05/01/2007 12:00AM

Work times impress, but what do they tell?


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Horses show their true ability in the heat of battle. They are less revealing in the pre-orchestrated solitude of a morning workout.

Yet each spring leading to the Kentucky Derby, many works are so widely publicized that objectivity is easy to misplace. The 2007 poster-child for workout hyperbole is Street Sense, whose five-furlong drill Tuesday at Churchill Downs received much praise.

Good for Street Sense. He was timed in a bullet 59 seconds and, reportedly, looked good doing it. But of course he looked good. Street Sense is a good horse.

There are problems, however, for handicappers who plan to incorporate the workout by Street Sense into a reasonable analysis of his chances to win the Kentucky Derby. The first issue is that Street Sense did nothing in his workout that he had not done before.

Three of the last four works by Street Sense were fastest of the day. Since his career debut last July, 10 of the 24 published works by Street Sense were the fastest or second-fastest. Street Sense worked strongly Tuesday because he always works strongly.

Does it make Street Sense the Kentucky Derby winner? Of course not. All it means is that Street Sense remains in sharp form. He is fast, strong, and fit. It does not mean he is any faster, stronger, fitter, or better prepared than any other Derby contender.

Street Sense's workout would have been meaningful if it was out of the ordinary. It was not. In fact, it was similar to a West Coast phenomenon. In California, fast works by horses trained by Bob Baffert and Bruce Headley get a "so what?" comment. Horses trained by those guys always work fast. It is news only when they go slow.

A second issue is the scarcity of trained workout analysts. Workouts rarely receive as much media attention as they do leading to the Derby and Breeders' Cup. But if works are that important in spring and fall, perhaps there should be greater workout analysis for big races in summer, such as the Travers at Saratoga and Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

The fact is that few are qualified to provide meaningful critique of a work. Furthermore, geographical location means some workouts are subjected to less scrutiny than others. That was evident six days ago at Hollywood Park, when only one member of the racing print media watched Santa Anita Derby winner Tiago work out seven furlongs on Cushion Track. Though Tiago will start as a relative outsider in the Kentucky Derby, odds should not lessen the importance of a key workout. Or have people already forgotten about Giacomo?

Two years ago, trainer John Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith engineered a stunning Derby upset with Tiago's half-brother Giacomo. Owned and bred by Jerry and Ann Moss, Giacomo trained in relatively obscurity at Hollywood before shipping to Churchill Downs days before the race.

Four starts into his career, Tiago already may be more talented than his sibling. Tiago made his debut Dec. 26 with modest expectations. Shirreffs said the sprint "was just one to get in before the end of the year because it's one of those things you have to do to satisfy the gods." Every Derby winner since 1882 raced at least once as a 2-year-old.

Tiago ran 1 1/16 miles next out, and was all but eliminated when the horse to his inside, Spankey Come Home, bolted. Tiago re-rallied for second and was placed first via disqualification. It was a huge race, but six weeks later, Shirreffs admits, "we didn't know what we had because nobody in that race turned around and did anything."

The next start by Tiago was March 3 in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, and it illustrated a pitfall of training on synthetic and racing on dirt. Tiago raced in the clear in his first two starts. He had no dirt in his face in a race, or a workout, until the Lewis. "Every time I work him, I work him behind a horse," Shirreffs said. "But it's over here [on Cushion Track], and it's a whole different ballgame."

In the Lewis, Tiago broke slowly from the rail and dropped back. When dirt began to hit him, he got rank and started climbing.

"Their first instinct is to get mad," Shirreffs said. "They duck out of there; they don't want to run."

It was a convenient alibi for a seventh-place finish. The issue in the Santa Anita Derby was whether Tiago learned anything from the experience.

"Some horses never get over [dirt in their face]," Shirreffs said. "They have to experience it to find out if they can handle it. Otherwise, you say, well, he's going to turf."

The only way to find out is to subject a horse to the heat of battle. In the Santa Anita Derby, Tiago responded. He used a grinding finish to wear down distance-challenged King of the Roxy in deep stretch and pull clear by a half-length. He earned a 100 Beyer Speed Figure, only 3 lower than Curlin (103) earned in the Arkansas Derby, and 7 points higher than Street Sense (93) earned in the Blue Grass.

The Santa Anita Derby marked a 16-point improvement for Tiago, and even his jockey was prepared for a negative reaction.

"What's funny about that is that usually they come back a little bit tired first time going a mile and an eighth," Smith said. "I was telling John after the race that he didn't seem to be stressed at all."

In the three weeks since that April 7 win, Tiago has stepped forward.

"He's handling it very well," said the normally reticent Shirreffs.

With one more workout scheduled for Sunday, Tiago continues to improve.

In the team work last Sunday, Tiago and Smith broke off two lengths behind a maiden filly, ran past her at the three-eighths, and powered home even while playing around.

Smith smiled when he was asked what the workout by Tiago means.

"I'll tell you one thing," Smith said, "he is going to finish."