Apr 13 2014

Pace Lessons from Aqueduct – Uncontested Leads Are Hard To Overcome

Aqueduct Starting Gate

I went down to Aqueduct on April 5,2014 with a couple of racing buddies to witness the Wood Memorial and a couple of other quality stakes races.  Among those were the 9-Furlong Gazelle Stakes for 3-year old fillies and the 7-Furlong Carter Handicap for 3-year olds and up.  Both race outcomes were a reminder of a fundamental tenet in horse racing – uncontested leads are hard to overcome – regardless of the distance.

In the Gazelle Stakes, My Miss Sophia was the 4-5 betting favorite.  Prior to this race, she had only two career races, both maiden races; one at 5.5 furlongs and the last at 8 furlongs.  So, today she’s going an extra furlong and she’s facing much more experienced horses, including three that have run and placed in multiple Graded Stakes races.  But she has something that none of her rivals have shown in their prior races … the ability to break sharply and position herself on the lead. This capability can result in what handicappers often refer to as an “uncontested lead.” Below is the video replay of the race, it won’t take more than a second to see which number is My Miss Sophia, as she bursts from the gate and goes right to the lead.

During the race call, Tom Durkin commented how My Miss Sophia ran the “first quarter in a reasonable 24 1/5 second” and at the halfway point he added that she “is sailing along here.”  In the stretch he says, “She’s got another gear, plenty left for the final furlong here.”  So, despite making her first start at a longer distance she prevailed comfortably.  Also of interest, in the prior eight races on April 5, only one other horse had led from gate to wire for the win.  Overall, the track seemed to be playing very fair to all running styles. This will come into play in our next example, The Carter Handicap.


After the Gazelle Stakes, the Wood Memorial was run as the 10th race.  Like the majority of preceding races, it was won by a horse coming from off-the-pace.  So, up to this point, the only race that had been won gate-to-wire was the Gazelle Stakes.

Looking at the Past Performances for horses in the Carter Handicap, there were only two horses with solid speed out of the gate, and one Dads Caps had tired late to finish second at 6-furlongs in his last three races.  The Carter Handicap is a 7-furlong race.   So, on the surface, it was easy to understand why he was being dismissed by the public at odds of 10-1.  If he couldn’t last at 6-furlongs, how would he last going longer?  Before watching the replay of the race, let’s consider the fractional times for Dads Caps in his last four races, all at Aqueduct.

Date 2-Furlongs 4-Furlongs
March 1, 2014 :22.56 :45.23
February 1, 2014 :22.97 :45.50
December 13, 2013 :22.99 :46.38
November 16, 2013 :22.36 :44.83

All first quarter times were less than 23 seconds, and only one half mile time exceeded 46 seconds. Now lets watch the race and listen closely to Tom Durkin’s call. Also, as your’re watching the race, note the fractional times displayed at the top of the video. Dads Caps is #4.

Tom Durkin clues us in early that Dads Cap is getting away with an easy lead when he says, “Not a particularly fast pace has been established.”  Then he adds, “Well within the capability of these Grade 1 horses a :232 opening quarter mile.”  And, at the conclusion of the race he sums everything up by saying, “That soft quarter mile perhaps played a strong hand in the outcome here.”

So, how did Luis Contreras get away with such a slow pace?  There were probably multiple factors at play here.

  1. Despite being a field loaded with talented runners, only Strapping Groom (#5) had shown a tendency to press an early pace. The other contenders were usually content to lay back and make their runs late.
  2. Strapping Groom was positioned outside of Dads Caps, and his jockey Irad Ortiz likely figured he’d sit off the speed horse (Dads Caps) and when he started to tire, he’d be in a perfect position to pounce.  So, no need to press the pace too early or too fast.
  3. The track had been playing fair, meaning there was very little speed bias. The other jockeys probably figured that the top two would eventually back up to their horses in the stretch. You can see in the replay that no jockey pushed his horse early. Remember, only one race in ten preceding races had been won gate-to-wire.

