04/25/2013 11:30AM

For Kentucky Derby contenders, practice makes perfect

Barbara D. Livingston
Orb (left) works in company with Overwhelming on March 25. Orb’s trainer, Shug McGaughey, likes for his horses to start workouts slow and finish fast.

Two days before the 1989 Kentucky Derby, favorite Easy Goer went through his final timed workout for the race. The work started at Churchill’s half-mile pole, near the end of the backstretch, and as Easy Goer loped around the far turn he clicked off a quarter-mile in a moderate 24.40 seconds. Then trouble came. Let David Carroll, now a trainer but then Easy Goer’s regular morning rider, supply the details.

“There was a horse called Tricky Creek, and he was supposed to two-minute lick from the three-eighths pole to the seven-eighths,” Carroll said. “When I got close to the quarter-pole, and I got close to him, I came up on the inside and the horse got very strong with the girl riding him and just took off with her. I’m going on about my breeze, and now what am I supposed to do? Start over again?”

Tricky Creek’s aggression stoked Easy Goer’s competitive fire, and he lit out after him, going his final quarter-mile at race pace, 22.80 seconds, and galloping out another eighth of a mile almost as fast, in 12.40 seconds. The work was timed in 47.20 seconds, the five-furlong gallop out in 59.80, far faster than trainer Shug McGaughey desired. McGaughey, widely quoted in newspaper reports, did not wait for a private moment to let Carroll know it.

“How could you go out there two times this week and hook up with another horse?” McGaughey wanted to know. “She didn’t know what she was doing,” Carroll protested. “You don`t know what you`re doing,” McGaughey said.

The work snafu might or might not have played a part in Easy Goer’s defeat by Sunday Silence in the Derby, but it demonstrated on a grand stage how easily a workout can go wrong and how important it is to horsemen like McGaughey to get it right. A workout, on the surface, seems simple, but the mechanics can be complex, and works are the most important practice sessions racehorses get. They educate young horses and impart, even to an aging claimer, a final level of fitness. Trainers decide how far and on what surface to race based on works, and gauge varying talent levels by working horses together.

Works before the Derby are endlessly parsed and analyzed. Far fewer eyes see what happens every day at every track in North America − horses doing work, trainers and riders trying to get it right.


In this North American era, horses average about one workout, or breeze, per week. Trainers who work the most might compress works down to five days apart in radical instances, and trainers who work least might breeze only once every 10 or 12 days.

Workouts, timed by official clockers employed by racetracks, occur at distances from two furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. About the only two-furlong works one sees come from 2-year-olds beginning to gain race fitness. Almost nobody works a horse 1 1/8 miles anymore.

A workout is the fastest-paced among several types of regular morning exercise, from jogs to gallops to a two-minute lick, where a horse runs about 15 seconds per furlong. A horse has to work a distance faster than a set time to make the daily published work tab: There are cutoff point like three furlongs faster than 41 seconds, four furlongs faster than 55, and so on. Work times are entered into The Jockey Club’s equine database and become part of a horse’s statistical history. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday are the busiest work days, Tuesdays the slowest. Seasoned horses recognize that a change in morning routine signals an impending fast work.

“They know something’s up,” said exercise rider Hilary Pridham, an assistant to trainer Mike Stidham, and a work rider for more than 20 years. “You can see them start to get worked up in their stall.”

Workouts are rich in racing jargon. “Breezing” and “handily” describe how easily a horse is working. “Gallop-out” is the part of the exercise after the official end of a work. Trainers and riders talk about “going to the pole,” the distance marker where a workout starts, or “breaking off,” being turned loose from a stable pony or simply coming out of a gallop into workout pace.

Trainers watch works from a pony out on the track or from elevated clocker’s stands on the backstretch, or they find a spot in grandstand near the finish line. Most horsemen clock their own works.

“I have a horrible habit of not looking at the [official] work tab,” said trainer Steve Asmussen, who usually watches his workers from his pony. “You clock your horses, you mark your work sheet, you go on about your business.”

Any trainer worth his salt takes careful note of all the entire workout experience: What transpires in the morning leads directly to what happens in the afternoon.

“Most of the time if a horse works bad, he’ll run bad,” McGaughey said. “If he works good, he’ll run good.”


Easy Goer was bred and owned by the Ogden Phipps Stable, raised and broken at storied Claiborne Farm, taught his first lessons by experts in the craft, but even he came up to his earliest workouts needing education.

“As a 2-year-old he was extremely strong to work and to gallop,” Carroll said. “Shug would never have a pony break him off: You would always gallop and break him off alone. It could be tough, but once you got to the pole you were okay.”

