Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
NOTE - This blog post references TimeformUS Pace Figures. These Pace Figures are combined with final times to create TimeformUS Speed Figures. Stand-alone Pace Figures will be added to TimeformUS PPs later this fall.
"Pace makes the race" is an old and famous adage. It is a horse racing truth across virtually all distances, surfaces, and class levels.
Pace dynamics certainly played a huge role in the outcome of this year's Kentucky Derby. Wearing blinkers for the first time, Palace Malice did his best Silence Suzuka impersonation and ran off with Mike Smith through unbelievably fast fractions, easily outsprinting expected pace-setter Goldencents and all the rest.
Thoroughbreds are high-strung, competitive animals, and when one unexpectedly goes out winging, it will often key up the other speed and stalking types, and they usually get sucked right along--chasing a pace that is so fast it eventually kills off all who get near it.
Obviously, that was the case in the Derby. The TimeformUS pace figures for that race came back unbelievably fast. Palace Malice, who set all the fractions, faded to finish twelfth, beaten 13.5 lengths. Oxbow, who was positioned a clear second after six furlongs, faded to 6th, beaten almost ten lengths. Verrazano, positioned a clear third early, faded to 14th. Expected pace-setter Goldencents faded so badly that he was beaten almost 50 lengths.
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This year's Derby was a classic example of a "pace meltdown." Of course, Oxbow came right back to win the Preakness at 15/1 odds. Palace Malice came right back to win the Belmont Stakes at 13/1 odds. Verrazano came back to win the Grade 1 Haskell by almost 10 lengths.
Meanwhile, Orb has failed to finish first or second in any of his four races since the Derby. Golden Soul, the Kentucky Derby second-place finisher, hasn't finished better than 7th in any of his four starts since the Derby. The harsh reality is that Orb and Golden Soul are one-dimensional closers who benefited from a pace collapse in the Derby. You're free to knock Palace Malice, Oxbow, and Verrazano all you want, but they've all returned to win major Grade 1 races after stopping in the stretch of the Derby.
Plainly, extremely slow-paced races also cause fluky results. Think of the prep races leading up to the famous 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic.
Zenyatta, the even-money favorite in the 2010 Classic, had prepped in extremely slow-paced races. In the Clement L. Hirsch, Rinterva owned an uncontested early lead through brutally slow fractions of 25 and change, 50 and change, and 1:15 flat.
Zenyatta was a deep closer with a one-dimensional running style. Mike Smith asked her to move much sooner than usual in that race, and he kept her busy with a right-handed whip through the stretch run, and yet Zenyatta's margin of victory over the wildly inferior Rinterval was just a neck in the end.
Rinterval was a horse who won only three of 25 lifetime starts. Her most dubious win came at Presque Isle Downs less than a year earlier, when she was dusted by a cheap local horse named Happy Wac, only to be awarded the win via disqualification.
That same year, stretch runners Blame and Fly Down were victimized by the speedy New York-bred Haynesfield in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Haynesfield was allowed an easy early lead through soft fractions, and he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup by 4 lengths despite being eased up by Ramon Dominguez.
There was no slow pace in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic, however. First Dude unexpectedly ran off to the lead. Haynesfield and Quality Road chased the hot pace, and the Japanese speedball Espoir City put that trio away and led on the far turn.
Eventually, all of the speed collapsed, including Japan's Espoir City, and along came the closers who had been victimized by slow paces in recent preps: Blame, Zenyatta, and Fly Down.
Without any further ado, here are some 2013 Breeders' Cup prep races that were impacted by extreme paces.
* The Iroquois was run September 7th at Churchill Downs at a viciously fast early pace. The opening quarter mile was run with a pace figure of 145. The half was run with a pace figure of 131. The six furlongs was run with a pace figure of 108. The final-time figure was just 80.
The horse who ran the most impressive race was eventual fourth-place finisher Ride On Curlin. He was hung out four wide on both turns while chasing that wickedly fast pace and unquestionably ran the best race of any horse in the field.
The eventual winner, Cleburne, benefited from the hot pace and rallied to victory. He will be a bet-against in the Breeders' Cup, since trainer Dale Romans says he intends to start him there. The second-place finisher, Smart Cover, is also a bet-against when he runs back.
* The Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park on September 28th was run with an extremely slow pace. Front-running Graydar was allowed an uncontested lead through soft fractions. The TimeformUS Pace Figures were 74 for the opening quarter mile, 83 for the half mile, and 106 for six furlongs. The final-time figure was 124.
Not only did Graydar get away with murder from a pace standpoint, but he also was positioned on a very good rail path that propelled to victory several other horses on this card, including Ron The Greek. Graydar is a bet against in the Breeders' Cup.
* The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont on September 28th was run with a very hot pace. The pace figures were 131 for a quarter mile, 131 for a half mile, and 133 for six furlongs. The final-time figure was 117.
Give Little Mike all the credit for relaxing behind that hot pace and out-finishing all of the closers. He was a very game winner and has a huge chance to repeat in the Breeders' Cup Turf if he's able to reproduce this outstanding performance.
* The Rodeo Drive on September 28th at Santa Anita was run at a slow pace. The pace figures were 66 for a quarter, 81 for a half, and 81 for three quarters, and they were run by a 28/1 longshot who eventually finished third beaten less than a length. Tiz Flirtatious closed against the grain of the fractions and was sensational in victory. She is very dangerous in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
* The Frizette at Belmont Park on October 5th was run at an extremely slow pace. The pace figures were 74 for the opening quarter mile, 80 for a half mile, and 88 for six furlongs, and the final-time figure was 101.
Not only did eventual second-place finisher Sweet Reason have a very poor start, but she also was victimized by the very slow pace. She ran extraordinarily well in defeat and is the horse you'd want out of this race on Breeders' Cup day.
* The Champagne at Belmont on October 5th was run with a very hot pace. The pace figures were 128 for a quarter, 126 for a half, and 117 for six furlongs, and the final-time figure was 106.
Eventual winner Havana ran his guts out. He stalked the accomplished pace-setter Debt Ceiling, who couldn't survive the pace and stopped to a walk in the stretch. Deep closers Honor Code and Ride on Curlin both made excellent closing runs in the stretch, but they were aided by the hot pace. Havana is a huge threat in the BC Juvenile.
* The City of Hope Mile was run at Santa Anita on October 5th, and the pace was blistering. The pace figure for the opening quarter was a scorching 156, for a half mile it was 145, and for six furlongs it was 131. The final-time figure was just 117.
The heavy favorite, Obviously, finished fourth at odds of 1/2, but he did so after stalking that blistering pace and making a premature move to the lead. Look for Obviously to revert to his good form. He's certainly the horse you want out of this race in the Breeders' Cup Mile.