The Power of Early Speed And the Power of Finding It

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TwinSpires Staff

March 16th, 2015

In 2005 the Daily Racing Form database contained more than 200,000 Thoroughbred races run in North America, at more than 30 different tracks, over a nine-year period. Someone had the idea to run a query and see how horses performed when they made the early lead after a quarter mile. The results were as followed:

201,268 races

28.4% wins

56% profit per dollar bet.

In other words, if you had bet just $100 on each horse who managed to make the lead after a quarter mile, you'd have made more than $11-million. This fact was the genesis for the book The Power of Early Speed by Steve Klein.

Not surprisingly, the stats were even more eye-popping in instances where a horse made a “loose” or “uncontested” early lead after an opening quarter mile. For instance, here are the results for horses who led by a margin of 2-to-2.75 lengths at that point in the race:

20,564 races

34.5% wins

92.5% profit per dollar bet.

The book went on to show that early leaders yielded a huge profit across different surfaces, throughout all different tracks, and across all different class levels.

Unfortunately, the big problem with this is that we can't bet races 25 seconds after the gates open, and if someone ever could figure out how to do that, they'd get filthy rich in no time. It would literally be like having the ability to print money.

The reality is that no one can correctly forecast who will make the early lead in every race. What's more, a lot of the big longshots who win in gate-to-wire fashion aren't expected to make the early lead. These are horses who generally don't have enough early zip to get to the lead, but because of poor starts or passive jockey tactics, they find themselves leading early.

This type of scenario was the case in the 6th race on March 7 at Aqueduct. You had four early speeds types in the race, here they are in pari-mutuel order:

Verismilitude (6/5)

La Bella Valeria (7/2)

Here's Zealicious (8/1)

Town Kitty (25/1)

When the gates opened, La Bella Valeria bobbled at the start and bumped with a rival. Here's Zealicious also bumped a rival at the start after breaking inward. Three of the four horses were ridden with passive tactics in an apparent effort to avoid a speed duel, and this Town Kitty loose on the early lead and she capitalized on the advantage and held on for the win.

The bottom line is this: the value of leading early is a great advantage and it is underestimated by jockeys, trainers, and even some bettors. However, bettors who try to place their entire handicapping approach around the question “who makes the early lead?” are in for a lot of frustration, torture, and madness. People who take this handicapping approach almost always become habitual complainers of riding tactics, some of them even become full-fledged jockey haters.

I worked as a jockey agent in 2009 at Presque Isle Downs. Until you're around them and talking to them daily, you don't really appreciate how incompetent jockeys and trainers are in terms of race shape and other advanced handicapping methods. I recall one situation in which my jockey was on a morning line favorite we picked up that I felt owned a clear pace advantage. Prior to the race, the trainer told my jock "this horse is pretty versatile. I don't want to see it used up battling for the lead again. Let's try coming from off the pace.”

I desperately wanted to protest and tell the trainer "Did you even bother looking at the PPs? The only reason he was burned up last time is because he was hung up 3-wide through the entire first-turn on a gold rail day, while chasing a hot early pace. Inside speed continues to be doing incredibly well at this meet and there’s no pace pressure at all in this race. Only a complete imbecile would want to decline our pace advantage and try to win from mid-pack position.”

However, I knew better by this point. Trainers don't like to be told anything, especially by younger guys with nothing more than a betting background. My jockey would say “you're probably right, but don't ever tell me how to ride my horses, and especially don't tell me anything to the opposite when the trainer gives me instructions on how he wants his horse ridden.”

Naturally, I told everyone who asked me that the horse had no chance and was being instructed to get an idiotic ride. The horse went off at odds of 9/5 and was wrestled back behind a slow early pace. Because it was getting a bit rank, my jock guided the horse to the outside down the backstretch, and it clearly had no chance at that point. It finished sixth in a field of seven. I was so irritated by the situation, that the next time I saw my jock I made a slew of comments mocking him that led to our parting of ways and almost resulted in a fist fight.

In my opinion, having an understanding and appreciation for the advantage of an early lead, is more important from a post-race trip handicapping standpoint, than it is a pre-race handicapping standpoint. All of the pitfalls that come with forecasting who will make the early lead in a race have already played out when it comes time to analyze a race that has been completed.

Simply put, you should upgrade the performance of any horse who had some early adversity and still ran a pace figure faster than par for the class level, but was out-dueled for the early lead. These horses ran better performances than their running lines and overall speed figures will suggest. When the day comes where they make an uncontested early lead, you'll almost surely see them "get brave" and often win or at least tremendously outrun their odds.

Conversely, you should downgrade the performance of any horse who is able to establish an uncontested early lead without having to run fast or battle hard in order to get it. Generally speaking, they just enjoyed the most favorable trip in horse racing. They may very well get the same trip again next time, but even the fleetest footed of horses aren't consistently able to establish early leads. has a 'Stable Alert' service that allows you, for free, to build up your own personal horses to follow list. There is also a paid premium service for tracking the progeny of sires & dams.

That service is great for bettors who are looking to capitalize on bet-backs and bet-against types from their own trip notes.

As one final point of emphasis on how advantageous it is to establish an uncontested early lead, I'll note that the great Secretariat was defeated three different times during his 3-year-old season. In each instance, the horse who beat him capitalized on an uncontested early lead.

* 1973 Wood Memorial: 

Angle Light, circled in blue, was immediately able to establish an uncontested early lead in the 1973 Wood Memorial. He won the race in wire-to-wire fashion with the far superior duo of Sham finishing second and Secretariat finishing third. Amazingly, this was the only stakes win in Angle Light's entire 21-race career. It is also worth noting that Secretariat was found to have been suffering from a tooth abscess that hindered him in this race. After a little bit of dental work, he dominated the Triple Crown series as no horse has before, or since.

* 1973 Whitney:

Onion, circled in blue, was immediately able to establish an uncontested early lead. He wired the field in the Whitney. Believe it or not, this was the only stakes win in Onion's entire 54-race career. It's also worth nothing that Secretariat broke open the gate prior to the start and he also was given a poor ride, trying to rush up inside of Onion going into the far turn.

* 1973 Woodward:

Prove Out, circled in blue, was immediately able to establish an uncontested early lead. To Ron Turcotte's credit, he had Secretariat in a good stalking position early, but he pulled the trigger way too soon down the backstretch. The same move that worked brilliantly for Turcotte in the Belmont Stakes over a lightening fast surface, didn't work as well in the 12-furlong Woodward. Prove Out led early, conceded the lead midway down the backstretch, and came again to defeat Secretariat in a huge performance.

It's also worth mentioning that Zenyatta was almost defeated in shocking fashion by an uncontested easy leader named Rinterval in the 2010 Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar.

Rinterval only crossed the finish line first just twice in a 25-race career. The biggest win of her career came in the 50k Wintergreen stakes at Turfway Park. In fact, during the 2009 Presque Isle Downs meet, Rinterval was dusted by a cheap claimer named Happy Wac, only to be awarded the victory when Happy Wac was disqualified and placed sixth. No one will ever confuse Rinterval for a star, but she made Mike Smith go to the whip repeatedly as she battled Zenyatta to the wire after having enjoyed an uncontested early lead. She got brave on an easy lead, just like any healthy horse will.