Introduction to Workouts: Part 1

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

April 11th, 2020

Workouts are a key component of horse racing. Morning training sessions are used to prepare equine athletes for afternoon competitions. On a busy day at a major racetrack, hundreds of horses might record timed workouts. Be sure to read Introduction to Workouts Part 2 following Part 1.

Understanding the nuances can be tricky for novice bettors. In Part 1 of our Introduction to Workouts series, we’ll dive into the what, why, and where of workouts, bringing you up to speed on the basics of morning training sessions:

What are workouts?

An official workout isn’t just any piece of training. Racehorses gallop every morning to stretch their legs and maintain fitness, but these exercises aren’t conducted at racing speed. In contrast, a workout takes place at full racing speed over a distance typically ranging from 3-to-6 furlongs in distance. The time of each workout is formally recorded and included with the horse’s official record of racing and training.

Several other details are noted along with the time of each workout, including whether the horse was encouraged to run fast or allowed to work at its own pace. At most tracks, a horse under standard light encouragement is described as “breezing,” while a horse working under its own power is said to be traveling “handily.” Oddly, these terms are reversed in California.

Most workouts feature a running start, with the horse gradually accelerating from a slow gallop into full racing speed. But some workouts begin from the starting gate, which simulates an actual race and teaches the horse to quickly accelerate away from the gate.

All of this information is included in Brisnet Ultimate Past Performances, which list workouts in the following format along the bottom of each horse’s racing record:

01Apr SA 4f :483 Bg 13/36

This seemingly complicated shorthand is actually simple to read. It means the horse in question worked 4 furlongs (4f) in :48 3/5 (:483) on Apr. 1 (01Apr) at Santa Anita (SA). The horse was breezing “B,” began from the starting gate (g), and recorded a time that ranked as the 13th fastest among 36 half-mile workouts (13/36) on Apr 1. The fastest work of the morning is called the “bullet.”

When a horse crosses the finish line to complete their workout, they frequently continue past the finish line for another furlong or two, often at a high rate of speed. This is called the “gallop out” and unofficially extends the duration of the workout.

Why are workouts important?

Timed workouts are an opportunity to gauge the speed and fitness of a horse. They’re particularly important when a horse has yet to race or is returning from a long layoff. If a horse brings a short string of slow workouts up to its debut, it’s probably not ready for a peak effort and might be using the race itself to gain fitness and experience. On the other hand, if a first-time starter has been posting bullet workouts week after week, you might be looking at a future Grade 1 winner.

Many horses work alone, though stablemates of similar ability often work in pairs to ensure they stay focused and get the most out of their exercise.

Where can I watch workouts?

Websites and social media channels for racetracks and major racing events provide a steady diet of workout videos for handicappers to analyze. For the Kentucky Derby (G1) and the Breeders’ Cup, livestreams of morning training sessions are organized so fans can view the action in real time. If you miss the live morning sessions (training gets underway pretty early), don’t worry—they’re usually edited and archived online for future viewing.