The Importance of Early Speed

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By Dean Arnold

It is often said that early speed is the universal bias in racing. A longshot that sets the early pace may not be able to hold off all challengers, but will often hit the board at big odds. Even the horse that looks like a faint-hearted runner on paper can get brave when they have an early advantage.

Look at any track’s result chart and you’ll see a rider with a horse that possesses early foot but little else in the way of ability that jets away early, opens up several lengths, tires in the stretch and gets passed by the favorite, yet still finishes in the money.  

Consider this angle even in situations where the favorite looks too formidable to expect a longshot frontrunner to keep the public choice at bay all the way to the wire. Here, the public often dismisses the ‘cheap speed’ altogether. It is often an all-or-nothing assessment by the crowd (their thinking is either the longshot has a chance to steal it, or will fold completely). Public handicappers also tend to name horses that are devoid of early speed as runners to put in the bottom of exactas and trifectas because they can ‘plod along for a piece of it.’ In reality, the longshot frontrunner will hold it together after getting passed by the eventual winner much more consistently than the longshot plodders will rally for place or show money.

A horse that leads a race early has several advantages, with the most important one being that traffic is never an issue. Whether it is a case of the speed horse tiring or a late running horse accelerating, other horses need to maneuver past the leader in order to win. Leading also allows the rider to put their horse on the best path around the track in the event of an inside or outside bias. Plus the pace is only what the horse needs to exert to keep the lead. If no one challenges for the lead, a frontrunner need not be the next Runhappy in order to hold the lead.

To be sure, every day there will be plodders that hit the board in lackluster performances passing tiring horses. But identifying the early speed of the race and playing it underneath legitimate favorites will lead to large place payoffs or generous exotic hits far more often.

The exception is when a solid legitimate favorite is also a confirmed frontrunner. When this occurs, the less talented speed horses will either fail to make the lead and therefore not run well at all, or they will duel for the lead, usually tiring long before the stretch, leaving them unable to hold a decent placing to the finish. Except under this one clearly identifiable exception, this angle is an easy way to snag place and show runners without having to handicap all night long.

Requirements to play early speed:

– Identify longshots that are likely to lead even when they are unlikely to win.

– Play these frontrunners underneath legitimate favorites in exactas and trifectas.

– Avoid the play when the legitimate favorite is a confirmed need-the-lead frontrunner.

Be sure to check out Dean Arnold's handicapping book, A Bettor Way, on sale now through Amazon.

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