Athletes can prepare for a game or match in any number of ways at sessions known as practice.
Thoroughbred racing has the same process, only it bears a different name.
Morning workouts are the tools trainers use to sharpen their horses and put them on their toes for the demanding challenges they will face in the afternoon.
They also are an important tool in handicapping, but interpreting them can be as tricky as putting stock in what happens during a basketball team’s daily practice sessions. A player could be practically perfect when shooting free throws in a quiet, lonely gym, but can then morph into a bumbler when asked to sink a shot with 10,000 angry fans booing and saying rather nasty things about him, his mother and anyone who follows him on Twitter.
Workouts might simulate what happens in a race, yet they do not mirror the frenzy that breaks out when a group of highly competitive horses and riders break from a gate with the same prize foremost in their minds.
The key to understanding workouts is realizing that time is not the only crucial handicapping factor woven into them. Their frequency, for example, can also be telling.
Workouts appear at the bottom of a horse’s past performances and they are structured, reading from left to right, to explain when and where the work occurred, the distance, the time, how easily it was accomplished and how the work compares to others at the same distance (1/40 means the fastest of 40 workouts at the distance, which also merits a bullet notation right before the date).
How much or little a horse was urged in a workout is symbolized by the letter B, for breezing, and H, for handily, when a horse works with more gusto. The presence of the letter “g” with the work indicates the horse broke from the starting gate.
Time is important in a workout, but it’s certainly not of the same essence it would be in a race. Horses can work quickly and flop in a race or turn in a leisurely drill and then romp by five lengths a couple of days later.
That illogical sequence of events happens because workouts usually do not reflect a horse’s true abilities. A 48 second four-furlong breeze might earn a “bullet” but that horse can probably reel off a half-mile in 44 and 4/5 seconds (17 lengths faster) when pushed in a race.
Beyond that, a trainer’s intentions are also a guessing game as a B or an H are not highly descriptive terms. They alone cannot fully explain the ease or effort a horse put in during a workout.
And yet for all of that uncertainty, workouts are indeed beneficial to both trainers and handicappers.
For handicappers, workouts can often fill in the blanks between a horse’s starts and send off signals to a handicapper about a horse’s readiness for a race.
For example, if a horse has not run in two months, and it shows only one work, that would seem to be a negative sign. Generally, if a sound, healthy horse does not race for three or four weeks, a trainer will give his runner a workout or two to stay sharp. Conversely, the absence of works can sound an alarm that the horse has a physical issue that required rest.
Help also can come from looking at all of a horse’s works and viewing them in chronological order with his races. The key is trying to figure out a trainer’s pattern with a certain horse and whether that comes into play for today’s race.
Many trainers are creatures of habit and if a fast workout after a series of mediocre works led to a victory in the past, it can happen again. So look for it.
Ditto for a slow work. If a horse worked four furlongs in a leisurely 49 3/5 seconds and then won its next race, then a 49 1/5 workout is hardly a cause for concern.
Some trainers like to put fast works into their horses while others take a slower approach to conditioning, and learning a trainer’s modus operandi in that area often pays a nice dividend.
A gate workout can also answer some of the questions about a first-time starter and whether it might break quickly or slowly from the starting gate.
As much as time seems the essential part of a workout, there’s clearly much more to them to that. If there wasn’t, then every horse with a “bullet” work would win its next race. It would be that simple.
It will take some practice to understand and appreciate workouts, but in time, they usually pay off – for horsemen and handicappers.