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Big Red and The Wizard


Mark Patterson


Thu, Jul 21, 2016

Nobody thinks of him as a "speedball," or "frontrunner," but in none of his 11 route wins did he pass a single foe. Terms like "headstrong" and "unrestrainable" pop up frequently in accounts by those who witnessed his raging brilliance. In truth, he is the patron saint of need-the-lead thoroughbreds-albeit an unattributed one, because to so brand him would somehow taint the unparalleled legend of mighty Man o' War.

But how, really, could horseplayers fail to fully respect the most potent of running styles while watching a Colin, Count Fleet, or War Admiral blaze such indelible trails across American turf? And let's not get started on the magnificent Dr Fager, whose withering speed and take-no-prisoners approach were actually considered character flaws during the time of his unfathomable performances.

Maybe Mickey Rooney (stepping out of the crowd to ride unlicensed and in street clothes) saved the farm from 50-lengths behind one too many times. Or perhaps it's the lovable manner of the up-at the-wire tortoise in that ridiculous parable. And, just who really eats turtle soup? That's a SNAKE WITH LEGS AND A SHELL, friends. But for decades, "cheap" and "speed" were nearly synonymous terms-with a ubiquitous thought bubble encasing the real pejorative: "filthy little quitter."

Eventually, however, (and we're skipping several decades) groundbreaking researchers like William Quirin would cast a cold, scientific eye on thoroughbred running styles. An auto-bet , it was (FINALLY) determined, on first -call leaders would situate you in Beverly Hills. Some speed-point systems even claimed to sniff out those pacesetters often enough and at sufficient odds to fund some shopping on Rodeo Drive.

Closers were no longer cool. A cult was born. The koolaid flowed in great quantity.

Admit it, we all start trolling for lone-speed within two seconds of cracking the past performances. Urgh! Find speed; bet speed; go cash. Every time! Somebody bring back the Geico caveman. (and can that smug lizard).

Unfortunately (both for us and the real estate agency trying to sell Jed Clampett's mansion), it's the early leaders few foresaw that truly generate speed's sizeable ROI. Nor is speed always innate to thoroughbreds that post wire-jobs. Quick acceleration can be a by-product of sharpness, strategy, or natural superiority-not just an intrinsic trait. In other words: Not all frontrunning winners score because they got the lead; many set the pace because they are destined to score. Get it?

And even one-dimensional speeds-horses that can't win without the lead-differ considerably in how they attack. Sub -classifying can illuminate. "Strong" frontrunners rarely shake loose through the initial quarter, nor even make the lead frequently. When afforded the upper-hand, however, they usually prove stubborn and difficult to catch. Anticipating lone "f" trips for frontrunners of this variety can be a trap because, no matter how sluggish the competition, or whatever your pace figures project, strong speeds almost INVITE competition through the early stages. They sometimes, however, survive testy (and occasionally, prolonged) duels.

"Swift" front-runners,on the other hand, almost invariably carve the fractions, often putting daylight between them and their fields, but frequently squander such win opportunities by getting caught and passed. These habitual leaders fold when confronted, never withstand pace competition, and need to shake loose before travelling, say, 2 1/2 furlongs. These kind should be pitched in the presence of superior quickness and likewise disconsidered when an even slight anti-speed trend takes hold.

And speaking of surfaces, even track profiles should distinguish between types of speeds. I learned that when researching Presque Isle's historic first season for a Horseplayer Magazine piece. Incredibly, no horse spurting clear at first-call held to win a route purse. But plenty of leaders hooked through that initial quarter DID go on to score. Stupefying stuff. Had the coveted lone-lead, that notorious inflator of winning margins and beyer numbers, suddenly become a disadvantage? No, closer study revealed that most of the leaders who had shaken free were habitual accelerators prone to packing it in. Tapeta, it seemed, had zero tolerance, at least in two-turn races, for "swift" front-runners.

How smartly a speed horse hits high gear can also depend on distance. Frontrunners tend to be poor bets when shortened into fields more rich in speed. And they often lose within the first few jumps. Horses breaking, say, 4th, 5th, or 6th at six panels stand little chance of coming away well versus quicker stock at five or five and a half furlongs. Yet horsemen almost invariably view distance reduction as remedy for tiring need-lead types.

Forecasting the leader in route races can require different considerations. Most players mistakenly assume that a speed on the stretch-out will secure command easily from two-turn counterparts. But that quick dash to a tight first-turn takes a special knack, and front-running distance horses are practiced at seizing the engine while still saving energy for the long trip.

Strategy, jock's room politics, and even spite can also determine who gets the lead and how easily. Once the riders get their strong little mitts on your predicted fractions and race-flow projections, things tend to go sideways. That's because they, too, read the form and can spot probable leaders or lone speed just the same as you can. And they are LOATHE to let any logical contender steal off at a comfortable tempo. Some will readily sacrifice even a live mount just to ruin somebody else's gate-to-wire plans.

Except when the jockey in front is fearsomely respected-or outright feared. Urban legends exist about the great and fiery Angel Cordero er, ah, "cautioning" fellow riders to not hook him for the lead. Reputedly, the pilot who orchestrated Bold Forbes' desperate Belmont Stakes wire kept an instrument, or two, of deterrence in his locker.

Tactics were never left to the rider when the late and legendary Dale Baird sent a horse to post. And the instructions, it's well known, never varied : "Go to the front and open up," The Wizard of Waterford commanded leading jockeys from Bill Sollars, to Deshawn Parker. And that half-century obsession with getting the lead seems to have worked out just fine - If, of course, more than 9,000 wins are an indication


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