But, in the end, Luis Contreras and Dads Caps fooled them all.  Once again, demonstrating that a horse that gets away with a slow pace, on an uncontested lead, can be very hard to overcome … even when they are going further distances than their previous races.


Click here to read a prior article that explains the fundamentals of Pace Handicapping, including examples from the Daily Racing Form utilizing Moss Pace Figures.


Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

8 comments on “Pace Lessons from Aqueduct – Uncontested Leads Are Hard To Overcome

  1. Nice job on the pace piece. I hate when people say a track has a ‘speed bias.’ Speed is its own bias and when good horses are allowed to be comfortable on the lead, they don’t stop and are difficult to catch. Not that there aren’t ‘speed bias’ tracks, however, I think the term is overused.

  2. Watching the Carter Handicap, I was like wow, the race ran like what I would call an accordion effect, very rare for a 7 furlong sprint. Riders break, no one driving for the lead the first hundred feet, the horse is front relaxes and slows right down for the rider, which again is rare at 7 furlongs, looked to be no true speed horses in the race. The only challenger was from the outside which that rider was just sitting still, meanwhile horses got trapped and bottled up behind heels of those two, riders have no choice but to sit there and wait. Weird things happen in racing all the time. The one thing the public does not know is what instructions the rider may have been given by the trainer. Maybe most riders were told to sit right off the lead which would make you ride the first 1/16 of a mile trying to work in that strategy but then you can become a victim of circumstance.

    If I was the jockey in front, my thoughts would be “Sweet” I should have something to kick on with. If I was the jockey outside laying second, I would feel very confident as well as you’d feel you have the leader collared and measured as you hit the turn. As far as the other jockeys, maybe they felt “crap”, I am screwed and there is nothing I can do to change this. So those are my thoughts.

    Frankie Lovato on
  3. Duplicate of My Miss Sophia’s uncontested lead happened again yesterday in another graded stakes at Aqueduct.

    After La Verdad had an uncontested leaded after breaking from the rail, the race was already over after leaving the far turn.

  4. What I don’t get about a slower pace is; why can’t a horse who is faster but happens to be behind,just race up and pass the slower albeit in the lead runner? Or if a behind the slo paced leader, wait for the straight away and overtake it there, wouldn’t a superior horse whose been throttled down due to a slow pace,have more kick to make a move..I mean they’re not on rails..great article buy the way !!

    Sam slayed on
    • Hi Sam. Great question. Regarding the straight away, my answer is there are limits to how fast a horse can run. If the leader has been allowed to have an easy lead … he might go the final 2 furlongs in something like 24 seconds flat. Even a superior horse can’t run fast enough to make up the difference. Beyond that I have forwarded your question to a jockey friend for additional insight. Thanks.

      • Again, from Frankie Lovato: Agreed, we all hope for a fair honest pace so at least there is minimum excuses. Still, as jockeys, we cannot predict what’s going to happen from each quarter mile of the race. I have rode races that I made genius moves and lost and got criticized, then other times, not good choices, won and was praised. This is a tough business. We are not on race cars with gas pedals and brakes. We are racing against other jockeys and horses that we can not read their mind or ability out there on the track at that very moment. We just try to do the best we can. :)

    • Additional comments from Frankie Lovato (ex-jockey): If they are in a pocket behind horses, they are kind of on rails. It’s not like you can just shove a horse out of the way without causing added danger to everyone, so easy to clip heels too. You could try but subject to many ramifications, like disqualifications and or majors fines; along with creating a poor reputation with horseman that will keep you from any successful career. Also, like I mentioned with my first time discussing pace – perhaps you have instructions NOT to go to the lead, so if you are the one that presses the pace, you would not be following instructions and if you did press the pace, the pace would be picked up creating a faster pace, which defeats what you want … and makes you look stupid and perhaps against the instructions given by the owner and trainer. As far as straight-aways, sometimes there are not enough straight aways in a race, usually just one besides the stretch when the race is already sorted out, usually just one straight and so many things can happen.

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