“Time is only important when you are in jail.”

“Time is only important when you are in jail.”

By Jude “Pontiff of the Pick Four” Feld

Roughly two weeks prior to the event, news services, past performance peddlers, websites and bloggers ratchet-up their coverage of the Kentucky Derby (G1). This usually involves multiple trips to Churchill Downs by their correspondents, armed with computers, notepads and in many cases, stopwatches.

There is a plethora of “up-to-the-minute” information spewed in print, online and through social media.

Derby season started innocently enough last week, with the usual reports on the top 25 or so Kentucky Derby (G1) hopefuls on the graded earnings list and a few of the major fillies due to contest the Kentucky Oaks (G1). At one point, a Derby horse breezed and three different times were published for the workout, prompting the following comment on twitter:

“How can there be three different times for the same workout?”

The easy answer is arthritic clocking thumbs, but seriously, there are many reasons why three clockers will all have different times.

Positioning – Like a field goal kick, the angle is everything. Professional clockers have their “spot”. They clock from the same place every day. It is usually under cover, has a good view of the main poles and the finish line, a chair and a restroom just a dash away. These locations are closely guarded and respected by their peers and for the most part, interlopers are not welcome. Despite all efforts to have a great observation point, clockers often give up a good view of a certain pole for the other amenities.

Style – Just like starting gate locations, there can be “run-up.” Some clockers click early, some try to click on the pole and some are notoriously late.

Obstructions – This really comes into play at Churchill Downs during Derby week. Corporate tents, flower arrangements, television booms, party areas, port-a-potties – you name it, can cause even a three-eighths move some issues. Trainer Michael Matz lamented a couple of days ago that he wished he could have seen Union Rags final work but all he saw was the opening eighth and the last quarter!

Distractions – Tourists looking for the gift shop, turf writers sauntering by for a scoop, trainers who forgot their watch at the barn, not to mention 30 horses breaking off for works simultaneously are just a few.

“Time is only important when you are in jail.”

For over a century, workouts were timed to a fifth of second, based on the concept that a fifth of a second equaled a length. Andrew Beyer wasn’t the first person to disprove that theory, but he was the first to popularize the notion there was a better way to measure it.

Now, many publications publish workouts in 100ths of a second, which really seems ridiculous to me, based on the inexactness of the clocking procedure. It actually became a bit of a joke to some of us who share Derby clocking duties:

“I got him in “47.49.”

“47:93 on my watch.”

“You guys must have been early. I got him in :48.21

It all came to a head when one turf scribe quoted trainer Mark Casse saying, “Prospective worked in 1:01.20.”

I know Mark Casse. I have had a horse in his barn. If he indeed said, “1:01 point 20,” or “1:01 and 20 one-hundredths,” breakfast at Wagner’s is on me.

Mark was likely to have said, “Prospective worked in 1:01 and one.”

The most important thing about workouts is not the time. It is the style. Ideally, you want the horse to finish his work full of run, with something left in the tank, rather than blast off early and stagger down the stretch.

In other words, if a horse goes the first quarter in :22 4/5 and and the last quarter in :24 2/5 his final time will be :47 1/5.

An opening quarter of :24 and a final quarter of :23 1/5 gets you the same :47 1/5 time, but this horse was finishing strongly, not tiring from his early efforts – a great sign of conditioning.

How is a player to know this stuff?

Read the articles, watch the Derby preview television shows, listen to the radio broadcasts, use the twitter feed to your advantage, make some notes or you can take the easy way out and buy a sheet from several private clockers.

The bottom line is that the workout times in your past performances don’t tell the whole story. They need some context to be evaluated properly. With that, they are an excellent handicapping tool and can pay huge dividends at the windows.

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