Working to the Derby

Besides the imposters and the heavy hitters that took the stage last weekend, a word of caution has to go out for those that are evaluating workouts coming into the first Saturday in May.

But first, its history. The Lane’s End, Louisiana Derby and lesser stepbrother, the Sunland Derby all have had their day in the sun and some things are coming into focus.

Peter Graves: “Todd Pletcher, your mission, if you decide to accept it, is to have Mission Impasible better on Derby Day then he was in the Louisiana Derby.”

That’s how recently deceased Mission Impossible TV guru would have put it and he looks to be right on the money. Impasible is bred to get the classic trip. His dam dropped speedball sire Forest Camp and also double stakes winner Spanish Empire, who won at a mile and a quarter at Churchill in his career. His 94 winning Beyer Saturday was his career best and stands up well to recent winners Friesan Fire’s 104 figure last year since that one was accomplished in the off going. Two years ago Pyro won as chalk with a 95 Beyer.

As for the Lane’s End, Dean’s Kitten got the perfect 3-hole trip to win going away with a 93 Beyer and could have the look of an imposter. He is out of a minor triple winner and his top sibling won several times vs. soft foes and failed miserably at his longest race of 9 furlongs. Two years ago Adriano boasted a 92-winning figure while last year Hold Me back popped with a 99 digit but was crushed in the Derby.

Switching gears, a lot is made of the workouts coming up to the Kentucky Derby but you have to take what you read with a grain of salt sometimes. Things are not always what they seem. A work that is evaluated in the press as a ‘good’ drill, or even one that is knocked is not the end all. If a horse is not fit at this time of the game to win the Derby, one good or poor work will not change the fate.

People can evaluate workouts in many different ways. One cannot just look at a final time of a drill and say it is good or bad. They may be able to say it was fast, or slow, but that is not to say it was what was intended.

And you can’t depend on some of what the trainers tell the press because some of those guys never lie, except when their mouths are moving.

To accentuate the intricacy of a work know that a pair of brothers in California are a perfect example of the different ways of working a horse.

Mel Stute, who has trained Breeders’ Cup winners and Preakness hero Snow Chief, puts his runners through the wringer every day. He asks for speed and when his horses work fast, it is just the order of the day. When his horses work slowly, then it may indicate they are not right or have limited talent.

His now deceased brother Warren was just the opposite. Warren was famous for working his runners a mile in 1:40 and change and not asking for any speed at all. So, when you would see a Warren Stute horse post a bullet drill or a 2nd or 3rd best of the morning work, you knew that horse was live.

I once interviewed Warren about this situation and he just said that Mel gets them to work faster. Mel on the other hand indicated to me that he likes to train like he trained when he was a young athlete. If he was pushed in training, it showed on game day. And that is the way he works with his horses.

A few years Smarty Jones worked fast coming to the Derby and some people didn’t know he had an exercise rider on him that weighed about 155 pounds, or about 30 more pounds than he would have on him Derby Day.

Also take a guy like the legend Charlie Whittingham, who was arguably the best trainer ever, and he seldom worked his horses fast unless it was with a serious intent. He seldom had his horses geared up at first asking. But there was madness to the method. Almost in every case with a Whittingham horse, the runner would have 2 or 3 works between races with usually a 3-furlong blowout 2 days before a race saying the runner was primed in a go go pattern. The ‘Bald Eagle’ as he was called, shook it up a bit a few days before his charge Ferdinand won the 1986 Kentucky Derby, but not by much. Instead of giving the runner a blowout, he let the horse ramble :58 3/5 posting a best of the morning drill just a little over 48 hours before his glory days run.

So when looking at Derby horses prepping for the big race try to read in between the lines and be more concerned about anything negative, like a quarter crack or a cold, rather than just taking a drill at face value.