10/22/2004 12:00AM

Early speed does best in BC Sprint

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - What happens when you load a field of 13 or 14 speedy sprinters into the starting gate in the Breeders' Cup Sprint? Don't expect anyone to get loose on an easy lead. With multiple horses battling for early supremacy, and hot fractions, it stands to reason that the race is tailor-made for a deep closer to storm home in the middle of the track, and sweep past the tiring leaders to win going away.

In 1996, Lit de Justice was last of 13, 11 lengths off the lead at the first call at Woodbine. The quick 44-second half-mile set the table for his late punch when he rallied to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

One year later at Hollywood Park, Elmhurst was last of 14, 12 1/2 lengths off the pace after a quarter-mile. He was still 4 1/2 lengths behind with a furlong to go, but kicked home determinedly to get past Hesabull, who had dueled for the lead from the start. No doubt, the 43.80 half-mile fraction contributed to his $35.20 upset victory.

There have been 20 runnings of the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and I would be happy to give you more examples of closers who were among the last three in their field at the first call who won. Unfortunately, there aren't any more.

If closers aren't winning, who is? Although it contradicts what conventional handicapping wisdom leads us to expect, horses with early speed have been best in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Overall, 13 of the 20 winners have been located in the front half of their field at the first call. That is nearly a 2-1 advantage. Take a closer look at the distribution of those 13 winners, and you will see that 11 of them were horses who were located among the first three to the first call.

Here are the details:

In 1984 at Hollywood Park, Eillo led throughout. At Aqueduct in 1985, Precisionist was third of 14 at the first call and won. In fact, the horses who were 3-2-1 early finished 1-2-3.

The trend continued in 1986. Smile was second at the first call. He slipped past early leader Pine Tree Lane, and won by 1 1/4 lengths. Smile paid $24 to win, and a $5 exacta box (the minimum exacta bet at the time) of the horses who were first and second at the first call paid $776.50.

Speedy fillies have yielded impressive profits. Very Subtle led all the way at Hollywood Park in 1987 and returned $34.80. Safely Kept led at the first call at Belmont in 1990 and prevailed by a neck as a $26.40 longshot.

Thirty Slews was second behind Meafara at the first call at Gulfstream in 1992. He slipped past that leader in deep stretch to post the $39.40 upset. Meafara was second at 13-1. A $2 exacta box of the first two horses at the first call paid $621.50.

Desert Stormer was part of the field at Belmont in 1995. She led early and held on to win by a neck at $31. Who did she edge? Mr. Greeley, the 31-1 longshot who was only a half-length behind her in second at the first call. A $2 exacta box of the two speedsters paid $733.

Reraise led all of the way to win as the third betting choice at Churchill in 1998. Artax was only a head behind at the first call in 1999 and won as the second betting choice at Gulfstream.

At Belmont in 2001, Squirtle Squirt, Xtra Heat, and Caller One, were 3-1-2 at the first call. They finished 1-2-3. Squirtle Squirt paid $21.20 to win. The $2 exacta with Xtra Heat was worth $290. The $2 trifecta with Caller One returned $2,162.

In 2003, Cajun Beat was a half-length behind the leader in third at the first call at Santa Anita. He won by 2 1/4 and paid $47.60.

Compare those 11 winners to the two winning deep closers who were among the last three at the first call, and you have an overwhelming ratio of 5 1/2 to 1. Early and tactical speed do not pay dividends in the Breeders' Cup Sprint every year, but you had better have a very good reason for doing so if you choose to be on the wrong side of that statistic.