Training for the Breeders' Cup Classic: Early Workouts & Preparation

By Loren Hebel-Osborne September 17, 2014

The Art of "Working" a Race Horse

During the course of training a thoroughbred race horse, it becomes essential for the trainer to prescribe workouts, or “works,” for a horse. Most simply, a work is to exercise a horse by running it at a rated speed (but typically slower than it would run in its race) for a pre-determined distance.

A timed morning work, or published work, is recorded by the clockers and published in the race-day program and Daily Racing Form. It would be wonderful if a horse had an odometer like a car, but experienced exercise riders and jockeys learn to gauge a horse’s stride between the distance poles and determine how fast they are going. The very best exercise riders and jockeys are said to have “clocks in their heads” and can often roll off lap times or “splits” with pinpoint accuracy.

One can poll coaches of human athletes and there probably would be a consensus opinion that a player plays like he practices. Unfortunately in racing, horses do not always do the same.

A work usually will give us clues to race performance; however, there are often too many variables (such as exercise rider weight, track bias, information accuracy, and trainer intent) to yield a predictable outcome.

That being said, the work is a critical component for both horse and trainer. For the trainer, it provides essential information for establishing benchmarks for the horse’s fitness level and performance ability as well as early detection of injury or health concerns. For the horse, it is a close simulation of racing conditions and teaches key skills for enhanced performance.

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Planning the Work: Distance, Rate and Time

Trainers methodically design a fitness program that gradually increases the horse's training distance and level of difficulty. Gradual increases from a first work of an eighth of a mile (one furlong) up to a pre-race distance of five furlongs are set approximately 7 days apart.

As a general rule, trainers will want to have three published workouts of a 5/8 distance before a horse makes its first race. For very young horses, trainers often prefer to start them working in the company of another horse. This is a training technique to get the horse accustomed to running at greater speeds next to other horses, and to experience the “kick-back” of dirt or any physical contact made by another horse and/or rider that is guaranteed to happen during a race.

Judging the Workout

“We are asking the horse to give us its maximum effort, but to do so in a relaxed fashion. The more relaxed the horse, the better able it is to breathe evenly, conserve energy and respond to changing conditions within the race. I’d have to say that my first goal during the work is to achieve relaxation - I’d like to see the rider with slack in the reins. The relaxed horse at the beginning of a race will always finish better,” explain Sean McCarthy, trainer for Breeders’ Cup Classic entrant Majestic Harbor.

While speed is obviously important for conditioning, McCarthy further explained that the way the horse performs its work is often more critical.

“I like to see the horse working easily, without tremendous effort. Breath – cadence – that is really what is critical – I just can’t stress that enough. I listen carefully for a clean, rhythmic breath – no rasp, whistling or gurgling," continued McCarthy. "When the horse comes back to the barn, I want the rider to tell me that the horse went on without much urging, and pulled up with some resistance as he might have wanted to keep going. As the horse is bathed and cooled out, I observe its respiration and see how quickly and easily it recovers from the added exertion from the workout.”

McCarthy cautions that rapid works in the mornings do not necessarily translate to success in the afternoons. “You don’t get paid in the morning for a bullet work,” he said, using a sentiment and track adage shared by many trainers. “You’re looking to get a check for what you do in the afternoon.”

In general, a horse working well will complete an eighth of a mile in about 12 seconds. So, a good work is 36 seconds for 3/8 of a mile, or three furlongs; 48 seconds for four furlongs.

Understandably, the times tend to get slower for longer distances. A time of 1:01 is good for five furlongs. There are not many horses working at six, seven or eight furlongs, but some trainers opt for this longer distance based upon the training goals for that individual horse.

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Breaking from the Gate

Another component is whether the work is “breaking off,” or starting the work, from a prescribed poll from a gallop into a work speed or breaking from the gate. McCarthy explained he carefully limits the number of instances that he will work a horse from the gate. Older horses like Majestic Harbor will rarely work out of the gate and the gate is reserved for race day only.

“It’s much more physically taxing on the horse to go from zero to top speed when you break from the gate, and the potential for injury during that exertion is much greater. I like to separate gate schooling/breaks and works – again keeping the horse relaxed is paramount,” McCarthy explained.

Majestic Harbor's Strategy

In preparation for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, McCarthy’s training skills will be tested. Majestic Harbor is not a horse that needs to learn anything else – he is now a professional race horse and knows what the game is all about.

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The skills of trainer are tested as he has to keep the horse happy and maintain his peak physical condition at the same time. While horses do love routine, they can get bored in their workouts too, so McCarthy will have to vary his training days as much as he can.

McCarthy has to do enough to keep him fit, but not too much so that his muscles get filled with lactic acid. Do too little and the horse is too fresh with potential for injury and doesn’t have the stamina.  Do too much and the horse is dull. A very delicate dance indeed!  

Following Majestic Harbor’s last race in the Pacific Classic, he received several days of just being hand walked in the shed row and around the barn. Then he returned to the track to jog a few days before resuming regular gallops.

The first work-out back was a four-furlong breeze in which McCarthy gave instructions for the exercise rider to go easy. Essentially, this was a maintenance-type breeze just to get some air into the lower lungs.

Read more about training Majestic Harbor»

Revving up for the next race will be a process and the biggest key will be to watch for signs in the horse after prescribed works. If they act like they want to do more, cool out quickly, eat all their food and even ask for more, look eager to have people come to the stall in the morning when it’s time to train – these are all indicators that the horse is progressing.

See the Work Pay Off at the Breeders' Cup Classic! 

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Now that you know what goes into training a horse to race in the Breeders' Cup Classic, it's time to watch them run LIVE! 

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