Is Pace Overrated?

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Derek Simon

April 12th, 2013

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In fact, this was one of the big reasons I downgraded the chances of I’ll Have Another in last year’s Run for the Roses. In the “Cons” section of the 2012 Kentucky Derby Guide I produced for Brisnet.com(this year’s edition will be available starting next week) I wrote the following:

“Doug O’Neill trainee has never won from further back than second at the first call, yet he’s recorded a -1 ESR in each his last two starts. Sorry, but that ain’t happening in Louisville. He’s either going to have to expend more energy early or come from further off the pace, neither of which he’s proven he can do.” 
Of course, I was right about the scenario that I’ll Have Another would face on the first Saturday in May of 2012 — not only was the son of Flower Alley seventh, back eight lengths, at the first call in the Derby that day, but he recorded a -6 ESR to boot. However, I was wrong about the ultimate impact of that scenario. As it turned out, I’ll Have Another had no trouble rallying from off the pace to capture the 138thrunning of America’s most famous horse race.

And that got me to thinking: Was Ed right? Is pace overrated when it comes to deciding who can and who cannot win the Kentucky Derby? 

To answer that question I first needed to determine what effect the pace of a race had on its final speed figure. So I decided to find out by using my database of thousands of races from tracks across the country. I conducted my survey as follows:

1) I recorded the Brisnet speed figure (BSF) of random race winners and noted the general distance (route/sprint) and surface (dirt/turf/synthetic) at/over which those numbers were earned.

2) I subtracted the associated race pars from the speed figures obtained above, which allowed me to compare races from across the class spectrum. For example, if a particular race featured a par of 103 and the winner earned a 97 BSF, I would record its final speed rating as a -6 (97 – 103 = -6).

3) Lastly, I determined the average adjusted speed rating for a given range of ESRs earned by the first-call leader(s) of the races in question.

The results were startling: 

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As you can see, the ideal pace in terms of producing the best, or fastest, speed rating on dirt is a moderate to brisk one (-5 to -9 ESR). This is true in both sprints and routes (ignoring samples of fewer than 10 horses). On synthetic and turf surfaces, the best Brisnet speed figures in relation to par come in races featuring soft to moderate ESRs.
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However, the real stunner — at least to me — is that slower relative paces (higher ESRs) don’t appear to alter the winner’s speed figure that much and fast paces (lower ESRs), which many, myself included, have always assumed acted as springboards to higher figs, in fact, did just the opposite — stifling the final speed rating across all categories, save turf sprints.

Interestingly, this jibes with an observation made by Andrew Beyer nearly 40 years ago. In the original Picking Winners, published in 1975, Beyer had this to say about pace:

“A horse’s fractional times do not affect his final time. Horses are never ‘burned up’ by fast fractions. There is no such thing as a ‘killing pace.’”
Ironically, this passage was subsequently removed from later editions of Beyer’s seminal work, as the author claimed to have seen the light — due primarily to the 1981 Kentucky Derby.
"If I wanted to test the influence of pace, I might have designed an experiment like this: Have the early leaders in the Kentucky Derby run the fastest first quarter-mile in the history of the race and judge its effect,” Beyer wrote in The Winning Horseplayer, which was first published in 1994.

" … The Derby field was filled with brilliant speed horses, notably Proud Appeal and Cure the Blues. They all went charging for the lead, and a bullet named Top Avenger got it, running the quarter in 21-4/5 seconds — the fastest fraction at Churchill Downs in 107 years — and the half-mile in a swift :45-1/5. Every horse who was near this breathtaking pace collapsed. The horses who were running 1-2-3-4-5 after three-quarters of a mile finished 19-10-18-16-17. As they backed up, all the stretch runners and plodders passed them. The first five finishers at the end of the Derby were horses who had been running 15-19-10-17-20 after three-quarters.

"The winner, Pleasant Colony, was a genuinely good horse, but nondescript plodders like Woodchopper and Television Studio had rallied to finish ahead of superior horses like Cure the Blues and Proud Appeal by margins of 20 or 30 lengths,” Beyer pointed out. “The outcome of the Derby seemed to have relatively little to do with the ability of the horses; it was much more the result of pace."

Notice, however (and I think this is a key point), that Beyer’s “epiphany” does not actually relate to the final running time of the race (Ed’s point); it only pertains to individual contenders. And guess what? That blistering :45-1/5 opening half-mile in 1981 led to a very commonplace 2:02 final clocking — tied with six other editions as the 27th fastest Derby ever… hardly the stuff of legends.

Ed DeRosa 1, pace handicappers 0.