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HORSE RACING : In the Derby, Not So Fast


With the Kentucky Derby only three weeks away, many casual fans are starting to pay attention to horse racing. Those who watched Saturday's telecasts of two major prep races may have been impressed by Wild Syn's victory over three highly regarded Derby contenders in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. And fans surely were dazzled by Talkin Man's effortless 7 3/4-length victory in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct.

This is an appropriate time to state a principle of handicapping underlying these and many other races. Most bettors recognize it as one of the central truths in the game:

When a speed horse is able to take an uncontested early lead, running at a moderate pace, he will deliver the very best performance of which he is capable. Under such circumstances, the horse may win easily, giving the impression that he has energy in reserve. But when he is subjected to greater early pressure, he will run worse.

The explanation for this phenomenon is that athletes must utilize their energy in an optimal fashion to deliver a peak effort. Speed horses almost always do this by conserving their energy early so they can accelerate at the end. A front-runner in a distance race may be exceptionally effective if he is allowed to run the first half mile in 48 seconds; but if he is forced to run the early fraction in 46 seconds, his performance will suffer.

Wild Syn is a textbook illustration of this principle. The colt displayed some speed and talent in Florida this winter, but he didn't appear in the same class as the three well-regarded Kentucky Derby contenders in the Blue Grass field--Suave Prospect, Thunder Gulch and Tejano Run. In my system of speed figures, Wild Syn's lifetime best effort was a 91; the others all had run 105 or better--a superiority of about nine lengths.

But because none of the contenders possessed much early speed, Wild Syn was able to take the lead by running the first quarter mile in 24 1/5 seconds and the half in 49 seconds.

His jockey, Randy Romero, said: "When I hit the first quarter as slow as I did, I knew no one was going to catch me." And no one did. Suave Prospect and Tejano Run hardly were disgraced by their second- and third-place finishes; they ran solid races and their usual speed figures. But Wild Syn improved to earn a figure of 109--the best by any Derby-age colt this year. He probably never will do it again, because he never again will encounter such favorable conditions.

Most bettors will recognize Wild Syn as a fluke; his odds in the Kentucky Derby will be close to his 30-to-1 price in the Blue Grass. But few will be so skeptical of Talkin Man.

The Canadian colt had a perfect setup in the Wood Memorial. There were no other stakes-quality runners in the field, and there were no other horses with early speed, either. After cruising to the lead, running the first half mile in 48 seconds, Talkin Man hardly could fail to deliver an impressive-looking performance.

Jockey Shane Sellers barely had to move a muscle as the favorite drew away to win by nearly eight lengths in 1:49 1/5 for a mile and one-eighth (which translated into a speed figure of 105). The New York Times described it as the most impressive performance by a 3 year old this season. And, indeed, Talkin Man looked as if he were capable of running in 1:47 or 1:48. But handicappers know from experience that easy wins like this are usually illusions, and that Talkin Man won't run better when he gets into a more-competitive race.

There was one other victory of this type in a key Derby prep this spring--Serena's Song's romp in the Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway Park. Like Talkin Man and Wild Syn, she was in a field devoid of other front-runners. She controlled the pace from start to finish and won by 3 1/2 lengths, earning a speed figure of 114--the best by any thoroughbred of her generation, male or female.

Trainer Wayne Lukas now seems inclined to bypass the Kentucky Oaks and enter Serena's Song into the Derby, where she will have strong support. But if Serena's Song, Talkin Man and Wild Syn all are present in the same field, it is certain that none will enjoy the optimal conditions that enabled them to look so good in their recent victories.

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