12/11/2006 12:00AM

Don't gauge workouts by time

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There were many who discounted Invasor's chances to win the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 4 because he had no meaningful prep race during September or October. Six months earlier, there were just as many skeptical horseplayers and professional observers who discounted unbeaten Barbaro's chances to overcome a five-week gap from the Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby.

Obviously, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin showed special skill bringing Invasor to peak form via a series of well-spaced, well-designed workouts, just as trainer Michael Matz unleashed a razor-sharp Barbaro on a good Derby field.

Notwithstanding Todd Pletcher's overwhelming statistical edge in stakes and money won this year that probably will result in another Eclipse Award, it can be argued that Matz and McLaughlin did the best training jobs this year.

In each case, they utilized a blend of workouts and long gallops to get their respective horses ready for the two most prestigious and most demanding 1 1/4 mile-races in America. Their work was in fact, reminiscent of the way the late Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham would gear up one of his top older horses for a winning seasonal debut at 1 1/4 miles in March at Santa Anita.

Whittingham, who died in 1999 a week after his 86th birthday, was a veritable Zen master with morning workouts, a man whose training methods probably should be studied by budding trainers in contemporary times when so many horses at every level of competition are either returning from forced interruptions to their racing schedules, or are purposefully kept out of races to complete ultra-brief campaigns.

Still, workouts have a mixed reputation as a valued handicapping tool. On one hand there is great mistrust over the accuracy of specific clockings, which is an indictment of the agencies that supervise racing in each state. On the other, too many horseplayers overvalue fast workouts that merely validate that a relatively fast horse still has its speed.

With respect to the inaccurate clockings of workouts in some jurisdictions, it still is possible to look at other elements of a workout regimen to get a feel for the horse's present physical condition. At the bottom line, players should keep in mind that a well-designed workout regimen is intended to advance a horse's physical condition and/or teach him to do something new, not to demonstrate a horse's inherent talent.

With that in mind, different training patterns are popular in different regions on the country.

Southern California trainers tend to work their horses more often and at a faster clip than Midwestern and South Central trainers.

New York-based trainers and south Florida trainers tend to work their horses almost as often as Southern California trainers but not at the same high level of speed. In both regions there are racing surfaces that are secret weapons for trainers who excel with layoff types.

In south Florida, for example, the Payson Park and Palm Meadows training facilities are deeper than the racing surface in use at Gulfstream Park. Trainers Bill Mott and Christophe Clement are two experts who regularly prepare their layoff types for top efforts via seemingly slow workouts on these deeper surfaces.

Likewise, the Saratoga training track serves a similar role for Clement and Mott and has been used extensively by Todd Pletcher, Nick Zito, and several others who regularly have compiled solid win rates with absentees and first timers in recent years. Zito is an intriguing case study.

A low-percentage winner with first timers for several years, Zito gained insights into preparing newcomers for a sharp try while observing the conditioning edge he gained for his young horses while they worked and galloped on the deeper Saratoga training track. Now his young horses that have a blend of modestly clocked, well-spaced, four- and five-furlong works are ready to fire.

At relatively minor tracks, it is rare to see any horse with a steady stream of workouts. Most trainers with lower level claimers at these tracks tend to rely almost exclusively on gallops and jogs to keep their horses in shape without pushing them into another layoff. That, of course, diminishes the value of workouts for handicapping purposes, with one powerful exception that requires more than reading past performance lines.

If you know a horse has a bowed tendon, (which can only be seen in person), any horse that gets a timed workout in between starts is a horse that is likely to be fit and ready for a solid performance. Trainers do not work horses with bowed tendons unless they are tight as a drum and the work is being used to prime the pump.

Otherwise, on the major and near-major racing circuits, there are a long list of workout-line concepts that can lead to winners, but for the purposes of this peek into that aspect of handicapping, here are a few as they relate to distance horses. At least one pattern is counterintuitive to what many seem to believe about workouts and how to use them:

* When a horse is being stretched out in distance, the relative speed of recent works has almost no value. It is far more positive to see a workout or two at a distance longer than he has been racing and/or two or more works at his customary distance.

* For proven distance horses returning from layoffs, it is similarly positive to see a series of relatively short works every five to seven days totaling 16 or more furlongs during a span of 30 days. Good layoff trainers tend to give their natural distance horses a speed-sharpening move or a series of such moves within a program of long, strong gallops.

A good example of this counterintuitive training approach can be seen in the workout line of Saint Stephen, a Christophe Clement-trained absentee shipper from the East who trained in steady fashion over the Cushion Track at Hollywood for his victory in the 1 1/8- mile Native Diver Handicap on Dec. 10.

Of course a combination of long and short works would be of equal value for other trainers who have winning experience using that pattern. To get a fix on the specific training patterns of individual trainers, it is highly recommended to compare the workout line associated with a handful of winning absentees and/or distance horses prepared by that trainer during the past several months.

Finally, here is another workout tidbit that has played an important role in races at Hollywood Park this fall.

Horses training on the Cushion Track at Hollywood apparently have gained valuable conditioning via moderately clocked workouts over that comfortable surface compared with those working bullets over the ultra-glib Santa Anita racing surface. As a consequence, I expect to see plenty of fit horses shipping over from Hollywood to run at Santa Anita when that track opens for its four-month meet on Dec. 26.