Derby Week: What About the Morning Works?
By Nicolle Neulist
The Kentucky Derby is almost here. With the Derby preps over and more horses shipping to Churchill Downs by the day, attention has shifted to their final preparations. That includes morning workouts.
You can watch the morning workouts live from 8:30-8:45am EDT; this is the period set aside specifically for Derby and Oaks horses. You can watch replays of workouts and gallops on the Kentucky Derby’s YouTube. Helpfully, the Kentucky Derby channel has both the full video of the training session as well as individual videos for horses who galloped or worked during the designated Kentucky Derby training time. XBTV also features workouts by Derby and Oaks horses, amongst others, at tracks including Keeneland, Santa Anita, and Churchill.
But, how useful are these videos?
When looking at a horse, whether through workout analysis or assessment of how a horse looks before a race, there is no substitute for seeing the horse in the flesh. I have far more confidence in my physical impressions when I am doing it at the track. I like to be able to see the horse’s flesh and muscle up close. I like to be able to focus on a horse for as long as I need to make sense of their looks.
In that spirit, the workout videos are not quite as good as being able to see the horses move in person. But, there is still value in watching them.
Handicapping is a game of information, and the videos will still give you a closer idea of how the horses are coming into the race. Do they look healthy, energetic, focused? Especially if the horse has not raced over the Churchill Downs surface before, do they look like they’re getting over the track comfortably? Make notes of these things.
When you see a workout that you love, or hear an analyst you follow and trust buzzing about a horse’s monster work? Remember it, but don’t let it be the be-all and end-all of your Derby selection, even in a year as muddled as 2017. After all, keep in mind that these horses are preparing for a Grade 1 race. They’re supposed to be Grade 1 horses, the best dirt route horses of their class. If they’re looking great coming into the race – that’s what they’re supposed to look like!
Good works can help give you a bit more confidence that a horse is coming into the race well, but should not be the linchpin of your argument in favor of a horse. If you are merely lukewarm on a horse going into the Kentucky Derby, a good work should not propel the horse to the top of your Derby list.
On the other hand, what if a horse works poorly going into the Kentucky Derby? In this case, it makes more sense to lean heavily on the workout in order to form your opinion. Making it to the Kentucky Derby, much less running well in it, requires both skill and racing luck.
A large component of that racing luck involves the horse staying healthy and in good form. If a horse looks flat or sluggish going into the Kentucky Derby? If a horse looks weaker or less fit than usual? If the horse abhors the Churchill Downs surface?
Those can all degrade a horse’s chances in a race against nineteen other top-notch sophomores. Keep in mind, handicapping the Kentucky Derby is just that: an attempt to find a winner in one race. You’re not trying to identify the horse with the most upside going forward, or the horse most likely to be an all-time great. You’re trying to identify who is going to hit the wire first after a mile and a quarter on the dirt one Saturday. If they don’t look like the same horse who did well enough through the winter and spring to punch their ticket to Kentucky, you should question their chances against the horses who do.
In short? Watch the works leading up to the Kentucky Derby, but be thoughtful about how you use the information you take away from them.