4 Pace Pitfalls to Avoid: Think Twice Before Backing Early Speed

By Ray Wallin

There have been books written about it. There have been endless debates on handicapping and horse racing forums about it. I’ve even seen guys come to blows in the old Bally’s Wild West Racebook in Atlantic City over it.

Whether you are making money playing early speed or cashing tickets playing against early speed, anyone who makes their living playing the races will tell you that early speed is important in every race.


Someone has to set the pace. The pace could be lightning fast or a leisurely run half mile in 50 seconds. The pace could be set by a horse with a ton of stamina or a horse that is going to have expended all their energy by the half mile call. Some horses need to be all alone up front and will fold under pressure, while others seem to thrive on the competition and can duel to the wire.

How can you tell when you should think twice about backing an early speed horse?

1 Untested early speed

The spring is a great time for horse racing. The excitement and thrill of the Run for Roses captivates the racing world as 3-year-old hopefuls keep pushing their limits as they point toward being one of the 20 entrants to start in the Kentucky Derby. As we head into the summer the 2-year-old start to hit the track. Every race is a chance for improvement. Every race features something new, whether it is a distance, surface, class, or field of improving contenders.

Early in their careers horses don’t have a lot of running lines for you pick from to assess their abilities. Often, they are trying a new distance or surface. Some may have a couple of troubled running lines at today’s distance or class level. Probably one of the hardest horses to assess though is the early speed horse that has never felt any pressure. The younger horses are not as predictable as the older veteran horses that run against the same horses in the same conditions at the same distances.

If you are looking at the past performances of a speedy three-year old named Freakily Fast Freddie and you see that he won his three lifetime starts taking the field wire to wire, do you think he’s a lock to do the same thing again here today?

You take a closer look at those running lines. In his debut at 6 furlongs in a maiden special weight race he was never less than three lengths in front of the rest of the field. A couple of weeks later when he ran in an allowance for non-winners of one race lifetime at 7 furlongs, he was never less than two lengths off the lead before cruising to a big win by six lengths. Last out in a minor stakes race restricted to state-breds he took the field wire to wire ahead by at least two lengths the entire way.

What do you think of his chances here today in another minor stakes race that is full of speed? Blazing Bobby and Speedy Sam look like they want the lead, too. How will Freakily Fast Freddie fare under the pressure of two other speedsters?

Chances are that he will need to go faster than he has in his previous starts. He’ll most likely have another speedster within a half-length of him early on pushing him along. This isn’t to say that he won’t respond well and show what a dominant beast he is, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

2 One-dimensional front-runner versus habitual quitter

As you are looking through the past performances the filly Sprightly Sandy catches your eye. She is a “need the lead” kind of horse. Her past performances are full of races where she led comfortably to the second call before barely holding on for the win or finishing out of the money. Under the right conditions she is worth playing. She is a one-dimensional frontrunner, or an early speed horse that needs the lead, folds under pressure, but has the stamina to win when not pressured.

Later in the race card you see Weary Wentz. He has set some blazing fractions in the past, leading by four or more lengths at times, but seems to barely finish before the next race starts. No one was even in the same zip code when he had the lead at the half mile, but it is like he goes backwards after that. You know he will set the early pace here and probably be clear by four or five lengths, but there is little doubt that he’ll finish a good 10 lengths behind the winner. He is a habitual quitter, or an early speed horse that will set a hot early pace and not have the stamina to finish anywhere near the winner.

Know the difference between the two so that the blazing pace doesn’t burn up your bankroll.

3 Good Early Speed Horse, Bad Post

Nimble Nick looks like the best speed horse in this field going 1 mile on the dirt at Monmouth Park. He can handle some pressure and even come from off the pace if needed, but you think he has an edge here today and can’t possibly lose to this field of weak speed horses and plodders.

As the race starts, you can’t believe what a bad trip he is having. He breaks from the outside post but is forced four wide into the first turn. On the backstretch he is now laboring a bit to try to stay within a couple of lengths of that weak early speed horse you know can’t keep this pace up. As they hit the far turn you are waiting for the weak early speed to drop off and Nimble Nick to fire. While the weak early speed drops, Nimble Nick is running evenly and a couple of off the pace types pass by to hit the wire in front.

Before you start cursing out the jockey for a horrible ride, think about what really went wrong?

Every track has a different geometry. It pays to know where the starting gate is for each distance. At Monmouth Park in a 1-mile race it is pretty close to the first turn. With Nimble Nick on the far outside it would take a perfect trip for him to get close to the rail in the first turn. He had to expend a lot of additional energy to try to stay in striking distance. This hurt his chances later, even though the weak early speed failed the way you thought it would.

Likewise, you need to consider not only each horse’s running style individually but compare it to the horses in the adjacent posts. Even if Nimble Nick drew a middle post, if he had the speed horses to his inside, he still would have struggled to get close to the rail entering the first turn.

4 Cheap Early Speed

A few years ago, I was playing a winter NHC Qualifier at Monmouth Park. Unfortunately, our friend Rail Guy found me and decided to grab a seat with me at my table in the Dining Terrace. The tracks we were assigned to play that day were Aqueduct, Tampa Bay Down, and Gulfstream Park. We were both still alive with our bankrolls later into the afternoon when a compelling race at Aqueduct looked like a good opportunity. Naturally Rail Guy and I differed on whom to play in that race.

“Look at da four hoss, he has legs for days, he’ll wire dis field for fun.” I looked down at Rail Guy’s top choice and saw nothing but wire to wire wins in his past performance amongst a couple of troubled trips and ill-advised sprints for this career router. Rail Guy wouldn’t shut up about this New York bred filly either. “See da way he won his last three, he can’t lose dis one, I’m gonna go all in, he is 10-1.”

Rail Guy’s “lock” was a low-level Finger Lakes claiming horse running in a $40,000 claiming race at Aqueduct today. I nodded and put my contest wager down on a presser who was the second favorite at 7-2.

As the race went off, Rail Guy’s “lock” bolted to a big early lead. Rail Guy was jumping up and down between the tables at the sight of his longshot leading the field by six lengths at the half mile. This would turn out to be a premature celebration for Rail Guy. The field caught up and swallowed up this front-runner in the far turn and leaving him in the next county at the wire.

Rail Guy’s horse checked all the right boxes regarding pace. He was an early speed horse and could duel. But the dent in the armor was class. This was a cheap early speed horse that when you looked at his late fractions, he could dominate the horses you could claim for some pocket change but was never going to be able to contend with upper-level claimers on a major circuit.

Watch out for the cheap early speed horse.

Like the old horse racing adage says, pace makes the race. Love them or hate them, you must respect early speed horses. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. Sometimes they dictate the pace of the race and other times they upset the pace of the race. So, take the advice of Kenny Rogers in The Gambler when it comes to early speed horses and learn when to “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”

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