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Track Tracts

The Importance of Being Early
by Gordon Pine

When Patti�s Pro won the first race at Belmont last Sunday � a $14,000 claimer � in gate-to-wire fashion, just as Weekend Pick handicapper Jay Greene had predicted, and paid $36.40 to boot, I was reminded of the Importance of Being Early.

Early speed has been called the "universal bias," and it certainly seems universal at most American tracks. What it often amounts to is a free lead. It�s as if some horses get a one-to-maybe-five length lead at the beginning of the race, at little or no cost to them. No wonder there�s a bias � if a competitor can get lengths in front of the pack before they essentially even start running, there�s a definite advantage.

Please review the Pine Pace Paradigm (don�t mind me � I just make these things up as I go along) in the Capper�s Corner Archives, as explained in the three Understanding Pace articles. There are three main components that make up my understanding of pace, and in fact explain a lot of things about how races are run:

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)

Ability is best understood by thinking of a thoroughbred as a hot rod with a big muscle-car engine and a gas tank filled with about one cup of gas. The vast majority of horses are good for only one extended effort before that cup-of-gas is sucked dry. The rest of the race needs to be run at a more moderate pace, with that equine carburetor just sipping at the cup. That, for instance, is why any trouble which causes a loss of momentum in the running of a race is usually fatal to a horse�s chance of winning. It burns up its cup just getting back up to speed.

Need-to-lead quantifies each horse�s desire to get out in front early. This desire is separate from each horse�s ability. One of the worst horses on the grounds can get out in front at the first call of most races. (He just won�t have anything left later.) Some horses, for various reasons explained elsewhere, need to be on the lead early. Patti�s Pro was one of these. He had a habit of getting out on or near the lead, having led at the first call in seven of his last 10 races. Now, Patti�s Pro�s desire to get out in front is a good thing. In the right situation, it gives him a virtually free multiple-length lead on the other horses. However, there are a couple of things that could erase that edge and cause a high need-to-lead horse like him to spontaneously combust. One is tough competition for that lead. If one or more horses figure to contest the early pace, that cup-of-gas tends to get used pretty fast. In this race, Patti�s Pro faced two horses (It�s All Personal and Backstretch) who were high need-to-lead types and could compromise his chances. So that�s a negative for Patti�s Pro.

The third element of the Pine Pace Paradigm, track bias, seems to be in Patti�s favor. A fast, hard track tends to favor frontrunners because they don�t burn much of their cup-of-gas getting out to that early lead. They don�t have to fight the track surface early, which gives them more in the tank later to rebuff challenges. The Belmont 6 furlong dirt track/surface/distance (TSD) had a pace contention point of .42, meaning it definitely favored frontrunners.

So, although handicapping in retrospect is easy, Patti�s Pro looks good. His positives from a pace standpoint: He probably has the ability, given his victory in a NW1 three races back. He�s got a high need-to-lead. He�s running at a TSD that favors frontrunners.

His negatives from a pace standpoint: he might have some competition for the lead.

There are a lot of "mights" in handicapping. The way you deal with them is to insist on odds high enough to make you comfortable with the uncertainty. Patti�s Pro was going off at 17/1, enough to make most handicappers comfortable. The high odds were probably due to his last two races, which featured dismal finishes in tenth place (although he was leading or near the lead in both). High need-to-lead horses tend to have a lot of crash-and-burn races in their records. These shouldn�t be taken too seriously � they go with the territory.

Thanks to Jay Greene for bringing a good example race to my attention by picking it in the weekend contest, and congratulations on handicapping Patti�s Pro before-the-fact. I wish I had handicapped this race before post time rather than in retrospect. I guess the Importance of Being Early applies to handicappers as well as horses. NC

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