For 2-year-olds, workouts serve a dual purpose: gaining fitness and learning to race. Even horses who have been sold at 2-year-old auctions, where they breeze a furlong or two at a fast pace, know only raw running and understand little of actual racing.

“Horses out of a 2-year-old sale, they’re really aggressive at the pole,” said Pridham. “That’s what they’re taught to do. But babies are all different. You get some that handle it right away: They fall into a routine and aren’t scared of anything. Some babies are scared of everything. They come running down the lane like a snake.”

“Your personalities in horses are extremely similar to you personalities in people, from overeager to resistant, and everything in between,” Asmussen said. “We’re just trying to teach them to eat well, rest well, and want to do what’s put in front of them.”

Early 2-year-old works are more about establishing good habits than running fast, and they’re often organized different than the typical workout of an experienced racehorse.

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“Young horses going a quarter-mile or three eighths, you might not even give them Lasix,” Pridham said, referring to the anti-bleeder medication on which many North American horses work. “You might just be galloping and you’ll let them work without them even knowing they’re doing it. Just slowly canter them around, and when you get to the quarter pole, let them gradually pick it up. You want to make it fun for them, not put them under pressure.”

McGaughey concentrates on building stamina – “bottom,” he calls it – in juveniles. There are trainers who focus on winning early-season short 2-year-old sprints. McGaughey wants slower progress.

“You want to get a bottom into them, not let them get too fast or too far ahead of themselves,” he said. “You don’t want them to wake up too much before it’s really time to run.”

Once a young horse starts responding appropriately to a work rider’s cues and develops the stamina to start getting more serious, it’s time for the next step: A little morning competition.


Multiple horse workouts – breezing in company – are the nearest thing a trainer has to a practice race. They move juveniles closer to race readiness but also are widely used by many outfits with horses of all ages. 

“You try to simulate every situation,” Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens said. “If you’re able to set it up, working in company is the right way to work a horse. He will get more out of working with another horse than he will working faster by himself. It’s something that raises their motor in a different way.”

Many trainers work juveniles in sets of three: In a standard formation, there will be a lead horse, a horse to the outside, and a horse in behind. It’s the trailing runner getting the sternest education.

“We’ll let one drop in behind two, learn to eat a little dirt,” McGaughey said.

“You can do a lot more in company,” Pridham said. “We work babies in sets of three a lot to have a horse come up the fence or learn to come between.”

Three-horse works require complex orchestration. If one of the workers doesn’t perform properly, the whole drill goes amiss.

“You have to have competent riders who really understand what you want from them,” Carroll said. “You can screw up those works as easily as get them right.”

Like dancers, the trio must move in controlled harmony, particularly the horses asked to lead.

“You’ve got a set working five-eighths. Yours might break off and get rank, while another rider’s doesn’t take off quickly enough. You’re fighting yours, and he’s trying to get his where he wants him to be,” Pridham said. “They’re not like cars. That’s part of my job – trying to match them properly.”

Putting the right horses together is essential. A good work rider passes information to a trainer about how horses they ride behave during exercise. Does he pull hard? Does he prefer being outside? Will he relax behind another horse? Responsive horses who understand what’s being asked of them can be used as tools to instruct stablemates less easy to handle.

[KENTUCKY DERBY WORKOUTS: Video analysis, news, and times]

“You can put someone behind two manageable horses, someone who is difficult to rate,” Asmussen said. “With horses like that, we will give specific instructions to the rider: Follow the others up to the track, follow them around there, and follow them back to the barn. Do not let them see light. The idea is to get them to turn off, to quit being so impatient.”

Two-horse works are more common than three-horse drills, and here, a trainer must make decisions about how a pair fit together.

“If we’ve done our job matching our horses up when we do our set lists, we’re going to put horses together of similar ability levels,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who will start five horses in this year’s Derby. Pletcher estimates 90 percent of his works are done in company. “You’re looking for similar results. You don’t put a horse fit to go three-eighths with a horse that’s five-eighths fit.”

Some trainers find work partners who click and almost always breeze the same two horses together. Animal Kingdom, winner of the 2011 Derby and the 2013 Dubai World Cup, has been working in company with Badleroibrown for years. It’s a luxury for a stable to have decent horses whose primary function is to partner up with the barn’s stars in the morning.

“It used to be more common that guys who had a lot of horses for the rich people, they’d keep a horse who really liked to work around just to work with their better horses,” Jerkens said.

The idea that work partners should, for the most part, hit the finish close to one another seems almost universal.

“I like them to work together, on the bit, and I don’t like them to be pushed out,” said Mike DeKock, the South African champion trainer who also is among the leading trainers in Dubai. “One thing I generally try never to do is let one horse beat another. Every now and then I’ll let one be a sacrificial lamb if I really think a horse needs to get past a horse and do a good piece of work.”

