After finishing a closing third, the Brad Cox-trained closer carries the high Beyer Speed Figure and TimeformUS figure out of the probables for the Belmont. But figure handicappers should think twice before using his high number to justify betting him.
To start off, how often does a horse make a closing bid from far back to hit the board in the Kentucky Derby and then disappoint in the Belmont? Because of the typically fast Derby pace, the pattern happens often.
In the case of this year’s Kentucky Derby, they went faster than expected up front, with Verifying ripping off fractions of 22.35, 45.73 and 1:10.11 while under pressure from Kingsbarns and Reincarnate.
Most of the pace horses folded, except for Two Phil's who amazingly still led the field into the stretch and had something left to finish the race.
Mage sat in 16th with 13 1/4 lengths to make up through the half-mile. But on the far turn, Mage found a path to the outside and began to pass horses steadily as he went wide on the far turn. At the top of the stretch, Mage had a clear shot at Two Phil's from his outside position.
Two Phil’s gave a response when Mage challenged him, but Mage took advantage of the pace and prevailed by one length.
Angel of Empire spent the opening quarter in 16th, before moving up to 15th at the half-mile point with 13 1/4 lengths to make up. Similar to Mage, Angel of Empire had the benefit of a fast pace ahead and only needed to avoid traffic and find an open path to the outside.
One path did open and Angel of Empire made a run to the outside while traveling behind Mage in front of him. Once Mage took his shot and went forward in the stretch, the path for Angel of Empire became clear and he gradually came along for third late without ever posing a major threat.
Mage earned a career-high 104 Beyer Speed Figure, according to Daily Racing Form, and 122 TimeformUS Speed Figure for his Kentucky Derby run. Those numbers were significantly higher than the figures he earned in the Florida Derby (G1). But as explained above, Mage also enjoyed the benefit of the fast pace “teeing up” his final run, which set up a fast final time.
Speed figures are based on final time. Although this is oversimplifying the process, the races with fast final times tend to earn fast speed figures. It helps when the leaders do not waste time early, as they can set up the higher possibility of a fast final time by setting fast fractions.
Because of the fast Derby pace, Mage was able to post a fast time more easily because the leaders went quickly through the early stages and left plenty of room to finish with a good final time. The reverse is also true. In many cases, slow-paced races result in slower final speed figures because the leaders will lag early and waste important time.
Thanks to Verifying, Kingsbarns and Reincarnate battling each other up front through the first half, Mage received the perfect circumstances to set up his run and receive career-high speed figures on multiple brands.
But in the Preakness, Mage did not receive such help. The eventual winner National Treasure took his path heading into the first turn and then slowed down the pace on the backside with fractions of 23.95, 48.92 and 1:13.49. Since no one wanted to directly challenge National Treasure early, he had plenty left in the tank to fend off a fired up Blazing Sevens in the stretch. National Treasure won by a small margin.
Mage started to move closer to National Treasure and Blazing Sevens on the far turn, but he flattened out and finished a disappointing third. This time, Mage reverted back to a 94 Beyer Figure and 113 on TimeformUS.
Considering Angel of Empire benefited from the Derby pace in the same way as Mage and literally traveled right behind him, Angel of Empire might not reproduce the 104 Beyer Speed Figure and 122 TimeformUS Speed Figure earned for finishing third in the Kentucky Derby. If the Belmont pace ends up as moderate as it looks on paper, he will regress.
As it stands right now, the main Belmont speed horse is National Treasure, who could control the pace once again on a loose lead. Stalkers and mid-pack runners such as Hit Show, Arcangelo and Forte might need to adjust to prevent National Treasure from loafing along up front uncontested.
Based on the current probables list, the Belmont pace scenario is not ideal for running a fast final time, and therefore the figure probably will end up slower than the Kentucky Derby-winning figure. Many horseplayers think of figures as numbers that horses are supposed to duplicate no matter what the circumstances are. But those numbers are complicated tools that are affected by both trip and pace.
Angel of Empire could win the Belmont because he does own talent and might adjust to any unfavorable pace scenario. But his closing third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby will make him popular with bettors, especially in a dirt marathon where the common assumption is that closers hold the advantage. Before unloading on Angel of Empire, think about whether he could duplicate his Derby figure in the Belmont, as receiving the same extreme pace setup appears unlikely.