How Pace Makes the Race: Part 1

December 19th, 2017

Pace makes the race.

It’s an indisputable fact of Thoroughbred horse racing that the pace at which a given race unfolds can have an effect on the outcome.

A slow pace can favor front-runners, allowing them to finish strongly and hold off late runners.

A fast pace can do exactly the opposite, tiring out the leaders and setting the race up for horses rallying from behind.

I can’t think of a better example to illustrate this premise than the 2013 Triple Crown series. Who can forget favored Orb splashing over a sloppy track to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) by a decisive 2 ½ lengths, seemingly stamping himself as a star in the making?

Certainly Orb looked like a special colt. He brought a four-race win streak into the Kentucky Derby, including a decisive Florida Derby (gr. I) triumph, and his Kentucky Derby victory seemed like confirmation that he was the best colt of his generation. So eye-catching was his performance that he was sent off as the overwhelming 7-10 favorite in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) two weeks later.

But a closer examination of the Kentucky Derby pace revealed that Orb was the beneficiary of a perfect setup. When longshot Palace Malice, equipped with blinkers for the first time, ran off to a clear lead through blazing fractions of :22.57, :45.33, and 1:09.80, he put every horse within ten lengths of his pace at a disadvantage. After all, it was essentially impossible for the early leaders to sustain that kind of pace over any track, let alone a sloppy one.

As a result, the race pretty much fell apart during the final half-mile. The fourth quarter-mile was timed in a slow :26.36 and the final quarter-mile in an even slower :26.73, producing a final half-mile time of :53.09, nearly eight seconds slower than the opening half-mile.

As a result, Orb’s eye-catching rally from the back of the pack wasn’t as much a burst of speed as it was an illusion—he was slowing down too, just not as quickly as the horses that had been part of the fast pace. In the end, the horses that were running 16-15-17-12-18 after the first quarter-mile ran 1-2-3-4-5, while the five front-runners tired to finish 13-17-19-14-18.

The only horse that hung around for a good finish after being part of the pace was Oxbow, who finished sixth after making an early move into the hot fractions. Two weeks later, Oxbow faced off against Orb in the Preakness, a race that lacked many true front-runners and seemed certain to unfold at a slow pace.

Handicappers that understood how pace had affected the outcome of the Kentucky Derby weren’t surprised by the results of the Preakness. Oxbow, securing a clear lead through slow fractions of :23.94, :48.60, and 1:13.26, was never seriously challenged and cruised home in front at odds of 15-1, one of the biggest upsets in Preakness history. Itsmyluckyday, another horse that had raced too close to the pace in the Derby, rebounded to complete a $2 exacta that paid $301.40. Orb, disadvantaged by the slow pace, could only finish fourth.

Stay tuned next week for more insight on how pace affected the outcome of the 2013 Triple Crown series!