As we move into the final phase of Derby preparation a great amount of attention will be paid to the workouts of each contenders. It's all we'll have to go on for the next 10 days. Generally workouts are pretty difficult to interpret. Training styles vary widely and let's not forget that each horse is an individual with preferences and tendencies.
So how will statistics help us parse through all the rhetoric from trainers who will of course proclaim their horse ready to fire and poetic observations from the journalists who are looking to build drama and excitement?
Perhaps it's an overly simplistic observation but its worth noting that 7 of the last 11 Derby winners drilled a bullet in their last piece of work before the Derby. Funny Cide, Monarchos, Fusaichi Pegasus and Charismatic were the only ones who didn't since 1996. Funny Cide also should have an asterisk beside his name because his last work technically was the fastest. He went 4f in :48 over a sloppy track at Belmont with the dogs up. But since he was the only horse to work that distance on that day he wasn't given credit for the bullet. Just two weeks prior Funny Cide worked 4f on a fast track in the same time and did receive a bullet so obviously his last work for the Derby was a sharp one.
Since 1996 40 horses have come into the Derby off bullet works and their cumulative record is 7-2-2.
But we don't necessarily want to get too restrictive. Bullet works are often indications of good fitness levels, which obviously is important in the Derby. But a bullet achieved in a final work may not be the only indication. Sometimes trainers work their horse really quickly after their last prep race then give them a slower work for their last piece. So we'll widen the parameters to see if we can catch anything else.
The horses who worked a bullet in any work since since their last prep race were a cumulative 68-7-5-4. So essentially there were 28 horses who worked bullets since their last prep but not in their last work. There were no winners among them but there were 3 second place finishers and 2 horses that rounded out the frame. I'd say this statistic is decent but not as good as simply looking at horses who had a bullet in their last work.
One other angle to look at is horses who have drilled multiple bullets since their last prep. Not nearly as many horses fit that profile. In fact only 12 horses in the last 11 years have worked two bullets between their last prep and the Derby. For this stat I made it mandatory that one of the bullets be their last work. These 12 horses went 4-0-0 in the Derby. Smarty Jones, Real Quiet, Silver Charm and surprisingly Giacomo all fit the bill. It's not real surprise to see Baffert horses go fast, or even a superstar speedster like Smarty but even Giacomo got moving in the mornings prior to the biggest win of his life.
To contrast this the cumulative record of horses who did not work a bullet at all since their final prep was 116-3-6-7. It is certainly not an angle that eliminates the majority of the field but a bullet in their last work surely must move up the horses in your considerations. Most Derby winners will be sharp in the morning.
Perhaps the most key thing to look for is horses who run a bullet in their last work when working fast is not normal for them. Only Barbaro, Grindstone, Artax and Saarland worked a bullet right before the Derby while not recording any bullets in their previous 5 workouts. Four horses, two winners. Seems like something to pay special attention to if it comes up this year. Horses like Great Hunter, Sam P, Chelokee and Scat Daddy are not typically speedy in the mornings. They might be dangerous if their final drill is really quick.