How Fast Finishes Can Identify Future Stars

January 22nd, 2018

Finishing Speed and Identifying New Talent in Horse Racing

How can you tell when a young, lightly-raced horse has the talent to step up in class and become a winner at the highest levels of the sport?

There are many ways to judge the merits of a young racehorse, but one factor I’ve routinely found valuable is finishing speed—how fast a horse runs the last two or three furlongs going a mile or farther on dirt.

Most dirt races unfold at a steadily decelerating pace, with the first quarter-mile fraction being the fastest and the final quarter-mile fraction being the slowest. If the early pace is slow, it becomes easier to finish strongly, but it’s still uncommon to see a horse run the fourth quarter-mile (completing a mile) in less than :24 seconds. It’s simply not an easy feat to accomplish.

Handicappers that are aware of what a strong finish means for a young horse can have an advantage in identifying future stars. One of my favorite examples involves , who won a series of small races at Santa Anita and Del Mar as a lightly-raced three-year-old in 2016. He wasn’t beating huge fields of top-notch rivals—in fact, he defeated just ten horses over the course of three races—but each of his wins was achieved with a powerful finish that would soon become his trademark. In his maiden victory, he ran the fourth quarter-mile in :23.61 and the final sixteenth of a mile in :06.26, equating to a final five-sixteenths of a mile in :29.87. Anything under :31 seconds is excellent for a dirt route, and Arrogate proved that his fast finish was no fluke by winning back-to-back allowance races with finishing fractions of :30.42 and about :29.40.

Despite these powerful finishes, Arrogate was sent off at 11-1 when he made his stakes debut in the 2016 Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga. The result? He ran the final quarter-mile in :23.84, crushed the field by 13 ½ lengths, shattered a 37-year-old track record, and earned the highest BRIS speed figure in history, rewarding his backers with an excellent $25.40 payoff for every $2 win bet.

Here’s another noteworthy tidbit: , who is expected to be named Horse of the Year at the upcoming Eclipse Awards, has been applauded for the progress he has made over the last couple of seasons. But his recent run of success is hardly surprising to handicappers that saw his debut going a mile as a two-year-old at Churchill Downs, in which ran the fourth quarter-mile in about :23.84. He was cut out to be a star from the start!