PACE MAKES THE RACE
If there was such a thing as one holy book for horseplayers it would distill handicapping a Thoroughbred race down to four parts: 1) Speed, 2) Pace, 3) Class, and 4) Current Form. Find the race entrant which comes closest to satisfying all of those, it is said, and you have the probable winner.
Contemporary players would add a fifth component -- the trainer. The last two decades have become the era of the Supertrainer. Conditioners like Todd Pletcher, Rick Dutrow, and Steve Asmussen, win races at a percentage which outstrips legends like Charlie Whittingham and Plain Ben Jones.
Let's assume for a moment the horse has a good trainer who gets the animal ready for a peak effort and spots it in an event where it can win. Then, one factor -- pace -- becomes predominant.
It is more than a catchy slogan to say pace makes the race. Handicappers who correctly determine the probable pace scenario win day after day at racetracks around the nation.
This notion is not breaking news. The importance of pace has been discussed to death among players and in racing publications. Nevertheless, the betting public and some of us who should know better continue to miss what is an elemental part of the game.
Last week alone, there were at least five races at Aqueduct which fit this description. Bettors made the perceived 'best horse' a heavy favorite, even though that animal was up against an unfavorable pace scenario. Maybe we could all use a refresher course.
No analysis of pace is complete unless you know how the track surface you are watching plays. Dirt racing at Aqueduct favors early and tactical speed. Through Sunday's card the main track profile rating at the current meet averages 53. That falls into the "speed-favoring but not biased" category on my scale.
Couple that with a race where the pace is going to be slower than par. That makes it easy, right? Let's look at what happened.
The November 18 third race featured a 2-5 shot named Colors Flying. The colt had dusted maidens in his previous start, a mile race over muddy dirt where he earned a Beyer figure of 91.
Of the other four in the race, two had little speed and two had shown early speed at times. The latter pair were Beresford, at just under 4-1, and Seniors Pride, at 12-1. Beresford earned an 83 Beyer for his October 7 start, while Seniors Pride got an 87 going a mile on October 12.
Your humbled narrator fell into the same trap as bettors. My comment for the race said, "COLORS FLYING is...(a) timid (top) selection. The pace might work against him. Be careful." So, why did I make the horse my top choice?
The six furlong split for the race was 1:15.74. Colors Flying was two and one-half lengths behind at that point. The final three furlongs went in a blazing 35.56 seconds. He had no chance and couldn't even get second.
Seniors Pride went wire-to-wire and paid $26.80. Ouch!
Ok, ok. I should have learned from that experience, right? I guess not.
I did the same thing in race three the very next day. My race comment said, "DRY MARTINI gets a very timid nod over the second choice. This in an event where the logical winner needs help from the pace, which he might not get."
Gee, where have we heard that before?
This was another one and one-eighth mile race with five entrants. Dry Martini had won two stakes in 2009, one of them a Grade 2. He had bankrolled $633,530 for the season. Prime rival Honour Devil was winless in four starts this year, earning just over $70,000. He had won a pair of graded stakes in Dubai in 2008, albeit against suspect competition.
Honour Devil went wire-to-wire after setting a pace fraction of 1:16.22 seconds. Paint drys quicker than that.
The movie character Auric Goldfinger told James Bond something I'll paraphrase into 'once is happenstance, twice coincidence, and third design.' By the time Saturday's featured Discovery Handicap came around I'd learned my lesson. This time my comment about the heavy favorite said, "GONE ASTRAY became a dicier proposition with the scratch of Precursor."
The Discovery scratched down to five horses. That altered the pace scenario from potentially strong to questionable. When one of the remaining speeds, Birdrun, stumbled badly leaving the gate, the upset was on.
Eventual winner Haynesfield sat a perfect trip behind sprinter Redding Colliery. When the latter tossed anchor in upper stretch Haynesfield took over.
Gone Astray had been kept a little closer to the pace by jockey Eddie Castro but still could make no headway. The colt moved into second at the furlong grounds but flattened out and finished third.
If you have access to the result charts and race replays, there are other examples you can examine. Look at race one on November 18 and race two on November 19. Lord Snowdon went down at 55 cents on the dollar in the first and St. Augustine failed at 3-2 in the latter.
Remember, no guideline is foolproof. That's why people who should know better -- we won't mention any names -- make mistakes like this. However, when a short-priced horse has pace and track profile against it, you will seldom be wrong taking a contrary position.
Aqueduct provides the ideal learning laboratory for old and new players alike. Current form and dirt racing dominate, narrowing the variables. Keep in mind that handicapping turf or synthetic track races diminish the importance of early speed. Yet even there pace retains its importance.
by Nick Kling
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