04/18/2010 11:00PM

Believe your own eyes


As we draw closer to the 136th Kentucky Derby on May 1, astute players know that there is gold to be mined by watching and evaluating Derby training moves, especially those that occur over the Churchill Downs racing strip.

In very few previous Derbies has a horse suddenly improved his form without serving notice during the final week to 10 days of Derby training. For example, Ferdinand outworked the top Oaks-bound filly Hidden Light for Charlie Whittingham prior to his 1986 upset Derby win. It similarly was true for the talented but erratic Alysheba as he perked up during his Derby Week works in '87.

Likewise, Unbridled and Summer Squall both trained superbly in 1990 prior to their one-two Derby finish, and there have been others, including Silver Charm and Captain Bodgit, who worked strongly before their close one-two finish in '97.

Barbaro in 2006 also worked strongly to serve notice of his impeccable fitness despite a controversial five-week layoff. So many others could be cited here who worked forwardly to justify their high Derby rankings or were destined to outrun their odds. Even last year, there was a small handful of observers who insist that the ultimate longshot Mine That Bird was the picture of health in his daily Derby Week training moves. On the flip side, there have been numerous examples of highly ranked Derby contenders who telegraphed poor Derby performances via subpar works, or minor injuries or illnesses.

Unbridled's Song had quarter crack problems that made him vulnerable in the 1996 Derby. In 1998, Derby favorite Indian Charlie did not work nearly as well as stablemate Real Quiet. In 2003, Empire Maker had hoof issues that cost him a few days of Derby Week training that clearly led to Funny Cide's reversal of their Wood Memorial decision. Fact is, any setback during the final week or so leading up to the Derby is cause to seriously downgrade a prospective contender.

That is why the lung infection that Noble's Promise has been dealing with since his troubled fifth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby is a major blow to that horse's Derby chances. Unless he fully recovers in track-record time and trains beautifully for trainer Kenny McPeek, the Derby will be a lost cause.

So what should we look for from the obvious contenders, Eskendereya, Lookin At Lucky, Sidney's Candy, and the horses who improved dramatically to score upset victories in their final Derby prep races? What can we hope to see for ourselves in the works that are televised, or broadcast on the Internet, or reported to us by trusted clockers on the scene?

As someone who clocked and analyzed Derby Week workouts for various newspapers between 1977 through the late 1990s, here are the principal guidelines that frequently led to some great Derby plays:

* Derby horses who work in company have to beat their workmates. If they do not, they should gallop out strongly and come off the track full of energy. If they cannot handle their workmates or leave the track huffing and puffing, they should be seriously downgraded unless they show unmistakable, dramatic improvement in their next training moves.

* It is most positive for a horse to finish his final furlong or final quarter-mile split at least as fast as he completed the initial furlongs. This is especially true for the longest Derby Week training drill. If a horse fails to do this, he is unlikely to handle the demands of this difficult 1 1/4-mile race. The lone exception to this in recent years was Hard Spun, who showed remarkable early speed in his extremely fast five-furlong Derby Week workout, only to tire noticeably before pulling up abruptly without a positive gallop out. Yet this incredibly fast workout was an ingenious piece of training orchestrated by Larry Jones, who wanted Hard Spun to dominate the pace and believed he had built into the colt plenty of stamina through his overall training and racing program. He almost pulled it off, finishing second in 2007. Other than that, however, there are no horses in my notebooks that tired noticeably in their Derby Week workouts who were able to stay the trip.

* If you can witness Derby Week workouts in person or watch them on HRTV, or via the Internet, fine; but if not, pay attention to DRF's expert workout analyst Mike Welsch as he gives his impressions and reports on the way each Derby contender gallops out after a workout. Also, pay attention to Welsch's comments when the horse comes back to the track for a gallop a few days after his key Derby Week workout. This, in fact, is the best clue to whether a horse gained from his recent work, or the work took something out of him. In addition to Welsch's fine reports, there will be other experienced workout analysts publishing their opinions, including Bruno DeJulio in Today's Racing Digest and yours truly via Trackmaster.com and Bodog.com.

* Eliminate any horse that suddenly is forced to deal with an injury or illness of any kind. Derby Week is no time to deal with mishaps or interruptions in regular training.

* Horses with no prior dirt racing experience may not be properly evaluated by mere dirt workouts. But, if they have dirt racing pedigrees and seem to be training very well over the Churchill Downs racing surface, I would expect them to run their race on Derby Day. That said, I also would want good odds to include such horses for play.

* Disregard the seeming importance of a horse who is acting antsy before or during his morning workouts or gallops. Sometimes this is due strictly to an abundance of good energy coming to the surface rather than an irritation unnerving the horse in front of the media horde that attends key Derby workouts. Fusaichi Pegasus was a great example of how a very talented, high-strung horse can give the wrong impression through seemingly erratic behavior. In the hands of a master trainer such as Neil Drysdale, or any of the fine contemporary trainers on this year's Derby scene, I would not hold such antics against an otherwise talented Derby horse.

* If a horse does have a known temperamental issue, such as the extremely fast Eightyfiveinafifty, I would wonder if he might be too immature to win the Derby. Even if Eightyfiveinafifty beats the tough field that will be running in the Derby Trial at Churchill on Saturday, with his tendency for erratic behavior, his entry into the Kentucky Derby might be akin to a drag racer with a steering problem going in the Indy 500.

* Horses that seem to be losing significant weight during Derby Week are complete throwouts. Losing any weight at all en route to the big race is a sign of a horse moving in the wrong direction at the wrong time. The same is true for a loss of body color. Very few horses with relatively dull coats have in fact managed to hit the board in my lifetime. Right now I cannot remember one.

* Horses gingerly handled during Derby Week are unlikely to produce their best form. The Derby is not won by a horse that has been shyly prepared since his last start. The Derby is not like any other stakes race, no matter how many trainers say so to deflect the intense pressure they feel building up towards Derby Day.

Frankly, the old bromide that was circulated decades ago by a handful of wise horsemen and cited often by the late and great Joe Hirsch still seems true. Said Joe to a young reporter covering his first Derby in 1973: "The Derby is won by the fittest horse, the Preakness by the fastest, and the Belmont by the best."

Just so happens that Secretariat was all three that year. But in my judgment, those still are sage words to bet by.