Asmussen considers a work ideal when a pair of horses hit the finish in tandem: “Both riders come back and tell me, ‘I could have left him at any time.’ You want everybody to feel like a winner in that situation. You don’t want to lose a horse as far as effort and stuff like that.”

Having a large stable with plenty of high-quality runners is a huge asset for a trainer. Smaller outfits can struggle finding appropriate work partners for stronger stock. And a trainer with only a handful of horses might have trouble gauging the quality of a horse he thinks has talent.

“It is required, having a lot of horses, to get basic tools,” Asmussen said. “You see a lot of horses that work well, but it doesn’t matter if they can’t do it against other horses in the afternoon. When you say a horse can run, it’s always in comparison to something else.”


In the early 1960s, Jerkens trained Beau Purple, a graded stakes horse who once worked 1 1/8 miles in 1:48 and two-fifths, a time that would win many graded stakes. One week after that monster drill, Beau Purple went out and won the Hawthorne Gold Cup. A week after that, he returned to win the prestigious Widener Handicap. Jerkens recalls the grueling 1 1/8-mile works trainer Max Hirsch used to put into Assault, winner of the Triple Crown in 1946. Hirsch would send one horse to breeze with Assault during the first half of a work. When that mate would tire and drop out, a second horse would jump into the fray and attempt to finish with Assault.

“We used to work them longer, a lot more frequently, too,” Jerkens said. “We didn’t have any Lasix years ago, and people used to blow them out the morning of the race, clear their phlegm out of their throat.”

Jerkens still packs works closer together than most colleagues, sometimes working a horse twice in four or five days. Now it is not uncommon for a horse approaching a race to go as many as 10 days without working. Trainer Eddie Plesa said Itsmyluckyday, runner-up to Orb in the Florida Derby, was to have his final work for the May 4 Kentucky Derby, an easy half-mile, on April 25.

Back when he was riding Easy Goer, Carroll regularly worked horses a fast three furlongs the day before they raced. The 2-year-old Rhythm, Carroll recalled, sizzled three-eighths in just over 33 seconds the day before he won the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The work, like Easy Goer’s before the Derby, was too fast for McGaughey’s liking.

“Shug came back and never said a word to me,” Carroll said.

Carroll, though, has taken up with the less-is-more approach in the current epoch. “I think we overwork our horses,” he said.

The typical American horse would find an entirely different routine under the care of de Kock, a South African.

“I like to breeze at least twice a week, sometimes three times a week,” he said. “I learned the old-school way from an old-school trainer, and I don’t mind giving multiple workouts in one day, interval training. We do a lot of that, and they do it all the time in England. American horses carry way more condition than our horses. If you have a horse just [galloping] a mile-and-a-half, he’s not going to get his heart rate going high enough. At the end of the day, this is an athlete.”

Working on Polytrack, de Kock will breeze a horse seven furlongs or a mile; working on a heavy sand track on South Africa, he might cut that distance to five or six furlongs. Most works in North America come at four or five furlongs: Trainers like Pletcher and McGaughey rarely breeze a horse beyond five-eighths. But both those outfits focus on the gallop out to an extent that the recorded work distance doesn’t truly reflect the nature of a workout.

“It’s kind of the way I learned,” McGaughey said. “It shows up as a half-mile, but I let them gallop out five-eighths, three-quarters. They’re going to get three quarters in 1:15, and I want them to finish the last quarter-mile or three-eighths.”

McGaughey’s horses don’t often record very fast workout times because he demands that they start slow and finish fast. “I want them to go off in 25 seconds and finish in 24,” he said.

Asmussen often works horses farther than McGaughey – one can regularly find his horses breezing six furlongs – but demands the same slow-early, fast-late approach.

“You want control,” he said. “I want them to leave the pole controlled. For me, everything is relative. If your day starts wrong, it’s going to stay wrong. If your work starts wrong, you can’t correct wrong. If you’re away controlled, you can improve from there.”

“The first eighth can make you or break you,” trainer Al Stall said. “If you go off in 13 and a couple, you’re usually in good shape. If you go off in 12, 11 and change, you’re done. You’re either going to work too fast, or you’re going to get tired before the wire.”

Some trainers aren’t as concerned with starting a work slowly: Horses trained by Larry Jones often break into their drills at a strong clip, working fast all the way through the wire. Jones-trained horses regularly post bullet works, the fastest of the day at a distance.

