Pace can often make a race.
And pace can often set up a race rather nicely for a longshot.
Looking at the first race at Belmont Park on June 9, it wasn’t hard to see that the several of the main contenders would be embroiled in a hotly contested battle for the early lead.
An optional claimer for horses bred in New York, the seven-furlong race attracted a field of six, with five of them showing a stakes appearance in their past performances.
What also stood out in their form was that almost all of them possessed early speed.
The odds-on favorite at 0.55-1 was Bobby On Fleek, who was coming off a dismal effort in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs. He was within a length and a half of the lead at first call in all three of his sprint races prior to the trip to Kentucky.
Sudden Surprise, the 4.10-1 second choice, was a definite factor in terms of the pace as he had been no worse than second at the first call of his prior 10 races.
Bavaro, the 8.40-1 third choice, had five starts to his credit and in each of them he was first or second at the first call.
Put that all together and there was the likelihood of a duel on the front end that could leave one, a couple or a few of the favorites vulnerable in the final furlong of an elongated sprint.
Beyond that, Bluegrass Prevails, a 10.40-1 shot, had been first or second at the first call of nine of his last 12 starts, adding even more speed to the mix.
While the three favorites were clearly the class of the field, their similar running styles raised the possibility that by butting heads early they could set things up rather nicely for a closer.
But which closer?
There were only two options.
One was Toohottoevenspeak, who was priced at 10.80-1. He had been running primarily in claimers, but in his previous start had rallied from sixth to win a first-level allowance race.
Then there was Riff Raff. He was victorious in the first-level allowance ranks in December and in his seven starts since then, he had raced only in six allowance races and one stakes.
His last race was also his best since that December win. Sitting seventh at the eighth pole, he closed swiftly to finish third, just a half-length behind in a second-level allowance race similar to the June 9 race.
He had been facing better horses than Toohottoevenspeak and, best of all, he was the 11.20-1 outsider in the race as well as the horse who seemed most likely to benefit from a fast pace.
When the starting gates opened, Bobby On Fleek lunged at the break, giving away a few lengths, and he never fired after that.
Sudden Surprise and Bavaro, however, lived up to expectations, battling on the front end from the start. Bavaro won that tussle, edging away to a length lead at the eighth pole, but in that final furlong the heavy lifting on the front end caught up him.
As Bavaro weakened, it was indeed Riff Raff and jockey Rajiv Maragh who took full advantage of the situation. Rallying strongly from the outside, Riff Raff collared Bavaro in the final yards and then fended off a surprising late bid from Bluegrass Prevails to win by a head.
The win price was $24.40, a nice reward for understanding how pace can make, or sometimes break, a race.