Pace Makes the Race… Except When It Doesn’t

By Matt Hess

Pace makes the race.

It’s an old saying among horseplayers, and one that I came to understand fairly quickly upon my introduction to the sport.  Growing up watching the Triple Crown races, the concept that thoroughbreds have distinct running styles never occurred to me.  To the uninitiated, picking the winner of a horse race meant simply picking the fastest horse.

But this game is so much more complicated. And until you learn that race horses are not machines but, rather, athletes, you cannot begin to appreciate this great sport.  Some horses prefer to run on the lead and they perform badly when they are denied the top spot.  Others prefer to drop to the rear of the field and make one late closing run — generally, a poor strategy when the early fractions are slow.  Some horses prefer to stalk the early pacesetter, applying pressure throughout a race before making a move to the lead.  Very few horses are versatile enough to excel at adopting different running styles.

QuoteLast week, I wrote about the concept of lone early speed.  When a horse needs to have the lead to perform at its best, and it is the only need-the-lead type in the race, it is able to comfortably take and maintain the lead without expending much energy fending off other horses.  Without having to use up its energy in the early going, these horses usually have plenty of gas left in the tank to hold off the late runners.  However, when two or more horses need to be on the lead early, a pace duel often breaks out, forcing them to run faster than they are accustomed to early and using up their energy reserves.  This is the perfect type of pace scenario for a confirmed closer, who can come on at the end after the pace breaks down.

The job of a handicapper is to determine how the pace scenario will play out in any given race, and then determine which horse(s) will benefit from the pace setup.  I thought I had the pace scenario all figured out when I sat down to handicap the 2013 Pacific Classic, a Grade 1 race which is the highlight of the annual summer meet at Del Mar.

2013 Pacific Classic

The favorite going into the race was Game On Dude, a six-year old multiple graded stakes winner trained by Bob Baffert.  Game On Dude was one of, if not the best older horse in the country at that time.  He enjoyed an illustrious career when it was all said and done — 14 grades stakes wins, including eight Grade 1 victories — but on this day I thought he was a vulnerable favorite.

Game On Dude

Game On Dude’s preferred running style was to be on the lead.  In this race, he drew post 10, outside of several other horses who also exhibited early foot.  A pace duel should have broken out, which would have set up perfectly for my horse, Kettle Corn, to come through at the end.  But there was one thing that I naïvely overlooked: Game On Dude was a superstar.

They don’t run the races on paper.  As much as I may have known how the race should have played out, I didn’t factor in the human element — the idea that these thoroughbred athletes have personalities and perceptions that affect the way they run on a given day.  I maintain that Game On Dude intimidated his competition before the gates even opened, which allowed him to take an easy lead and wire the field by 8 1/2 daunting lengths.  Put another way, he was simply much the best.

2013 Pacific Classic Results

I learned that day that watching the races and knowing the horses is just as important as reading the past performances.  I was new to horse racing, and I had only seen a few replays of Game On Dude before the Pacific Classic went off.  Had I known then what I know now…well, I probably still would have taken a stab with Kettle Corn, but I wouldn’t have been nearly as dumbfounded as I was after the race.

This past week, I was reminded of my early lesson when I sat down to handicap this year’s rendition of the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, the main prep race for the Florida Derby, which serves as a springboard to the Kentucky Derby.  This year’s Fountain of Youth featured six competitive runners, including the favorite, Mohaymen.

More than a few handicappers I respect greatly felt that Mohaymen was vulnerable due to the presence of Awesome Banner, a confirmed early speed horse who would be able to command the lead and dictate the fractions. Although Awesome Banner had never been around two turns, these experts confidently proclaimed that he would get the 1 1/16-mile distance without a problem and wire the field due to the favorable pace scenario.

The race set up perfectly for Awesome Banner… until it didn’t.

Although he broke poorly from the gate and encountered trouble in a couple of spots, Mohaymen was able to put away both Awesome Banner as well as Todd Pletcher’s best Kentucky Derby hopeful, Zulu, without so much as breaking a sweat.  The chart only shows a 2 ¼-length victory for Mohaymen, but what it doesn’t show is that he did it under only a hand ride by jockey Junior Alvarado, who didn’t even think about going to the whip.  It was a Sunday stroll, nothing more than a $400,000 workout for the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee.

I’m already looking forward to the Florida Derby, which will be run on April 2.  Mohaymen will face his stiffest competition yet when last year’s juvenile champ and Breeder’s Cup winner, Nyquist, ships in from California.  Nyquist will undoubtedly take a lot of money, and may even compete for favoritism with Mohaymen.

But I’ve seen both of them run, and I don’t care how the pace scenario sets up…

Mohaymen is a superstar.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matt HessMatt Hess, aka “Meathouse,” is an attorney in the Chicagoland area who spends an unhealthy amount of his free time handicapping sports and horse racing in particular.  Originally from the South side of Chicago, he is a die-hard White Sox fan whose second-favorite baseball team is whoever is playing the Cubs on a given day. 

Matt is a proud alum of the University of Illinois who passionately follows both the Bears and Blackhawks and, in addition to horse racing, specializes in handicapping the NFL and MLB.  You can reach him at MeathouseBets@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @MeathouseBets.

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.