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Kentucky Derby: A clocker's job isn't easy, but often rewarding
By Mike Welsch
The first time my editor at the Daily Racing Form approached me about reporting on Kentucky Derby workouts was during the winter of 2000. The conversation went something like this.
“I’ve never really clocked horses in the morning,” I told the boss. “Heck, I don’t even own a stopwatch.”
“Well go out and get one,” he said. “How hard can it be?”
And so, in approximately the same time it took Fusaichi Pegasus to win the Derby that year, I embarked on a new endeavor, not only providing workout analysis for every Derby and Breeders’ Cup over the last 14 years, but also manning the clocker’s booth on a daily basis on my regular circuit in south Florida and summers at Saratoga as well. That workout information is now available in Daily Racing Form, in DRF Weekend, or in the online feature Game Plan.
Fusaichi Pegasus made the job easy, even for a novice like myself, at my first Derby. Even though he did all his work well before dawn under the cover of darkness (they had no lights at Churchill Downs during training hours as they do now), “Fu Peg” was so big, so strong and so powerful he could not only be seen, he could be heard exploding down the stretch like a freight train at the end of his seven-furlong workout a week before the race. The move had “Derby winner” stamped all over it.
Maybe my boss was right. How hard could it be?
By the time my second Derby rolled around, I owned three watches, a tape recorder and a baby flashlight. I’d become a seasoned veteran, or so I thought. In reality, after sitting outside on the fourth floor of the Calder grandstand, or in the press box at the “old” Gulfstream Park, morning after morning, I quickly realized how difficult a task the official track clockers faced, especially during the frenetic minutes after renovation breaks when they each must time (and, if possible, obtain fractional splits) on two or more horses at once while also keeping tabs on how the riders are handling their mounts and making note of equipment and marks for later identification.
That situation is exacerbated during the special 15-minute break set aside for Derby and Kentucky Oaks horses each spring at Churchill, when the majority of Derby horses will breeze. With, on occasion, as many as four Derby runners working simultaneously, it helps having colleagues like Jay Privman and Marty McGee to record splits a furlong at a time so watches can be cleared as quickly as possible. David Grening, a pretty handy guy with a stopwatch himself, also pitches in during a mad rush if needed.
By the time I arrived for the 2001 Derby, I’d really only learned four things. My boss was wrong, it wasn’t that easy. I hated getting up at 5 a.m. And, despite the early alarm, not only was clocking fun, it also proved to be as fruitful a handicapping tool as there is in Thoroughbred racing.
There are some who may dispute that statement. I know several veteran handicappers who give no weight to morning workouts even before major events like the Derby and Breeders’ Cup. They pore over speed figures, trip notes, pace numbers and whatever else they use to assess a race and, sometimes, even come up with a winner or two.
Nowadays, everybody has access to the speed figures, or video replays to come up with the same trip notes. Aside from the Derby and, on occasion, the Breeders’ Cup, where final workouts are now scrutinized a lot more closely than in the past, clocking horses remains a virtually untapped source of handicapping information shared by a precious few (except in southern California, where it seems there are private clockers all over the grandstand).
Fusaichi Pegasus was the first of a number of 3-year-olds who flourished and caught my eye in the weeks leading up to the past 13 Derbies. Unfortunately, not all of them took home the roses. Empire Maker comes immediately to mind. He looked a sure winner after turning in an eye-catching workout a week before the 2003 Derby. But it became apparent, when he returned to the track several days later, that he did not come out of that impressive drill 100 percent. Suffering from a minor foot injury, Empire Maker turned in a gallant effort on Derby day, finishing second behind Funny Cide. Five weeks later, with his foot healed, Empire Maker turned the tables on Funny Cide and prevented yet another Triple Crown with a comfortable victory in the Belmont Stakes.
There have been others who ran like they trained, made clockers like myself look smart, and paid generous prices to boot. Derby winners like Barbaro ($14.20), Street Sense ($11.80), and most recently Animal Kingdom ($43.80).
It didn’t take a genius to list Barbaro as a major Derby contender in 2006. He came into the race undefeated and off a game victory in the Grade 1 Florida Derby.
But Barbaro appeared to face a serious challenge from the rapidly improving Illinois Derby winner Sweetnorthernsaint. The two were on a collision course for Derby favoritism as they headed into their final works, which took place on the same morning one week before the race.
