Pace the Key to an Oscar Performance

So here is trainer Brian Lynch’s dilemma. He has a brilliantly fast grass horse named Oscar Performance who used that brilliance to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last year. The colt then overcame a rocky start to his 3-year-old campaign by having a terrific summer, stretching out to a mile and a quarter. But when stretched out to a mile and a half against older horses in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, he could do no better than third behind the runaway winner Beach Patrol, suggesting that perhaps 12 furlongs against top-class Europeans, as well as the best in America, in the Breeders' Cup Turf might be a bit beyond his scope.
The best Lynch could take out of the Turf Classic was that Oscar Performance did not receive the best of rides and wasn't given the chance to run his best race. Yet he never gave up and fought hard to the end, just missing second. Lynch also had to be at least a bit optimistic that Oscar Performance’s time in winning the mile and a quarter Secretariat Stakes was three-fifths of a second faster than Beach Patrol’s time in the Arlington Million on the same card, and 3-year-olds in the Secretariat don't often run faster than the older horses in the big race.

Now that Lynch has decided to forge ahead to the Breeders' Cup Turf, he has to figure out how to beat the Euros and the American older horses going a mile and a half, and hope that Oscar Performance receives the kind of ride he needs to accomplish such a daunting task, which means a clean trip and not get caught down on the rail inside of horses, as he was in the Turf Classic. That likely contributed to his two poor efforts to start the year in Kentucky.

The logical strategy would be to try to get to the lead, away from traffic, and slow the pace down in order to save something for the onslaught of closers.

But here is where the misconception comes in that by going slow early and fast late you can outclose the Euros. That strategy certainly makes sense from a logical point of view, but not so much in international competition. By slowing the pace down you are playing right into the hands of the Europeans. That is their game. They feed on slow paces; they thrive on it, because that is the nature of the game there. The only time they normally see a fast pace in Europe is when there are hopeless pacesetters put in a race to help their stablemates who might not be equipped to outstay the stayers, so they try to make it a test of speed where they can use their turn of foot and have something to run at. The Euros have proven time and again they will outclose an American horse no matter how slow they go.

Back in 1972, Darby Dan owner John Galbreath ran his English Derby winner Roberto against the undefeated superstar Brigadier Gerard in the inaugural running of the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup at York. Galbreath knew that it was unlikely Roberto could outclose The Brigadier, so he brought in his main rider in the States, Braulio Baeza, and had him set a cracking pace and run The Brigadier off his feet. By going fast early, it took Brigadier Gerard out of his game and he lacked his usual late punch, as Roberto won off in course-record time.

I will never forget the great filly Desert Vixen, one of the most brilliant fillies ever, making her grass debut in the Washington D.C. International. She managed to slow the pace down to an absolute crawl, going in :51 4/5 and 1:17 1/5 on a firm course, and did wind up closing her final quarter in a blistering :23 1/5. But a hard-knocking French-trained gelding named Admetus, who was sent of at 31-1, came home his final quarter in :22 2/5 to run her down.

Getting back to pacesetters in Europe, what if the pacesetter opens up seven, eight or nine lengths and doesn't come back to them? What if the pacesetter is in actuality a top quality horse who can carry his speed. That is a scenario that is, pardon the expression, foreign to the Europeans.

By separating from the pack and running testing fractions up front, sure you're going to get a bit more tired at the end, but you are also forcing the closers, especially the Euro closers, to use more of their speed earlier than they are used to. And the faster they go early, the less of a turn of foot they will have late. That strategy is more conducive to the firmer courses in California that will help a frontrunner setting a brisk pace to carry his speed farther. But in order for this stretegy to work, the pacesetter has to be willing to separate from the pack early if that is what it takes to quicken the pace, and then have enough stamina and raw talent himself not to cave in the stretch.

This strategy is best used when you have doubts about whether your horse can handle the Euros at 12 furlongs and are willing to take a gamble and pull out all stops to find a way to beat them. It is not for everyone and you have to have a great deal of confidence in your horse to pull it off. After all, the object is always to use your horse's main weapon, and in the case of Oscar Performance that is his speed. You live by the sword and you die by the sword, but you get nothing by playing it conservative if you want to try to win. In other words, don't get beat playing their game. If you're going to get beat let it be playing your game.

