Photo: David Alcosser, NYRA
It's been said over and over and passed down from generation to generation: pace makes the race. A fast contested pace will aid horses that come from the back of the pack and a slow uncontested pace will aid the front runner. Most of the time an extreme pace is obvious and the contenders that figure to benefit most take all the money but occasionally that's not the case.
This past weekend the focus was on the two Triple Crown prep races, the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby, but lost in the chaos that is Derby season were three text book examples of pace making the race.
The Gazelle was a case of the obvious lone front runner getting bet hard. My Miss Sophia looked like the only speed and the race played out exactly that way. Bet down to odds on My Miss Sophia secured a spot in the starting gate of the Kentucky Oaks with her dominating 7 1/4 length win at Aqueduct. She is three for three and is very fast.
Santa Anita Oaks
The Santa Anita Oaks looked like a carbon copy of the Gazelle with a single front runner. In this case, however she was not sent off as the favorite and at 2/1 was an overlay in my opinion. The horse, Fashion Plate, secured a clear lead and maintained it all the way to the wire holding off the overbet and pace compromised Ria Antonia.
The highlight of the Saturday Aqueduct card was the aforementioned Wood Memorial but it was not the final stakes. The Carter was the final leg of the all stakes Pick 4 and like the Gazelle and Santa Anita Oaks had a lone front runner. In this case pace players were rewarded as Dads Cap was ignored in the betting and sent off at 10/1. As I mentioned in my Pick 4 wagering strategy I thought Dads Cap could turn the tables on Strapping Groom and the only threat would be Sahara Sky. On class Sahara Sky was the superior horse but his running style put him at a distinct disadvantage. Dads Cap was fast enough to compete at the GI level and the pace advantage was enough to carry him to his first GI win. He paid $23.60 and Sahara Sky completed the $138.50 exacta.
Past Performances Do Not Guarantee Future Success
The examples above not only illustrate how pace affects the outcome of most races but also provide several other important takeaways.
First I can't tell you how many times I have heard horseplayers complain when a horse reverses a decision over another horse. "He just got beat by five by the same horse, how could you bet him today?" I used to be one of those players and it took me a while to figure out that what happened last week, last month or last year doesn't mean the same thing will happen today. No two races are alike and even if the fields are very similar the post positions will be different, the jockeys might be different, the pace might be different, and on and on. There are so many variables in determining the outcome of a horse race and changing one can alter the outcome.
In the Tom Fool a few weeks ago Dads Cap was not able to hold off Strapping Groom at a shorter distance than the Carter. Most players expected Dads Cap to wilt in the final furlong but he didn't. He was able to set a comfortable pace and Strapping Groom's rider seemed more worried about Sahara Sky than Dads Cap. He made an early move and had nothing left late, which cost him the race.
The takeaway is you need to handicap every race as if it was run in a vacuum. Sure the past performances guide you but you must envision how the race will be run today. Do that and you will find yourself landing on more winners and often at bigger prices.
This leads to the second big takeaway, which is don't fall into the trap of backing a horse that was able to set an uncontested pace if that horse won't have the same situation occur today. The two fillies mentioned above are prime candidates for this pitfall. Both My Miss Sophia and Fashion Plate set uncontested paces in their respective races. Both won't have that same luxury next time. One might but at the expense of the other and quite possibly neither will. In a race that will likely attract a field of ten or more the Kentucky Oaks pace will likely be totally different than either the Gazelle or Santa Anita Oaks.
Social Inclusion was the poster horse for this situation. He was able to set an uncontested pace in both previous starts and in his allowance win did so while setting a slow pace (according to TimeformUS pace figures). In the Wood Memorial he figured to have trouble getting the lead and if he did it wouldn't be slow. At 8/5 he was a bad bet as he had to prove he was not one dimensional and prove he could handle the extra distance and prove he could handle the jump to the GI level and overcome a tough post. He failed so it's not out of the question that one or both of the fillies mentioned above will do the same in Kentucky on the first Friday in May.