The 2021 Grade 1 Keeneland Turf Mile
It is one of the oldest sayings around the racetrack. Anyone who has spent time around the game has heard it countless times. It is also one of the most accurate sayings connected to the Sport of Kings. We see examples of pace dictating the outcome of races every racing day, and it is often an overlooked handicapping factor by many.
Just last weekend we saw pace eliminate one contender from a race, that in reality only had two horses who could win it, while at the same time it set up the other contender’s victory. In the Poker stakes at Belmont the two contenders were Oscar Performance and Ballagh Rocks. Oscar Performance did all his best racing on the front end and was coming off a layoff, which often sees a horse keen early and wanting to go on the engine. Ballagh Rocks did his best running from off the pace, and with a fair share of early speed signed on, he figured to get a set up favorable to his style. That is not what happened.
The early pace was very fast in the Poker, and that likely kept Oscar Performance from setting it. He had run in his share of longer races and had not really been accustomed to those type fractions. Oddly Ballagh Rocks was up close to the fast pace early, which was not where he figured to be, and that effort left him empty in the stretch. He was going backward as opposed to forward when it counted. Oscar Performance capitalized and set a course record.
When these things happen, I find it a good practice to go back in a day or two and revisit both the past performances and replay. I think we can easily identify what happened with the winner. The fast splits kept him a few lengths back and his class and talent kicked in when the pace setters were spent. Ballagh Rocks was a bit more difficult to figure out. Why was he so close, and didn’t the rider realize that would compromise his kick? The reason I do this is to help in future handicapping. There have been times where a horse wins and people can’t see it, and going back I find you can see it often enough to make a difference. Always, of course not, but often enough. It may not help with that race but it surely won’t hurt going forward.
As for Ballagh Rocks, I think I can see the answer to the first question. He had been in some fast races in his career, and that pace scenario was not as foreign to him as it may have been to Oscar Performance. He was wired by an only speed the race before, so perhaps there was concern about them getting away from him and he was put in the game early. Did his rider know that would cost him the usual kick he had? Well, probably not, but it was the chance and risk he took to avoid what happened to him last out, and in some other races, where he just left himself too much to do. I think if the rider, and perhaps trainer, handicapped astutely then maybe they might have recognized the pace set up perfectly for him and this was not the day to worry about last time. Remember, trainers and riders are good at what they do most anyway, and in this case, you have two of the best. That said we are the best at what we do and look at things more objectively. At least we should.
Sometimes you can anticipate these things and sometimes you have to decipher what happened after the fact. Gaining a good understanding of what happened and why can only help you going forward.
Once you really master pace, race watching will become much more of an art. You’ll know when horses up close have no chance, which is a good feeling when you have backed a closer. You will know you are in good shape early when you played the speed and they are going well within his range. You would have known Justify was going to win the Belmont and Triple Crown a half mile into the race. At that point the race was over for the win, but on for second. The pace had as much to do with that than anything.
Some people use pace projector tools to help with their pace analysis. I do not. My reasoning is two-fold. First, if I need anyone or anything to help me analyze the pace of a horserace, I am in trouble and it is time to hang up the tack. Second, there are intangibles that cannot be computer programmed. Certain riders like to go while others prefer to sit and wait. Some don’t like gunning from the rail. Some are astute in their handicapping and won’t send if there is other speed. Some don’t open the racing form at all. A computer won’t know these things, but a “pro” or shark will. Bias also plays a part. Some jockeys are aware of a bias and will ride to it and that can influence the pace. Replays can show a horse under wraps early you know can go faster, but computers won’t see that. I prefer my own pace evaluation to anything that can be programmed.
A helpful hint in preparation for a wager is to project the pace as you see it and include who you think will be where at every call. The one who gets to the wire is the one I would play.