The positive impact of early speed is widely regarded as one of the strongest factors in handicapping and is an angle used by almost every horseplayer that I know. Personally, I use pace as a major factor in my handicapping and am always looking for the lone frontrunner or the early speed horse that has a sizable advantage over the rest of the field. However, it is equally important to identify when early speed will be a negative factor in a race. Being able to spot the two types of weak early speed horses — the “Habitual Quitter” and the “One-Dimensional Frontrunner” will signal when you should avoid playing the early speedsters.
These are horses that try to set the pace or get close to the early lead only to fall short late, regardless of the amount of pressure applied by other horses in the field. On Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in Oaklawn’s first race — a six-furlong, $35,000 maiden claiming race for fillies and mares three-year-olds — there was a perfect example of a weak early speed horse in the morning line favorite, 8-World Elite (8-5 morning line odds).
World Elite had six previous races with only one race run over an off track (on March 12, 2015), leaving five comparable races without any troubled trips at today’s distance against maiden special weight fields of fillies and mares that were also three years of age or older. Looking back over her running lines, she has consistently shown early speed to the half before weakening. Her last effort over the same course at Oaklawn saw her leading the field by two and half lengths at the half only to get headed in the stretch and weaken to finish fourth.
Today, she drops to a maiden claiming race for the first time as the lone early speed horse in the field, with the exception of a second-time starter in 5-Caddy (10-1), who ran a much slower pace in her debut before running out of gas late and is not a threat to World Elite getting loose on the lead here. Clearly, this race sets up for World Elite to get to the lead uncontested.
But the question is: Can she last?
The final running line for World Elite’s chart tells it all (she ultimately lost the race by 2 ¼ lengths):
Note: Running line indicates World Appeal’s running position and her lengths ahead of the next runner.
As you can see, World Elite got out to a fairly uncontested early lead, even extending to a 3 ½-length lead at the half-mile (second) call. At this point, she should have been on cruise control — especially since her past performances show that she has run faster to the half-mile call in the pas (last race was :46.0, two races back was :45.3), but she still managed to weaken without any pressure by the stretch call.
These horses can win on the front end, but have to be loose on the lead without any pressure. These horses can be bet, but only under the right circumstances, i.e. lone early speed and a sizable pace advantage over any other horses that may want to press the pace (or be within a length or two of the leader) in today’s race.
An example of this can be found in the following race from the third event at Tampa Bay Downs on March 2, 2016 — a race for three-year-olds going six furlongs over the main track in a $16,000 Claiming race.
Let’s take a peek at 3-The A Plan (5-1):
Looking at his last effort at Tampa Bay Downs on Jan. 31, you can see that the son of Discreet Cat was leading at the first two calls by half a length before weakening while getting pressured. We can toss his second race back, which was both first off of a layoff and a race where he was considerably outclassed. Looking back to the Sept. 25 affair at Indiana Grand, he led comfortably at the half-mile call by four and a half lengths and maintained a clear lead through the stretch (five and half lengths), eventually winning by four and a quarter lengths while feeling no pressure at all during the race.
Today, he is at the right class level and distance — a sprint and a claiming race of the same value as his last effort. He has shown that he is not a Habitual Quitter since he can get to the lead and win without any pressure, but today will set up like his previous start where there was another early speed horse in the field as well as several other horses that could either run with the pace or press the pace. When we look at the chart, we can see how this race unfolded for The A Plan.
The A Plan went for the lead early, but was met with pressure from the other early speed horse in the field, 6-Nightbar, who was ultimately able to extend his lead after the second call and win easily as The A Plan folded quickly.
Early speed is undoubtedly important in every race, either positively or negatively affecting the race’s pace scenario. Being able to identify and eliminate the Habitual Quitters and when the One-Dimensional Frontrunners are going to fail will help you to see how race’s pace is going to set up… and ultimately lead you to more winning wagers.