Watch out when route runners are actually sprinters

May 17th, 2023

It’s not uncommon to see young horses run well in their first route race, only to falter in subsequent two-turn events. A single victory running long isn’t always indicative of a true route racer in the making.

This situation often crops up on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. A particularly high-profile example was The Factor, who broke his maiden sprinting six furlongs before adding the seven-furlong San Vicente (G2) to his record. When The Factor stretched out over 1 1/16 miles for the Rebel (G2), he led all the way to dominate by 6 1/4 lengths, emerging among the favorites for the 2011 Kentucky Derby (G1).

But as it turned out, The Factor never won another route race. A seventh-place finish as the 4-5 favorite in the Arkansas Derby (G1) followed the Rebel and curtailed The Factor’s Kentucky Derby dreams, but during the summer he cut back to seven furlongs and beat older rivals in the Pat O’Brien (G1).

Another example is Forbidden Kingdom. Sprinting seven furlongs, he finished second in the Bob Hope (G3) before wiring the San Vicente (G2). In his first start running long, Forbidden Kingdom led by daylight at every call of the 1 1/16-mile San Vicente (G2), ultimately winning by 5 3/4 lengths.

Forbidden Kingdom subsequently started as the even-money favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby (G1), but faded to finish last after setting the pace. A throat issue knocked him out of the 2022 Kentucky Derby, and since returning to action Forbidden Kingdom has finished second in prominent sprints like the Malibu (G1) and San Carlos (G3).

The most recent example of this profile is Candy Man Rocket, who looked like a contender for the 2022 Kentucky Derby after parlaying victory in a six-furlong maiden special weight into a tenacious score in the 1 1/16-mile Sam F. Davis (G3). But after finishing 11th as the 8-5 favorite in the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and ninth in the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial (G2), Candy Man Rocket has successfully returned to sprinting, winning the Gulfstream Park Sprint S. and Runhappy (G3) during a productive 2023 campaign.

Slow finishing speed when running long is often (but not always) the key to identifying these future sprinters. When Forbidden Kingdom won the San Felipe, he was tiring at the end of the race, running the fourth quarter-mile in :26.43 and the final sixteenth in :07.09. Candy Man Rocket posted similarly slow closing fractions of approximately :26.25 and :07.08.

The next time you see a horse win their route debut with slow closing fractions, consider the possibility that the horse might actually be a sprinter. There are multiple opportunities to capitalize on this opinion: you can oppose them when they run long for the second time, and you can bet them when they cut back to sprint distances. Both options can be lucrative.