Despite modest final prep, there's just something about Outwork

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

May 2nd, 2016

His final Kentucky Derby (G1) prep was far from stellar, and the closer we get to race day the more he triggers memories of two underlays I backed in Derby's past that happened to fare poorly exiting the same race.

Those two factors alone, plus others I'll get into, should give a significant cause for pause. The more I look at him, though, there's a je ne sais quoi about Outwork I find hard to ignore.

After doing much of the dirty work pressing a hot pace in the Wood Memorial (G1), Outwork idled after making the lead in the stretch and nearly allowed an 81-1 maiden, Trojan Nation, to beat him. The final time of 1:52 4/5 was the slowest Wood ever run at 1 1/8 miles.

With that small sample size of nine-furlong work to go by, the fact he has led or pressed the pace in every one of his four starts, and that he is by juvenile champion Uncle Mo, whose own ability to go farther than 1 1/16 miles was seemingly limited, on the surface it appears there is more to dislike than like.

And let's not gloss over two other factors -- Todd Pletcher and the Wood Memorial. The future Hall of Fame trainer loves giving his best horses adequate time between starts. That's why he rarely attacks a race like the Preakness (G1), which comes two weeks after the Derby, and has no qualms sending Destin to Saturday's race off an eight-week layoff. Outwork himself will be entering off a four-week break.

The irony is that Pletcher has done his best work in the Derby with horses coming off shorter rests. The winning Super Saver (2010) and runners-up Invisible Ink (2001) and Bluegrass Cat (2006) all entered the Derby off a three-week break.

And then there's the Wood, a race with a rich history but one that's not been as productive a Derby prep in recent decades as you might think. The last horse to win both the Wood and the Derby was Pleasant Colony, way back in 1981. A few Wood winners since then ran second in the Derby, but only three Derby winners since 1982 -- Go for Gin (1994), Monarchos (2001) and Funny Cide (2003) -- have come out of the Woodwork, so to speak.

What's to like? Guts, for one thing. A lot of horses probably would have given up the ghost against Trojan Nation after that early exertion. Outwork had every right to do so, but didn't. If there's one thing to like about the performance, it's that.

A strapping colt, Outwork reportedly tips the scales at more than 1,200 pounds. To be that big and quick (he broke his maiden at first asking going 4 1/2 furlongs) suggests there is something special about him. In my day-to-day handicapping, when trying to narrow it down between two or more contenders, especially three-year-olds, I often find myself siding with the horse that won or was ready to run at an earlier date. It's an angle I've found successful, and Outwork was precocious enough to win in April and yet was given adequate time thereafter to grow into his large frame.

After taking another sprint in his season debut, Outwork fared well in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), gamely digging in through the final furlong before yielding to Destin by a length. That stablemate had had the benefit of a pair of two-turns races, and arguably won due to that experience. But a telling, long-term factor in Outwork's favor, perhaps, was that John Velazquez chose to stick with him for the Tampa Bay Derby rather than Destin, whom he piloted to victory in the Sam F. Davis (G3) one race prior.

Can Outwork settle enough to give himself a chance to make the frame in the Kentucky Derby? It's hard to say "yes" based on what we know already. Going toe-to-toe with a horse like Danzing Candy would certainly prove an unmitigated disaster, but rating a few lengths off a pace that's not too taxing would be just enough give him a chance to strut his best stuff if he has it in him. His dam is by Empire Maker, the Wood and Belmont (G1) winner who finished second in the 2003 Derby while dealing with quarter crack issues, so there are some stamina elements to his pedigree.

Outwork has made a highly favorable impression since his arrival at Churchill Downs, and the general consensus among observers was that his was the workout of the day last Friday. I'm far from being an expert on workouts and Thoroughbred physiology, but he did leave a favorable visual impression on me as well.

I haven't made a final decision on Outwork or most of the others at the moment. That will come later in the week once it's clear none of the horses I'm considering are stuck with an inside post position or have given other indications they're not coming in the right way.

If I do somehow end up in the Outwork camp, I'll also be looking at the wagering on Friday and Saturday before pulling the trigger. More than a decade ago I backed a pair of Wood performers, Saarland and Tapit, in the Derby and watched them both run up the track at what I thought were underlaid odds of 6-1 (I've since tried to wisen up more when it comes to value in the Derby). Unless you really like Nyquist or Exaggerator, one should probably demand double digits on just about everyone else in the field. Myself included.

(NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography)