When the triple crown races and other classic races come around each year, the topic of tactical speed and how to use it to handicap horse racing often comes up. Some people are confused about what tactical speed actually is, while others deny its value. Tactical speed, in my opinion, exists and is very important for several reasons.
Tactical speed is the ability of a horse to get close to the front runners early in a race and to maintain a comfortable position to be able to overtake the lead when the opportunity presents itself. The opportunity is usually when the front runners start to tire. Having tactical speed allows a horse to avoid trouble because it is close to the front and is less likely to be blocked or need to be picked up.
Tactical speed should not be confused with early speed, although tactical speed horses have some ability for early speed. The difference is that a horse with tactical speed does not need to be close and can also change pace and speed later in the race when the other early pacers are tiring. Horses like “Big Brown”, for example, have tactical speed. The fact that his dam is out of “Nureyev”, a sire known for producing horses that can go classic distances, is an indicator that he is likely to have tactical speed.
When handicapping and looking for tactical speed, I look at the horse’s position in recent races to see if it was within 5 lengths of the leader at the early sightings and how much speed it showed late in the race. Now here is the key. A horse with good tactical speed not only passes the leading runners who are tiring, but also keeps pace with or surpasses the horses who are well off the pace. For example, if a horse runs within 5 lengths of the front runners, takes the lead at the top of the stretch, or takes the lead in the stretch, despite a late charge from another athlete coming off the pace, I consider a horse with good tactical speed.