who introduced Kurt to the then Rome-based trainer Camuffo, knowing that Kurt was looking for a good trainer with an open mind to come and work with him in Turkey and turn his 10 years worth of research, investment, development and modification on his invention into reality. The Kurt stable had won 2 Turkish Derbys, on both occasions with European trainers (1993 with the aptly named The Best and in 1999 with Bartrobel); Camuffo had come to the realisation that there was no longer much of a living to be made out of training in Italy as costs spiralled, owners thinned and prize money levels swung. Born in 1963 and a licensed trainer since 1989, a disillusioned Camuffo travelled to Turkey on the invitation of Kurt and loved the opportunity he saw. A blank page, top class facilities at his private base near Istanbul, the chance to work with Kurt and break new ground in the application of science to the art of training thoroughbreds.
“I’m a traditionalist” Camuffo announces, contradictory to what one may think. “I don’t like the idea of training horses by machine. Human intervention is critical, the human eye makes training an art, not a science, but in the development of his skill an artist should avail of the most modern techniques, the most high-tech instruments, the newest chemical mix of powders, resins, oils, water, in order to achieve perfection.” Since Camuffo’s move out to Turkey less than 2 years ago, the pair have modified and fine-tuned Kurt’s brain-child to perfection. Knowing precisely what they wanted to achieve, and having a dedicated team behind them has allowed them to overcome numerous minor technical and practical problems, and the fact that the invention has been funded entirely by Kurt himself has eliminated bureaucracy and red-tape. In short, the Turkish inventor’s dream has become the Italian trainer’s reality.
It is clear that the driving force between Team Kurt is Kurt himself, who has invested his cotton fortune in his passion for horses. Kurt, Astrologo, and Camuffo work closely together on the horses with the back-up of the Kurt Group office team which is overseen by Kurt’s daughters. They are joined by a small but diligent Turkish workforce at the training centre and the former Portuguese dressage trainer Jorge Almeida. “In Turkey, as elsewhere, good jockeys are hard to come by. The Kurt Training System alleviates this problem and provides a more consistent work-out for individual horses at the same time as eliminating many of the risks associated with working young thoroughbreds at high speeds. Of course we are not aiming to substitute jockey for robot, it is all about the achievement of maximum fitness with minimum risk. Our young horses do not have a different rider on board each morning, are not subject to variances in human mood, smell, handling, do not pull, do not take off, do not develop uneven muscle tone due to rider imbalance, do not work outside their ideal heart rate zone. As you can imagine, this vastly reduces both physical and mental stress for them. Consequently, when a jockey does get on board a couple of times a week, the horses are infinitely more manageable, better balanced, and thus less prone to injury. As a trainer this takes a good 80% of the risk out of the job.” explains Camuffo, leaving the obvious unsaid, that his own physical and mental stress as a trainer is consequently reduced to a minimum. In his experience, the Kurt horses are also better ‘do-ers’, stomach ulcers being one of the main manifestations of stress in a racehorse. The light-framed Camuffo keeps to a sensible riding weight as horses work typically four days per week on the system, are ridden two days and rest a day.
Whilst it may be hard to see the Kurt Training System’s acceptance in traditional European racing circles for some time to come, there has already been significant interest from the Arab Emirates and America. Given the initial level of investment required (and the fact that it is equally suitable for training camels!), this is not surprising. Indeed many of Kurt’s business contacts are in the States and word there is spreading fast, so much so that daily enquiries come into the Kurt Group office, requests for visits to Turkey so see the machines in action from vets and trainers alike.
