Workers come out after the break, when the track is freshly harrowed and smooth as soft brown sugar. Most are ridden by jockeys dressed in trendy casual-wear, shiny helmets, spiffy vests. They stride onto the surface, jog up the wrong way, turn, gallop into it, get set down, and – boom – kick into high gear.
The lesser horses, those working the hardest, reach along with necks down, straining, spurting extra effort when smacked on the shoulder. Their riders shove them along, kissing and pumping and demanding the exertion. The critique of Racing Form handicappers will reflect this style – "slow last breeze; difficult to be enthused;” “has not been training forward as of late;” “plenty of works don’t exactly get pulse racing.”
The good horses, only out for maintenance, go differently. They cruise along the rail with their necks bowed, on the muscle, striking and grabbing, gobbling up the track and spitting it out behind them with enviable ease. Their riders perch motionless in the irons, gliding along and letting the powerful momentum carry them through the morning. It feels good to ride a horse like that.
Sometimes trainers will send their horses to work together, in company, and they thunder around the track two or three abreast and squeeze past gallopers with their riders yelling, “Hey, hey, inside!” Sometimes they finish however they finish, a neck or head apart, or still together. Sometimes one rider takes back and the other scoots forward, a confidence boost for the horse allowed to lead. Sometimes one horse is just plain better than the other and will clear the workmate by several lengths.
It’s a tricky process, letting a Thoroughbred run in the morning. Ask him to work too hard, and you could drain from his performance in the afternoon. Let him goof along, and he may not be fit enough to fulfill his maximum potential.
Trainers, always experimenting, try to tweak it just right, to make their horses peak on race day. It’s a science and a challenge, and it has to be a passion. Watching the horses float along the rail through the golden dust of the morning sun, somehow you understand why.