06/02/2006 12:00AM

Toss out deep closers in Belmont


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Steppenwolfer is a deep closer. So deep, that the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby was too short for him. He rallied from 13th to finish third in that race. If he had been given an extra two furlongs to work with he probably wasn't going to catch Barbaro, but he might very well have kicked past Bluegrass Cat, who finished second, only two lengths ahead of him. The 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes should suit him perfectly.

Jazil is another deep closer. So deep, that he was last of 20, 17 lengths behind the leader at the first call in the Kentucky Derby. He closed ground steadily and finished in a dead heat for fourth in that race. Given another two furlongs of ground to cover in the Belmont, he should continue to make progress down the stretch, and might get up in time to take it all.

This is the logic that will be used by most handicappers, whose biggest concern about betting on the Belmont is to make sure that the horse they pick is going to like the added distance. What better way to go about it than to bet on a deep closer who rallied steadily but ran out of ground in shorter races?

The reason I wrote a book called "The Power of Early Speed," rather than one titled "Deep Closers Are So Cool in Really Long Races" is that even in races at 1 1/2 miles horses with tactical speed still have the advantage.

A check of the results of the last 20 runnings of the Belmont proves the point. Horses who were located in the front half of the field at the first call won 14 of those races, compared with only 6 for the closers who were stuck in the rear half of the pack at that point.

Even more interesting is the fact that 9 of those 14 winners from the front half of the field were either second (four winners), or third (five winners) at the first call. One winner led at the first call, but it wasn't actually a front-running victory. That was Touch Gold, who led until midway through the backstretch, dropped back to fourth, then rallied back to beat Silver Charm by three-quarters of a length in 1997.

Regardless of how counterintuitive it seems, deep closers such as Steppenwolfer and Jazil will not have any advantage because of the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont. In fact, their running style will hinder them. If the pace is slow, the impact of their late moves will be blunted. If they use more energy than usual while trying to get better early position, they will have less energy available than usual late in the race. They will either need help from a faster-than-par pace, or they will have to run exceptionally well to overcome their lack of tactical speed in the Belmont. At ordinary odds, they will be worth trying to beat in the top slot.

The question I will be pondering over the next few days is which horse is the right one to use to beat the deep closers. Usually, when horses who are second and third at the first call win more than their fair share of races, the early leader does so as well. But that wasn't the case in this 20-race sample. As mentioned earlier, only one of the winners led at the first call, and he wasn't a true front-runner.

I searched through the result charts for clues as to why the front-runners were underperforming. Six of them were big longshots at 29-1, 37-1, 40-1, 63-1, 85-1, and 99-1. But even after throwing them out, the other horses who might have been expected to be contenders still fared poorly. Besides Touch Gold, the best the front-runners could do was a third-place finish at even-money, a second at 3-2, a second at 7-2, and a second at 6-1. Five other horses at odds between 2-1 and 5-1 finished out of the money. Is this a real trend, or an aberration that will even-up a bit when a front-runner goes all the way this year? Questions like this are what make this game so much more interesting than pulling a slot machine handle, or throwing dice in mindless games of chance.