Doctor Wayne McIlwraith from Colorado State University is one such recent visitor to Istanbul. He sites a number of uses for the Kurt Training System. The safe training of young horses up to relatively fast work with decreased need of exercise riders was the primary reason behind Kurt’s development of the system. McIlwraith goes on however to explain from a veterinary viewpoint its beneficial role in the musculoskeletal conditioning of young horses. Weanlings have been worked on the machine on an early conditioning programme to build muscle and strengthen bone with the aim of reducing injuries once they went into full training. Furthermore, McIlwraith highlights its potential use as a post-operative rehabilitation tool, decreasing the need for in-hand walking and providing a safe, consistent environment for the gentle, controlled exercise required for optimum recovery after surgery. All this can happen on a more natural training surface than that of the traditional treadmill.
Professor David Evans from the University of Sydney is another who sees multiple advantages in the use of both the rail (multiple) and single vehicle training systems. In particular he is excited about the single vehicle’s potential as a diagnostic tool. “This kind of ‘mobile laboratory’ has really opened up new opportunities for research. With racehorses, the performance limiting factors that we need to monitor generally occur only at high speed. The advent of the single vehicle training system allows us to assess accurately and in a safe environment the reasons behind poor performance in an individual because horses can work safely up to racing speed. At this speed they can be endoscoped, have pressure sensors attached to under their hooves, we can measure their oxygen uptake, lactic acid production, heart rate, and study the mechanics of their movement ie length, regularity and freedom of stride.” Such measurements also provide the trainer with the basis for an individual’s fitness programme, ensuring that each horse is neither over nor under-trained, that they work within the correct heart rate zone and don’t tie-up, data which Camuffo has at his fingertips on a daily basis to use to his advantage.
From Rome to Istanbul, Camuffo has adapted easily. Istanbul is a bustling, cosmopolitan city like any European capital and English remains the common language for international business, although a basic grasp of Turkish is helpful. There is not a strong tradition of thoroughbred racing in Turkey, the 24 founding members of the Jockey Club back in 1950 have grown to some 120. From its Istanbul headquarters it organises the racing programme in 6 racecourses nationwide as well as the Jockey Club Stud in Izmit. The Istanbul racecourse features a 2020 metre / 10 furlong turf track, a 1870 metre / 9 furlong dirt track and a separate dirt training track of 1720 metres / 8 ½ furlongs and hosts the majority of Turkey’s major races. Breeders have been able to avail of stallions such as Sri Pekan, Common Grounds, Manila, Eagle Eyed and Strike the Gold as the country has opened up to investment in the thoroughbred sector and the importation of foreign mares that meet strict quality control criteria.
Last year Kurt, whose racing stock are all home bred, invested heavily in the breeding stock sales at Goffs and Tattersalls, buying mares in foal to leading European sires such as Acclamation, Dansili and Daylami. He has whittled down the 90 horses that Camuffo found upon his arrival to 70, split between mares, yearlings and horses in training all with the emphasis firmly on quality. Of these, 29 are in training, well, Camuffo is superstitious about the number 8 so he told me to write 29. When he is not training the Kurt string or avoiding the number 8, Camuffo enjoys sailing and for the immediate future is happy with his lot in Turkey. The Romans may have invented the wheel, but the formidable Kurt-Camuffo team have gone one step further!
THE KURT TRAINING VEHICLE
A single training vehicle in a horse-shoe shape with a driver’s cab behind. Horses are neither “pushed” nor “pulled” , the crescent being closed behind by two padded panels behind and the horse restrained by safety cables that support, contain and correct the horse’s forward movement allowing for correct carriage at the various speeds and stages of training. The vehicle is then driven around the track at speeds of up to 60km / 35 miles per hour while cameras monitor its occupant from several angles.
THE KURT MONORAIL SYSTEM
This is a train of box cars on an electric locomotive that is hauled along an overhead track which can be assembled to suit any shape or length of training track. Up to 50 horses can be trained simultaneously on this system. Both prototypes were engineered by Roush Technologies, a British company specialising in vehicle design, engineering and development, in full collaboration with the Kurt Group.
THE SILICONE SADDLE
Silicone saddles of various weights and mouldings have also been developed in conjunction with the Kurt Training System in order to accustom the horse to carrying a jockey’s weight.