Drills Pay the Bills?

By Joe Kristufek

If you've ever attended Breakfast at Arlington, or just ventured to a racetrack in the morning and spent a little time on the apron, you're familiar with the organized chaos that is the morning workout period.

From the crack of dawn until 10 a.m., dozens of horses will be out on the racetrack -- walking, cantering, jogging or galloping. The scene resembles an equine free-for-all, but that's not the case. This is the time for horses on the backside to get out, stretch their legs on the track, and in many cases record official workouts, clocked by employees of the track. 

So how important are workouts in the overall evaluation of a racehorse?

Often times, handicappers fall into the workout trap. They assume that since a horse works fast in the mornings, he or she will perform well in the afternoons. That isn't always the case.

Impressive workout times for young horses and those returning from layoffs can often lead to short prices and lots of losers. In most cases, horses do not employ workout partners, and therefore stamina and competitive spirit are rarely an issue.

A horse can work a fast five furlongs, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are going to compete well going six furlongs. A horse who works fast in the morning, but fails to flash the same sort of zeal in the afternoon, are known as a "morning glory".

On the flip side, some horses simply take the Allen Iverson approach - they don't take practice seriously, but when the bell rings in the afternoon, they're ready to give it all they've got.

To me, seeing a published work or two between starts is always a positive. It's a sign of overall health. The trainer is trying to maintain the horse's fitness. I love when a young, developing horse with talent races well, works 10 days later, and then is entered to run with plenty of spacing between starts.

If a horse wins a hard race, tend to stay away from him/her if they return to compete without a work between starts. That's where the "bounce" theory most often comes into play. Instead of taking his/her time, the trainer is jamming the horse, trying to pick up another paycheck.

With first-time starters, I like to see a variety of distances in their exercise, with gate workouts mixed in. It indicates that the horse is not only getting fit, but is also learning lessons.

On the other hand, too many gate works, particularly in succession, is usually a strong indication that the horse is having problems with the break. I tend to avoid them first time out, guessing that professionalism may be lacking.

The speed and recency of workouts isn't nearly as important for older, cheaper horses who have a lot of miles on them.

Proceed with caution if you see a horse with several gaps on their work tab. When approaching a debut effort or a run off the bench, horses will usually work every seven to 10 days. If a horse has longer gaps between drills, there's usually a reason, and it's not a positive one.

If a horse is adding blinkers for the first time, check to see if they have worked since last raced. If those moves are exceptional, chances are the equipment was tested in the morning, and that it will help in the afternoon.

If, after a series of good runs, a horse goes south without warning, chances are they are in dire need of some time off. If they head toward their return to competition with a series of solid workouts behind them, chances are they will be ready to regain their best form.

The bad races in their most recent running lines will throw off most handicappers, but the solid return drills are a sign that the horse is happy, and ready to run.

There are a couple of other workout angles that can potentially give you an edge at the windows.

If a horse fires a particularly good workout, for example a breezing five-furlong move that was third best amongst the 60 horses that worked that distance that particularly morning. Check out the work tab on equibase.com and find out just who that horse worked faster than. Did they outperform a list of stakes winners, or just average horses?

Also, check the tabs for works that won't show up on a horse's past performances. Remember, the races are drawn three or four days in advance. If you print the pp's immediately, a work that occurred AFTER the time of entry won't appear. A blowout a day or two before a race often has a horse on edge for a big run.

Listen to track announcer John G. Dooley for any late "added" workouts. The clockers are exceptional at identifying horses and timing their works, BUT with so many horses on the track at one time, it is possible for a few to slip through the cracks.

Also, know your trainers. Some work their horses fast, others prefer to not to push their stock too hard in the mornings. Some trainers use 115-pound jockeys in the morning, while others prefer to have 150-pound exercise riders work their horses.

Workouts from horses out of the barns of Michele Boyce, Scott Becker, Charlie Bettis, Danny Peitz and Christine Janks tend to be fast, while the drill times for stock emerging from the stables of Mike Reavis, Jim Gulick, Wayne Catalano and Hugh Robertson are typically on the slow side.

Knowing which trainers work their horses fast in the morning and those who don't can lead to some winners. For example, if a Hugh Robertson horse fires a bullet (fastest time of the day at the distance) five-furlong work 10 days before a race, chances are he/she is ready to run a big race. Horses from this barn don't typically work fast, so when they do it's important to take notice.

So how has Arlington's Polytrack affected the action in the morning?

Well, it's made the clocker's job a lot tougher. The Arlington work tab is loaded almost every day. The track never gets wet, so there are no missed days of training.

Several horseman have also told me that it's tougher to get a horse fit on Polytrack, so the horses have to work more often and at longer distances in order to build a solid foundation.

The moral of this story is that drills can pay the bills, but they're just one piece in a much bigger puzzle.