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Track Tracts

Understanding Pace: Need-To-Lead
by Gordon Pine

As I said last week, pace involves an interplay of three main factors:

1. The capacity of horses to maintain a fast pace (ability)
2. The desire of certain horses and jockeys to get out in front early (need-to-lead)
3. The track surface (track pace bias)

Last week I talked about ability using the analogy of a cup of gas. This week, it�s need-to-lead.

Some horses just want to get out front early. Why do some horses need to lead? There are probably several reasons.

First, as a handicapper, you only see the thoroughbreds as they race by you on the track. Think about how these same animals spend 99% of their time � in small, separate stalls. This is highly unnatural for young athletic herd animals. When they do get out on the track, they�re often raring to go, full of frustrated energy. The burst of early speed you see in some horses is a symptom of that frustration.

Second, there is probably a component of fear in a headlong burst of speed. As Desmond Morris says in Horsewatching, "No wild horse would ever accelerate to a full gallop without being in a state of panic-fleeing... Only when the predator has broken cover and is in hot pursuit will a wild horse break into a top-speed gallop. So somewhere in a racehorse�s mind there must be a fantasy, at least, of a pursuing killer... As [the whip] stings the flank or rump it must be reminiscent of the scratch of a feline claw or the nip of a canine mouth." So the use of the whip and the slap of the reins at the start of a race can affect a horse�s front-running behavior.

Third, there is training. Some trainers teach their horses to get out of the gate quickly. Repetitive gate drills make an impression on most horses that it�s desirable to get out of the gate promptly and cleanly.

Fourth is breeding. It�s not my area of expertise, but some horses are bred to sprint, with powerful hindquarters and stocky bodies, while others are born and bred to go a distance.

Fifth, there�s the jockey. Certain jocks have front-running styles and tendencies. Despite his liabilities, Pat Valenzuela, for instance, was always great at getting horses out of the gate quickly. An extra step or two at the start can make all the difference. Jockeys who have raced quarter horses may have an edge in this department.

Sixth, I believe that personality affects early speed. The closer you get to horses, the more you realize that each one has a distinct personality. Some are clever, some are lazy, some are mean, some seem to have a sense of humor. Ever take off from a stoplight when you�re driving and realize that the guy in the lane next to you was competing to be in front? Like humans, some horses have competitive instincts. It might be anthropomorphizing, but some horses seem to just want to be in front at all times if possible.

So, need-to-lead is the behavior component of pace. It is separate from ability. You don�t usually need talent to get out in front. The least talented horse at a track probably has the capability to get out in front at the first call of a typical route. A horse who wants to get out in front badly enough usually can.

The first 1 � furlongs or so of a race (see Handicapping Speed by Charles Carroll) are run anaerobically � in other words, the horse uses up fuel that doesn�t require oxygen from the blood. The ability to hold the lead is the ability to cross over to aerobic running and dominate a race. This requires, among other things, a superior heart and lungs. (It may, in fact, be the size of a horse�s physical heart as much as its emotional heart that provides class.)

This is where the interplay between need-to-lead and ability to hold the lead enters. Handicappers have terms for the different scenarios that this interaction provides.

"Cheap speed" refers to a horse who wants to get in front but doesn�t have the ability to stay there. In other words, this horse has a high need-to-lead but a low ability to hold the lead. This is bad.

A "paceless race" is a race without any high need-to-lead horses. Many races are relatively paceless. In these situations, pace handicapping becomes unimportant.

"Lone speed" alludes to a race with only one high need-to-lead horse. Any horse that can get an easy lead is dangerous. An uncontested early lead is like a free head start. This is good.

A "pace duel" occurs when two or more horses contest the early lead. You have multiple horses with high need-to-leads. The possibilities here are many. If one horse has superior ability, he can survive a duel like this and go on to win. In general, though, a pace duel is bad for the chances of all the participants. It drains their cup of gas and leaves them vulnerable to stalkers and closers. Pace battles may seem obvious in hindsight, but predicting when they will happen, how they will unfold and what their effect will be is one of the toughest handicapping tasks.

Since most jockeys are aware of the drawbacks of getting involved in a pace duel, they can affect the pace scenario. Sometimes this can work to their advantage if they can get a high need-to-lead horse to relax behind the frontrunner. Sometimes it can work to their disadvantage, when they have to "crank down" on a horse and waste valuable energy fighting him. (When you see a jockey who looks like he�s water skiing, with his feet out in front of him, or with his behind up in the air and a tight hold on a short rein, you know the horse is being cranked down.) Horses who are cranked down early in a race are often not there when the jockey pushes the button later on.

The myriad scenarios that can occur when need-to-lead meets ability to hold the lead are the meat and potatoes of pace handicapping. Next week, a word about the third component of pace: track pace bias. NC

Copyright �2001 NetCapper Inc. All rights reserved.

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