This probably sounds crazy and counterproductive to many, and that is understandable. But what you might want to do is check out the 2009 Breeders' Cup Turf when the often out of control speed horse, Presious Passion, who had a penchant for opening humongous leads and then hanging tough when threatened, had the unenviable task of taking on the top-class English horse Conduit, who had won the Breeders' Cup Turf the previous year. But to his advantage, there were only six others entered in the race, with Europe having the top three favorites.

Presious Passion had put on quite a show earlier in the year in the United Nations when he charged to the lead and opened up a 20-length lead, blazing the opening half in :45 1/5 and getting the mile in a razor-sharp 1:34 3/5 before holding on for a two-length victory.

His connections realized the only way to defeat the Euros in the Breeders' Cup Turf, run over the firm going at Santa Anita, was to utilize those same tactics and hope for the same results. Although they didn't work over the off going in the Arlington Million, he did come back to win the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic wire-to-wire.

In the BC Turf, he again flew out of the gate and opened a 10 to 15-length lead, blazing the half in a seemingly suicidal :45 flat, the three-quarters in 1:09 1/5, and mile in 1:34 2/5. As expected, the field closed in, but Presious Passion actually had another gear and amazingly battled back when Conduit came charging up alongside at the head of the stretch. He fought hard to the wire, getting beaten only three-quarters of a length in one of the most impressive defeats in Breeders' Cup history.

Now, no one is expecting Oscar Performance to repeat those tactics, but Presious Passion did provide a blueprint on how a talented, brilliant horse who relies heavily on his speed can beat top-class Europeans and Americans in a championship race like the Breeders' Cup Turf.

It's all about pace, and speed controls pace. Although the speedy Little Mike didn't go to the front in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Turf, he was in the enviable position of letting two longshots blast out of there and set fast fractions of :46 3/5 and 1:35 1/5. Little Mike disposed of those two on the far turn, opened a clear lead, and had enough left to hold off the top-class closers Point of Entry, America's top grass horse, and the top-class Ballydoyle colt St Nicholas Abbey, both of whom most likely had to run faster than they wanted early, with Point of Entry not having the best of trips down on the inside. All Little Mike did was set a new Breeders’ Cup Turf record of 2:22.83.

Even last year when the multiple group 1-winning Highland Reel, coming off a second in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, surprised everyone by opening a clear lead right from the start, it seemed totally out of character and many thought he would not be able to sustain his pace. But he also held on to win. He is back this year, along with the high-class Ulysses, trained by Sir Michael Stoute, who also trained Conduit, and several other Group winners in Europe. Good luck trying to outclose them all in a European-style race.

I have no idea what Brian Lynch's strategy will be with Oscar Performance, but with a horse who has shown he doesn't like being down on the inside of horses and likes to be in control, the only way assuring he will have a clean trip and be able to use his main weapon, speed, while attempting to neutralize the closing kick of the Europeans, would seem to be simply to outrun everyone, regardless of how fast he has to go to do it, and make sure he shakes loose from Beach Patrol and puts some distance between them. The course should suit that style, maybe not as much as Santa Anita. The only other alternative is to sit back and wait and try to outclose the closers.

So do you take the bull by the horns, as they say, and gamble your horse has it in him to take them all the way or do you play it conservatively, which means playing the Euros' game?

There is a difference between suggesting how a trainer should run his horse and just having fun by plotting a possible strategy, just as any handicapper would do when going over the form. That is what we are doing here, merely handicapping the race out loud. And this way you can throw a little history in as well. No way we are attempting to tell Lynch how to run his horse. He could very well slow the pace down and outclose everyone, as he did in the Belmont Derby against 3-year-olds at 1 1/4 miles. It just has been proven many times that it is difficult beating the Europeans that way going a mile and a half with a horse who possesses this much natural speed and likes to be on or just off the lead. And if Oscar Performance takes back, don’t be surprised to see Beach Patrol try to take it to them from the start.

However Oscar Performance goes about it, the feeling here is that he is going to be a much more formidable foe than we saw in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. But he will need the right trip, which he didn't get at Belmont Park last time out, and the right kind of pace, which is the one thing he has in his control.

Yes, this may have seemed a long way to go in constructing an entire column to basically relay one thought: Go to the front and let him run.

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