Clockwise: Derby favorite Verrazano; Normandy Invasion, with the superskinny supermodel look.
(Churchill Downs PR)

Aside from fishing ponds and Capitol Hill, nowhere are more tall tales told than at a race track.

That’s especially true in the run-up to a Kentucky Derby.

For Derby trainers, Churchill Downs isn’t a home away from home. It’s a home on the range, where never is heard a discouraging word – particularly as it concerns their horse’s latest workout.

“It was exactly what I wanted,” they all say, usually in those exact words.

If you made a drinking game of that utterance, the entire backside would be blotto by breakfast. Every day.

Why some trainers spout such misleading nonsense is another story for another day. The point today is that the casual fan’s two main sources of workout information – times and trainer quotes – are pert near worthless.

This is not good. Two things go into picking winners:

  • How has a horse run in the past?
  • How is he likely to run in the future?

The first part is pretty straightforward.  A horse’s form – i.e., his level of demonstrated ability – can be determined by evaluating race replays and past performances.

The second part is tricky as hell. It involves assessing a horse’s current fitness level. Is he getting stronger, weaker or simply maintaining his form?

Recent works hold the answer. That’s why they are scrutinized so intensely, if imperfectly, in the two weeks before Derby.

Casual fans – and more than a few “experts” – think a fast work is a good work, simple as that.

But it isn’t.

“You can always get a horse to work fast,” workout analyst Bruno DeJulio says. “That doesn’t mean he worked well.”

In a minute, we’ll look at the workouts Sunday by two top contenders in the May 4 Derby, Normandy Invasion and Revolutionary. The times were almost identical. The actual works were anything but.

But first let’s look at why you can’t take workout times at face value. The classic example is 2001 Derby favorite Point Given, whose 9-5 odds were the lowest in a roseate run since 1985.

In size, color and reputation, Point Given bore a striking resemblance to Secretariat. He owned a stack of blazing Beyer Speed Figures that he underscored with scorching a.m. works.

A fast work for stakes-caliber horses averages 12 seconds per furlong. (A furlong is 1/8 of a mile.) In his final Derby work, Point Given blazed 5 furlongs in 58.20 seconds, about 10 lengths faster than the 1:00 standard.

“He was the buzz of the backside,” said Jill Byrne, official handicapper and director of on-air communications for Churchill Downs. “But I didn’t like how he was training.”

DeJulio didn’t either.

Byrne thought Point Given was working way too hard to record his fast times, and the extra effort told her that he was “over the top.” That is, he was past his physical peak and not ready to run well in the Derby.

DeJulio said Point Given was struggling to get good footing on Churchill’s deep, uncommonly loose, dirt surface. Some horses handle it, some don’t. Their workout times are irrelevant if they don’t.

“Novices were just looking at the times and saying, ‘Wow, this horse went fast. He likes the track,’” DeJulio said. “No, sorry, he did not.”

Point Given finished a distant fifth to Monarchos on Derby Day. It was the worst race of his life. Millions of dollars were bet on a horse that, despite sparkling credentials and sizzling workouts, never had a chance.

Normandy Invasion

Speaking of which …

Revolutionary and Normandy Invasion project as two of the favorites for Derby 139. Will they be Monarchos or Point Given? Money-earners or money-burners?

The clock said both worked well on Sunday. The clockers said so too. Each ran a ½-mile in a shade over 48 seconds.

Revolutionary’s work was 0.6 seconds slower than Normandy Invasion’s, but the Daily Racing Form’s fine clocker, Mike Welsch, called it the work of the day.

(DeJulio preferred the stout 1-mile work by Will Take Charge, trained by four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas: “He stole the show out there today.”)

Revolutionary won the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on March 30. He is owned, trained and ridden by the same folks who steered Super Saver to Derby glory in 2010: WinStar Farm, Todd Pletcher and Calvin Borel, respectively.

Ranked fourth in DRF’s latest Derby Watch, Revolutionary finished faster than he started. That’s usually what trainers want. What’s more, he worked “in company” with another horse that forced him to run near the rail.

Seems the Cajun jockey known as Bo-Rail is determined to teach this young horse his old tricks.

“You know where Calvin is going to want to be so we might as well let (Revolutionary) get used to it,” Pletcher told DRF.

Time and distance aside, Normandy Invasion’s work was drastically different. He worked alone, for one thing. He also ran fast early and slowed down late.

This was not by design. Welsch said Normandy Invasion, ranked fifth on the Derby Watch, seemed anxious and started too fast. But the quick start wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Normandy Invasion is a “closer.” The Wood Memorial runner-up likes to trail the pack early and make a furious rush late. Working fast early helps sharpen the speed of horses that run that way, DeJulio said.

On the whole, Normandy Invasion’s faster work was a bit less demanding than Revolutionary’s. As it should be. Normandy Invasion has raced twice since Feb. 23, Revolutionary only once since Feb. 2.

“One horse is fresh,” DeJulio said. “The other horse might need to be freshened.”

Normandy Invasion looked pretty gaunt when he arrived at Churchill Downs last week. Working him too strenuously would be counterproductive at this point. He’s by a stallion named Tapit, whose speedy progeny, DeJulio said, are A) inclined to overdo it; and B) have a tendency to lose weight.

“Those Tapits will tuck up like a reindeer,” an old-timer observed Sunday.

DeJulio compared the scrawny look to another animal.

“If he looks like a greyhound in the post parade, he ain’t gonna run,” DeJulio said. “Greyhounds don’t win the Derby.”

Looks like Normandy Invasion’s trainer, Chad Brown, might be walking a fine line over the next 12 days. He must keep his colt in shape and beef him up at the same time.

“It’s very hard to put weight back on a horse,” DeJulio said. “But Chad is a good trainer. He knows what do to. I wouldn’t be surprised if this horse isn’t carrying good weight on the first Saturday in May.”

Maybe so. But the best way to make a horse gain weight is to give him time off. Normandy Invasion is looking down the barrel of the toughest race of his life, and because of his come-from-the-clouds running style, he will be a popular pick on May 4.

Keep a close eye on him. If he’s still as ribby as a greyhound next week, save your dough. Normandy Invasion is a burner, not an earner.

Post script: Welsch just tweeted that Normandy Invasion was the “number 1 star” of the Tuesday morning training session. “Bounced out of average work Sun. with big gallop, looked great.”

Mark Coomes
Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.

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