How Pace Makes the Race: Part 2

December 26th, 2017

In an article last week, I discussed how the 2013 Triple Crown series is a perfect example of how pace can make a race.

When Orb produced a huge late rally to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), he looked like a star in the making, but the pace of the race—with a very fast opening half-mile and a very slow closing half-mile—was perfectly suited to Orb’s running style and gave him a significant advantage. In contrast, the speedy Oxbow was at a severe disadvantage in the Derby, and when given a more favorable setup in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) two weeks later, he turned the tables on Orb in decisive fashion.

The Belmont Stakes (gr. I) three weeks later was supposed to be a rematch; a thrilling showdown between the Derby winner and the Preakness winner. In a deep field of fourteen horses, bettors made Orb the clear 2-1 favorite to rebound to the level of his Derby performance. Revolutionary, who had rallied from far behind to finish third in the Kentucky Derby, was the second choice at 5-1, while the front-running Oxbow was overlooked at 10-1, perhaps because the lengthy 1 ½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes didn’t seem suited to his front-running style.

But for pace handicappers, the most intriguing horse in the Belmont field was Palace Malice. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the son of 2007 Belmont Stakes runner-up Curlin had been the pacesetter in the Kentucky Derby, running off through blazing fractions while equipped with blinkers for the first time. After carving out six furlongs in 1:09.80—the fourth-fastest six-furlong fraction in Derby history—he actually stayed on better than one might have expected to finish twelfth, beaten just 13 ½ lengths while leaving most of the other speed horses far behind him.

For the Belmont Stakes, Pletcher chose to remove the blinkers from Palace Malice, setting the colt up for a more relaxed run.

This fact alone made Palace Malice an intriguing longshot play, and there were other factors as well—his stamina-oriented pedigree, his sharp pre-race workouts—that suggested Palace Malice was sitting on a very big effort. In contrast, it was hard to support Revolutionary given that he had only finished third in the Derby despite enjoying the same perfect setup as Orb.

In the end, betting the race seemed simple: Palace Malice, while not an obvious standout on paper, had to be supported off of his pace-setting effort in the Derby. Orb and Oxbow, each taking advantage of perfect trips in their respective Triple Crown victories, were harder to endorse for the top spot, but seemed like the logical candidates to round out the top three.

So what happened? Palace Malice, sent off at nearly 14-1, relaxed a couple of lengths off the early pace, took over on the far turn, and drew off to win by 3 ¼ lengths over Oxbow. Behind them, Orb rallied mildly to complete a $2 trifecta that paid $931.00.

As the old saying goes… pace makes the race.