Finding Value in Extended Sprints
By Nicolle Neulist
With the Triple Bend Stakes (GI) and the Chicago Handicap (GIII) in the spotlight last weekend, it is an apt time to talk about extended sprint races. For the sake of this article, we will define “extended sprint” as a one-turn race longer than six furlongs, up to a mile. Extended main-track sprints are among my favorites to handicap, bet, and play in contests since they can be excellent places to find value.
These races often draw vulnerable favorites. Rarely does an entire field consist of specialists at extended sprint distances. Often they feature six-furlong horses stretching out, or two-turn horses cutting back. Such horses, however classy, can be underlays. Consider Subtle Indian in the six-and-a-half-furlong Kona Gold Stakes (GII) last month. He went off odds-on despite it being his first attempt going longer than six furlongs. Though he dug in admirably down the stretch, he had to settle for second behind Wild Dude: a horse with proven graded stakes form going six and a half furlongs and seven furlongs. Though not the favorite in the Triple Bend last weekend, Subtle Indian ended up with another silver medal despite rating better on the lead. It was a horse who had already won a graded stakes at seven furlongs, Lord Nelson, who ran him down.
Another way to identify value in an extended sprint is to find a horse who does anomalously well at the distance. Consider this year’s running of the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Stakes (GII). The race lacked a clear standout, and seven of the nine in the field had at least one win at seven furlongs. Such a wide-open race was a perfect spot to consider a longer shot who did his best at seven furlongs: Catalina Red. He had some decent six-furlong efforts, but had also thrown a clunker. Whereas, both of his seven-furlong tries were among the best of his career. That came as no surprise: Munnings babies tend to like seven furlongs as much as dad. Catalina Red had never faced the class of competition he saw in the Churchill Downs. But, if he ran back to his previous seven-furlong form, he could compete. He won – at a generous 14/1.
In extended sprints being run under lifetime or lower-level allowance conditions, give an extra look to horses who put it all together when running an extended sprint. Though they may be too lightly raced to truly say they are “horses for the distance”, showing improvement when they try such a niche distance for the first time is a positive. Consider the Hawthorne finale on January 2, 2016: a $5,000 N2L at six and half furlongs on dirt. Ten horses saw the starter. Only three had won at the distance; two had done so on dirt. Northern Honour had broken his maiden at the distance last out. Noeasywayout had graduated at the distance earlier in the meet, but after two disappointing tries at a flat six furlongs, he was stretching back out. With Northern Honour showing more recent form, having a blazing hot trainer/jockey pair, and sitting at twice the price of Noeasywayout, Northern Honour was a better play. And, Northern Honour won for fun at 12/1.
Of course, these factors are no magic bullet. Distance aptitude is unlikely to cover for a horse being too slow, hating the surface, or being pace-compromised. However, asking these questions when handicapping extended sprints can help reveal short prices to toss or good price horses to investigate further.