It had become strikingly evident leading up to his memorable work that Barbaro was training like no other that spring at Churchill. Although he had the high action of a turf horse, his energy level was so high, his gallops so strong, I was expecting to see something special when trainer Michael Matz turned him loose for his final Derby trial - just not something as special as what transpired.
With exercise rider Peter Brette sitting like a statue in the saddle, Barbaro glided through an easy half mile in a breath-taking 46 seconds, then just kept going and going and going, pulling up seven furlongs and then a mile faster than most good horses run. Better yet, he bounced out of the work as sharp, if not sharper, than he went into it.
Sweetnorthernsaint, on the other hand, worked well, but nothing like Barbaro. It also became evident he was not the same horse after the work as he was before it.
The rest was history. Barbaro cruised to an easy win, whereas Sweetnorthernsaint, who was the post-time favorite, finished seventh.
The only other 3-year-old to turn in a Barbaro-like work at Churchill a week before Derby Day − although Street Sense came close a year later − was a horse who didn’t actually run in the Derby. I’m talking about Rachel Alexandra, whose jaw-dropping final trial before her unprecedented 20-length Oaks victory was not only a privilege to witness but a clear statement that she’d have been a handful for the boys if given the opportunity to compete in the Derby that spring. That theory was borne out two weeks later, when she defeated Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Preakness.
The 2013 Derby is begging for one of the leading contenders to make a similar statement in the days leading up to the big event. Who that might be is a question I’ll keep asking myself each morning as I wake up at 5, gather my watches, tape recorder, and flashlight and head out to Churchill in hopes of seeing the next Fusaichi Pegasus, Barbaro, or Street Sense strut their stuff training up to this year’s Derby.
Great column Mike. You're work and dedication have, for this player, at least, brought much context and value to the mere workout times and "b" or "h" notations. That I missed seeing your reports on AK's workouts last year is a painful reminder of that!
I remember witnessing Smarty Jones work :59 about a week out with Willie Martinez in the saddle and turning to my best race track buddy and saying there is no way they are beating this horse. I have not witnessed a work in person as good as that one since, but I only get on the backside every once in a while even though I live in Louisville. It was without a doubt something where you walked away and thought "WOW".
I appreciate the dedication and effort that goes into this every year. Also, appreciate the work for other big races. The race is over in a flash. The fun is in the build up to these great races. Will be following the reports this week and look forward to final reports prior to the Oaks and Derby. Thanks for the background story!
Great article and work. Mike does a wonderfully informative analysis of each work and really aids into the players or causual fan's opinion of any derby horse. Does anyone know if there is an article on here that goes into horse appearance? I remember vividly watching the post parade and the march to the gate for the derby that Funny Cide won. I remember catching a glimpse of Funny Cide before he went into the gate and was so impressed. He was alert, ears pricked, kept on his toes, he just looked like he was ready to run. I remember a friend at work (who only watches the derby) turn to me and say wow that horse looks great! I knew my win and exacta bet with Empire Maker would pay off. I always try to catch that on youtube but have yet to find a video that has more of the post parade and the horses loading to see how he looked again.
The one work that I witnessed that simply blew me away at the time was Barbaro's magnificent work a week out. I was so convinced he would win the Derby, I answered my phone the entire week with "Barbaro, Derby Champ". If only it were always so easy.....
Mike, I waited three weeks to get the word from you on Animal Kingdom at CD. It was the only piece left of the puzzle (and then I got a huge rider switch to JV as well!) and I made life changing money in that derby. I would have made the same bets, but I made them heavier after your report. You have become a great part of handicapping the derby. Many thanks.
He'll be there Tuesday....
Brilliant Mr. Welsch !!! Love the historical insights and i recall that Barbaro move :46 b JUMPING OFF THE PAGE. He was also fresh having had only two preps that spring. What a shame he was taken far too soon.
Great stuff as always Mike
Thanks for this insightful article. I follow your reports closely each year. Yeah, computer chips might be cool for catching times, but the real value of your reports is not about the clock times, it's about your insights into which horses are doing well (and which ones aren't) and which horses like that track (and which ones don't). You've helped me a lot. Thanks for sharing your process.