04/22/2004 11:00PM

A visual aid to the Derby is in 'The Works'


Nine days before the 2000 Kentucky Derby, a camera crew for Television Games Network captured that year's Derby favorite, Fusaichi Pegasus, gleefully tossing his exercise rider to the ground at 6:30 a.m. on Churchill Downs's main track.

In the run-up to the Derby, after all the preps have been run and footage of the entrants doing something - anything - is at a premium, TVG had a coup, since no other network caught Fusaichi Pegasus's freak-out. The clip was replayed later that morning on its Kentucky Derby-workout program, "The Works," and was then picked up by dozens of television stations around the country.

"The Works," which had just debuted that year on TVG, was born.

Now in its fifth year, "The Works" has become an institution on TVG. The half-hour broadcast, which began airing on Saturday and will continue until Friday, the day before the Derby, offers viewers a chance to watch Derby contenders in their final works and morning exercises, an option available in previous years only to those at Churchill Downs. Interspersed in the program are interviews with Derby trainers, jockeys, and exercise riders.

For the racing industry, "The Works" has become nearly indispensable. In press boxes across the country, late-rising reporters gather around televisions at noon to catch the program before writing their daily articles, and in homes, ardent racing fans and handicappers religiously tune in to try to glean the last nugget of information from a horse's prep work before making their final determinations for the race.

"What makes the show so successful - and maybe we're patting ourselves on the back too much - but it's one of the few new things that have come out as a handicapping tool for the Derby in the past five years," said Tony Allevato, the executive producer for TVG. "You've always been able to read about the works, to read the times and the comments people make, but you've never been able to see them, to visualize for yourself how the horse worked. You can judge it now. That's what makes it valuable."

Of course, the correlation between a horse's last workout before the Derby and his performance in the race has yet to be established. Nevertheless, handicappers and racing fans have always been intrigued by pre-Derby workouts, and if nothing else, "The Works" gives those hard-core fans a chance to form their own opinions.

The same goes for TVG's interviews with trainers and exercise riders, which frequently result in comments like, "He went well." But Allevato said the discerning viewer can read between the lines of even the most standard and uninspired response.

"I don't think anyone is ever going to say, 'He went horrible,' " Allevato said. "But if you have them on camera, where you can see what their facial expressions are, you can see how they say it; you can usually figure out whether or not someone is being sincere."

Sometimes horses fall through the cracks. Although Allevato said that TVG has been able to record 95 percent of all workouts before the Derby, a final workout that TVG missed last year was that of the eventual winner, Funny Cide, who was training at Belmont Park. Allevato said that TVG sometimes has difficulty getting live footage of horses based outside of Kentucky, but that the network had film crews in most racing centers this year.

TVG uses a 35-person crew at Churchill Downs to produce the show, Allevato said. Crew members report to the track at 4:30 a.m., with individuals assigned to each trainer of a Derby horse. After daily schedules for the horses are determined, TVG sets up "spotters" at each gap in the racetrack to be on the lookout. TVG's reporters, which include Jeff Lifson and Caton Bredar, then seek out trainers and exercise riders for interviews as the horses are leaving the track.

At noon, the clips and interviews are condensed into a 30-minute broadcast, with commentators offering their opinions between replays. The commentators this year include Frank Lyons, a full-time TVG broadcaster who is also part-owner of the Derby contender Castledale as well as a former trainer himself, along with current trainer Tom Amoss.

Amoss said that he tries to communicate the different nuances of a horse's work to viewers, "the body language, the position of the ears, whether the ears are back or forward, how the horse is responding to the rider, how the rider is using his or her hands, the extension of the stride, if the horse is changing leads on cue."

Some comments have gotten Amoss in trouble, he said.

"The toughest part of my role is to be critical of a horse's work, because I'm being critical of people I have to work with every day," Amoss said. "I have to make sure I back up my opinion with solid information. That's a constant struggle. I've had a couple of big-time trainers, guys who are in the Kentucky Derby every year, take me aside and confront me, and I have to remember that it's not just racing fans and trainers who are watching the show. It's owners too, and they are going to pick up the phone and say, 'Amoss just said this or that about my horse.' "

For all that "The Works" is, Allevato said there is one thing that the program is not: a money-maker.

"It's definitely what we call a loss leader," Allevato said. "We don't make any money on the show, but it drives viewership to the network.

"The reason we started 'The Works' is because we realized we would never, ever broadcast the Derby," Allevato said. "That's always going to be for the NBC's and the ABC's. But if you look at what ESPN did when they were just starting, they made up these shows, like the NFL draft, and they built that as a staple of their programming. We came up with 'The Works,' and we thought, 'This will be our staple.' "