When a speed horse is dominant, a closer can finish second

April 17th, 2024

When you handicap a horse race and conclude that a runner with early speed—a pacesetter—appears much the best, it can pay to play a stretch runner for second place in the exacta.

It’s not uncommon for a dominant speed horse to burn out the other speed horses in the field. As the other speed horses falter, a horse from the back of the pack—sometimes an obvious contender, other times a longshot—can pick up the pieces.

A couple of notable examples unfolded on April 13, 2024 at Oaklawn Park. In the Count Fleet Sprint H. (G3) for older horses dashing six furlongs at Oaklawn Park, Skelly was favored at 7-10 to take home top honors. He’d wired each of his last seven U.S. starts and exited a game runner-up finish in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3) in Saudi Arabia. Skelly’s blazing early speed figured to burn out fellow speed horses like Ryvit, Perfect Dude, Jaxon Traveler, and I’m Wide Awake, leaving tried-and-true deep closer Tejano Twist as the most likely runner-up even though he’d just lost the Whitmore (G3) to Jaxon Traveler.

The Count Fleet Sprint unfolded exactly as expected. Skelly rocketed to the lead through blazing fractions of :21.52 and :43.88 before cruising home victorious by three lengths over Tejano Twist, who started as the 29-10 second choice. The logical $20 exacta returned $82, far better than the $34 payoff generated by a $20 win bet on Skelly.

Now, it’s not always easy to predict which horses will employ rallying tactics. In the Apple Blossom H. (G1), a prestigious 1 1/16-mile contest for fillies and mares, Adare Manor was a heavy 7-10 favorite. Many of her biggest wins had been achieved in gate-to-wire fashion, which was bad news for her pace rivals in the Apple Blossom.

On paper, one of the other main speed horses (and one seemingly likely to be compromised) was Flying Connection, exiting a gate-to-wire victory in the Harry Henson H. at Sunland Park. In the past, she’d been a pure speed horse, but prior to the Harry Henson, she’d won the 1 1/16-mile Zia Park Oaks by five lengths with a rally from midfield. She looked fast enough on paper to challenge for an exacta finish, and her 26-1 odds were enticing enough to at least consider the possibility she would rate and avoid getting burned out by Adare Manor.

So what happened? Adare Manor got out in front through fractions of :23.68, :46.95, and 1:11.14 before kicking away to win by 5 1/2 lengths. Flying Connection had some trouble at the start, settled in last place for six furlongs, and then passed all the other pace players to finish second, completing a $20 exacta that paid $616.

Watch enough horse races, and you’ll see this result unfold time and time again—a superior speed horse burning out their pace rivals and opening the door for a deep closer to finish second. Finding the right closer isn’t always easy; it would have been easy to overlook Flying Connection. But when you get it right, the payoffs can be rewarding.