That figures: Pace numbers are key to a Belmont Stakes pick

June 04, 2019 11:27am
Going into this weekly column on speed figures, my opinion was that they don't much matter in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes because these contenders have only run up to 1 1/4 miles or shorter. Using numbers earned at distances two furlongs shorter is a bad practice, as form can change dramatically with added distance.

When it comes to marathon races, steady-running grinders are best. But after thinking about this more, there is a useful way to incorporate numbers while keeping the premise intact. Instead of speed figures, pace figures are useful because they help point out which horses run evenly.

On paper, there is no Belmont contender that looks better in this category than Tacitus, who crossed the wire a closing fourth in the Kentucky Derby.

Tacitus started 14th in the Derby not because he is a plodder, but because of the amount of horses in the race. This Tapit colt does own some speed. 

Once they went on the back stretch, he settled behind the pack and ran at the same tempo. He didn't look too eager, but never lost pace.

On the far turn, Jose Ortiz tipped Tacitus outside horses, and he failed to accelerate fast enough to threaten in the stretch. But Tacitus maade up ground on the leader Maximum Security, just in a slow, gradual fashion. 

His one-paced, grinding style is a great sign for the Belmont Stakes. 

Understanding why Tacitus is a great marathon candidate does not require numbers, but on the TimeformUS scale they do reflect what is explained above.

His Derby pace figures and final unadjusted speed figure are 120, 117, 110 and 117. Tacitus’ unadjusted 117 speed figure at the end is only three points different than his opening pace figure and the second figure.

The difference is larger in Tacitus’ winning Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) effort, but the initial speed duel involving Joevia and Not That Brady caused the pace to collapse. Subsequently, Tacitus opened with a 134 and ended with an unadjusted final 119. But it is a great sign his three pace figures in the middle were a consistent 128, 125 and 126. Tacitus grinded his way to the win.

Also the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner, Tacitus is a son of Tapit, whose progeny have had much success in the Belmont, and trained by Hall of Famer and New York-based Bill Mott.

Odds and value aside, he looks best here.

Is there another Belmont candidate like Tacitus? Not exactly. But I'll point out two horses who come close.

As suggested already, modest acceleration is better than a rocket-type closing kick.

Visually, Sir Winston closed like a rocket in the Peter Pan Stakes (G2), won by Global Campaign. But did he close that fast, or did the leader get tired?

Global Campaign endured a difficult opening pace, as he chased the rabbit Federal Case through opening fractions of 23.19 and 46 seconds. TimeformUS does not mark those numbers in red, but I'll say they went at a fast clip.

Notice the Timeform pace numbers for Sir Winston: 108, 104, 104, 115 and 116. It looks like Sir Winston ran evenly and modestly accelerated rather than delivering a huge burst.

Throw out Sir Winston’s Blue Grass Stakes (G2) flop, as he never fired. Two back in the Tampa Bay Derby, Sir Winston started fast at 128 because of the suicidal pace, but then he ran evenly and posted 109, 101, 111 and 112.

Watching the replay, it looks like Sir Winston slowed approaching the far turn and then he came on again quickly towards the end. But the pace figures suggest Sir Winston only modestly accelerated. The front collapsed, making the flashy run a product of pace.  

The gut feeling is that Sir Winston fits in the grinding running style category. Tacitus owns more talent and tactical speed, as shown in the Tampa Bay Derby when he won, but Sir Winston will offer a higher price.

Plus, the gentle turns at Belmont probably help Sir Winston, too, as it was a possible cause of ground loss on the far turn at Tampa Bay Downs.

Sir Winston's one downside is the initial position, as it would be preferable to see some Tacitus-like early speed. The Belmont can be won from anywhere, but it tilts toward tactical speed.

I originally held Intrepid Heart in higher regard for the Belmont, but the Peter Pan effort is concerning. He chased the leaders in a better position than Sir Winston and then lost ground late rather than maintaining temp.

TimeformUS gave Intrepid Heart pace figures of 124, 126, 117, 113 and an unadjusted final number of 111 for his Peter Pan effort, making his final number 13 points less than his opening number. He decelerated. 

Going two starts back to his April 5 Keeneland allowance win, his pace figures and final number went in 101, 95, 102, 104 and 106. While a bit slow compared to graded stakes runners, he ran evenly the entire way.

If Intrepid Heart could run like that, but with some progression by staying above the 110 pace figure range, he could factor into the trifecta mix.

As a son of Tapit and half-brother to 2014 Belmont Stakes runner-up Commissioner, the pedigree is certainly there to get the 1 ½ miles.

However, this is not intending to say War of Will cannot win the Belmont. His pace figures do not resemble a horse who runs evenly, but he might take it on raw talent alone as a multiple graded stakes winner and Preakness Stakes hero.

In any case, the Belmont Stakes gives handicappers a unique challenge every year. This one in particular is good value-wise for bettors.

As mentioned, it features War of Will and the Japanese invader Master Fencer, which will help the odds on other horses, or keep the odds on Tacitus reasonable. For those who think Tacitus will go too low, then he helps the rest of the field with his presence too. There are many ways to go.

It makes sense to think outside the box in this year's Belmont Stakes and think of different ideas to find the winner with a dominant horse like Justify not present. In that case, who do you like?


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Meet Reinier Macatangay

My first time at the racetrack came as a 5-year-old kid at Santa Anita Park. For most of my younger life, that was the only track I attended other the occasional visit to Hollywood Park. 

Years later, after graduating California State University, Stanislaus with an English MA, I began writing for Lady and the Track. From late 2014-2016, my articles were seen on a weekly basis and covered handicapping, interviews with well-known racing personalities, fashion and more. 

The handicapping style I use concentrates on pace analysis. Some horses are compromised by the pace. Others are helped. Handicappers just starting out cannot easily see how pace affects the finish, so with this blog, I hope to help those unsure of how to apply pace into their handicapping and post-race analysis. 

On an unrelated note, I enjoy video games and attending anime or comic-book conventions. I am currently based in Kentucky, but spend a lot of time traveling between there and California.

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