10/13/2009 12:00AM

Watch workouts carefully


All but one or two possible Breeders' Cup starters have completed their prep race schedules for the Nov. 6 and Nov. 7 BC event days at Santa Anita Park. But that does not mean we can expect to know where these horses stand from a condition standpoint merely by assessing their recent performances. Fact is, many of the top contenders will hint at further improvement or possible regression by what they do in their training drills leading up to their BC engagements.

Make no mistake, each trainer has to have a game plan to get his horses to their respective target BC races ready to perform at their very best. Moreover, if such a plan runs into difficulties, or a noted BC contender endures a physical setback, horseplayers would be wise to downgrade the horse involved.

One of the best examples of this occurred to the 1986 Arc de Triomphe winner, Dancing Brave, touted at the time by his European supporters as a bona-fide "wonder horse." From the moment he arrived at Santa Anita for the '86 Breeders' Cup Turf, Dancing Brave seemed nervous and noticeably light in his overall body weight. Even more damning was the lackluster finish he displayed at the end of a short practice run on his second day out of the usual quarantine that all foreign horses must experience. While no formal clockings were published for his gallops, it was reported in Daily Racing Form and other newspapers that things were not going as well as expected for the highly touted European champion.

In the actual running of that historic BC Turf, Dancing Brave was beaten soundly at 50 cents on the dollar by the top American-based male turf horses - Manila and Theatrical. Worse still, he could only manage to finish a fading fourth, 2 3/4 lengths behind the third-place finisher, the 6-year-old mare Estrapade.

"Over the top," was how some British scribes explained Dancing Brave's performance while tearing up their pari-mutuel tickets.

Many similar examples could be cited to illustrate the need to pay attention to workout reports in various media, including those filed by DRF staffers who follow the progress of BC contenders. When we get closer to Nov. 6 and Nov. 7, Mike Welsch, DRF's workout analyst for major events, will be publishing his detailed observations of numerous training moves and daily gallops. Likewise, there will be ample satellite TV and Youtube coverage of these works that will permit your own interpretations.

Having watched and clocked my share of horses training for premier races, I can attest to the value of spotting subtly negative signs as much as positive. That is because fast works by quality horses often are misinterpreted as signs of fitness. Negative signs, however, are more explicit in their implications. Consider two types of negative signs that should give you pause when you see them or read about them in a reputable clocker's report.

* The horse was overly nervous, or difficult to handle while his exercise rider tried to get him into a smooth stride. If the horse persisted to be somewhat uncontrollable throughout its gallop or during a good portion of a scheduled workout, he is hinting that something may be amiss. After all, we are at the end of the racing season and supposedly have been looking at quality horses with sufficient racing experience to avoid wasting so much energy.

* The opposite behavior - a listless, totally uninterested horse, one that needs extra encouragement to get going and to complete his training drill or gallop - is no better. Such a horse is telling you that he has had enough racing this year and will not likely produce a top effort on BC Day. (This is precisely the impression Dancing Brave made prior to his disappointing BC Turf performance.)

* More subtle would be a horse who shows exceptional early speed - in a rather lengthy training move for a race at one mile or longer. This is not what you want to see the horse do in a six- or seven-furlong drill designed to boost stamina. Fact is, most horses of any quality can turn in three furlongs in 35 seconds, but fit and ready horses, even those with high-class speed, tend to complete their best workouts with a strong final quarter-mile split and an energetic gallop-out.

Aside from taking seriously an insightful workout report, or to visually observe a few Breeders' Cup morning practice sessions on TV or in person, abundant positive and negative signs can be found in actual workout clockings as published in DRF past performances.

Here, to illustrate, are a few specific workout clues that will prove helpful in pointing out Breeders' Cup horses ready to improve or lose their form.

For the three BC Sprint races - the $1 million BC Turf Sprint at 6 1/2 furlongs on Santa Anita's downhill turf course; the $1 million BC Filly and Mare Sprint at seven furlongs, and the $2 million BC Sprint at six furlongs, I suggest the following roughly drawn workout guidelines.

To evaluate the fitness of horses that have not raced within 30 days - which will be true for many horses performing in the Breeders' Cup, including the three BC Sprint races - it would be a positive sign to see three or four works totaling at least 18 furlongs during the last 30 days. Conversely, a negative indicator would be substantially fewer workouts and fewer furlongs. Of course, common sense would dictate that these guidelines should be discarded for any horse that has earned one of its top Beyer Speed Figures or won a graded sprint stakes off a similar or longer layoff with few regularly scheduled workouts or fewer cumulative furlongs.

For races on the main track at one mile or longer, including the BC Dirt Mile, the BC Ladies' Classic, the BC Classic and the BC Marathon, a positive workout line should include at least one, preferably two, six-furlong workouts of medium speed among three to five workouts during the 30-day period. I also would expect to see a minimum of 18 furlongs in cumulative workouts for any horse aiming at the one-mile or nine-furlong races, and at least 20 furlongs for any horse trying to maintain fitness for the longer BC races.

For the BC Mile on the turf, a six-furlong workout among a minimum of 15 furlongs of works would be a positive sign, as would three five-furlong works roughly spaced a week apart. For the longer turf races, I positively view a turf work of any length included among two or three other works. But I take special note of horses who work seven furlongs on the grass. Some of America's best turf and distance trainers regularly use seven-furlong works to great advantage, on or off the grass.

When I see an established horse turn in a very fast workout, such as four furlongs in 46 flat, or five furlongs in 58 and change, I mute the importance of the work unless surrounded before and after by other works spaced five to eight days apart. Experience says that any sign of high speed is only mildly significant unless supported by regular training activity, including a series of slower works.

Frequency and speed, mixed in with stamina-building works, are in fact the underlying secret to a positive workout line for any horse in any race at any level of competition. Stating this another way, to move a horse forward, a very fast workout or two should fit within a sensible regimen of regularly spaced workouts. Otherwise, an unsupported very fast work ultimately will squander the horse's best chance to run a strong race when it really counts.