“Not every horse has to work fast to run fast, but when you’re going into major Grade 1 races, they’re good horses to start with, and good horses work fast,” Jones said. “We don’t go out there to see how fast they’ll work, but we blow them out according to their talent. They need to show they can do that race pace for a certain amount of time. If they’re going to race three-quarters, you’d like to see them be able to work a half-mile in race pace. If I’m fixing to race a mile and an eighth, and I let them break off fast at the five-eighths pole and they get tired, well, then maybe we’re not ready to be in that race.”


During the week or so before the Kentucky Derby, everyone wants to be a workout expert. Every muscle twitch a Derby horse makes on its work day gets attention. High above the track, a dozen unofficial clockers click their stopwatches whenever a Derby horse breaks into anything faster than a jog. But the fact successful trainers employ such vastly divergent styles of working horses can make analysis difficult.

[2013 WORKOUTS: Comparing workout patterns of 16 Kentucky Derby contenders]

Jones loves to recount the furor he created when he worked Hard Spun the Monday before the 2007 Derby. Hard Spun’s final Derby prep came in the Lanes End Stakes at Turfway Park because the colt failed to handle the track surface at Oaklawn Park, where Jones had been stabled. Having watched Hard Spun spin his wheels at Oaklawn, Jones needed to see how Hard Spun would handle the Churchill surface. A slow work wouldn’t reveal enough, so Jones, as is his way, let Hard Spun roll: His five-furlong work was timed in 57.60 seconds, almost two seconds better than the next-fastest five-furlong work that day. “Too fast!” cried the chorus of work watchers.

“If they were on the Hard Spun bandwagon before, they were off it now,” said Jones, who was validated when Hard Spun set a fast pace and finished a fine second to Street Sense in the Derby.

Other horses have run well in the Derby after working raggedly or not at all during Derby week. Ice Box, the tough-luck runner-up in 2010, didn’t work between April 23 and the May 1 race. “Closing Argument, I remember he was the same way,” said Stall, who stables at Churchill and long has been a keen observer of Derby week works. Closing Argument, who had a modest five-furlong breeze five days out, finished second at odds of 70-1.

“The importance of these workouts, it might be overrated,” said Stall, who sent Blame out to win the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic by a nose over Zenyatta. “Blame, he worked a half-mile by himself in 49 and 4 the Monday before the Breeders’ Cup. Meanwhile, Zenyatta, she goes seven-eighths with two other horses the week before. They hit the wire together off totally different works.”

Totally different works also distinguish the first two finishers – Orb and Itsmyluckyday – in the Florida Derby, which could easily turn out to be the key Kentucky Derby prep this year.

Since 1989, when Easy Goer finished second and Awe Inspiring third, McGaughey has started only one horse in the Derby, Saarland, who finished 10th in 2002, and Orb is the best spring 3-year-old McGaughey has trained since Easy Goer. Orb won’t be doing anything like Easy Goer’s fast half-mile work two days before the Derby – no horseman works that far that near a race anymore – and McGaughey has continued tinkering with his workout style in the 24 years since Easy Goer came along. With Orb, McGaughey has taken his short-work, strong gallop-out pattern to new heights: Until Orb worked five furlongs April 21 at Payson Park, he hadn’t recorded a timed workout longer than a half-mile since last August.

“The basic philosophy still is there, but this is a game where you learn every day,” McGaughey said.

Orb, his trainer said, “worked spotty as a 2-year-old, but he would always finish up good. As a 3-year-old, he’s gotten a lot more advanced with what he does. He’s been working by himself, but we want to put him in the game before the Derby, and we’ll probably work him in company, either the Sunday or Monday before.”

By then, Itsmyluckyday will have put in his final Derby work, either three or four days earlier. Itsmyluckyday has logged many more workout miles than Orb in 2013: Almost all his works have been five furlongs or farther. Calder-based trainer Eddie Plesa, in fact, is known for putting horses through workouts known as Plesa Miles. Plesa wants an opening half-mile to unfold not much quicker than a fast gallop before the tempo picks up significantly the second half-mile. The drills require expert timing, and work rider Bobby Gray performs almost all of them.

“Bobby has it down to a science,” Plesa said.

Itsmyluckyday worked an especially strong Plesa Mile on April 21, getting his second half-mile in a robust 49.28 seconds, exactly the kind of work his trainer wanted to see. But early risers Derby week at Churchill, if they watch closely, will see all sorts of workouts, trainers and riders trying to leverage experience and knowledge into an historic victory. The right work could put a horse in just the right zone Derby Day; a misstep might ruin months of preparation. And in the end, horsemen can only guess how much impact the work they did had on the final result.

“We all know that sometimes the horse wins because of what we did, and sometimes despite what we did,” Jerkens said. “We have no assurance on that.”