Beginners guide to Kentucky Derby workouts

April 25, 2014 

Detail of one of the twin Spires, following preparation for the upcoming Kentucky Derby on Wednesday May 2, 2012 in Louisville, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff


With horses arriving every day at Churchill Downs for next Saturday's Kentucky Derby, all the chatter is about workouts. How is a contender adapting to the track? Who will clock the fastest time? Who is strong enough to handle the distance?

If you're not a regular railbird, a lot of the workout lingo can be tough to follow. Here's what it all means:

■ A workout is a speed drill, similar to a wind-sprint in track-and-field training, intended to get a horse "just right" for racing.

A horse works when it exercises at a speed faster than a regular gallop. Horses going through these speed drills work alongside the inner rail while horses galloping will exercise farther out on the track.

Workouts usually are timed by stopwatch and cover various portions of a mile, such as 4 furlongs (half-mile) or 5 furlongs (five-eighths of a mile).

■ A breeze is a form of workout when a horse drills faster than a gallop but is still under rider restraint. In other words, the horse is not at full throttle as he would be in the latter portion of a race.

■ How do you judge the value of a workout? Time is not the only significant factor. Watch how the horse finishes up: Is it going faster or slower at the end? The latter is not a good sign. Does it look happy and eager to run, perhaps tugging at the bit? Is it traveling evenly on all four legs?

■ The standard for a solid work is 12 seconds per furlong for a good horse. This means a respectable 5-furlong workout would be timed in 1 minute. However, many good horses work that same distance much faster. Whether faster is better depends on the horse — and the trainer's intentions. Successful handicappers learn to recognize the patterns of each horse and trainer.

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