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Don’t overlook ‘tortoise’ when handicapping Derby

Races aren’t always won by the swift — remember "The Tortoise and the Hare"?

In horse handicapping, the race shape is a reliable predictor of potential winners.

Lone early speed remains the best bet in the game. But in a race with multiple speed horses battling for the lead, it becomes more likely that the winner will be a stalker or closer. Such horses will show late energy, passing tiring front-runners in the stretch.

These points reflect keenly on the winners of last week’s Kentucky Derby prep races: Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth, D’ Funnybone in the Hutcheson, Discreetly Mine in the Risen Star and Conveyance in the Southwest. All four horses want to run on the lead or close to it.

Eskendereya has jumped to the head of many Derby top-10 lists. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt’s 106 Beyer rating is by far the best speed figure among 3-year-olds this spring.

The Derby almost always features an aggressive early pace. Typically, several speed horses will fight for the lead going into the first turn. Seldom do we see a lone-speed scenario, such as War Emblem enjoyed in 2002.

A quick pace will put long-shot, dead-late closers into play. Mine That Bird (2009) and Giacomo (2005) closed from far back for major upsets. They were clearly not the best in the field, but the best horse in the Derby usually has a difficult task.

Southern California’s Derby hopefuls have been a nonfactor since the installation of synthetic surfaces on the region’s tracks. But this trend won’t last forever. The top four West Coast contenders — Lookin at Lucky, Caracortado, Dave in Dixie and Connemara — are late closers.

If the main contenders continue to win with early speed, this might be the year a Southern California ”tortoise” grinds out a Derby victory.

■ SOUTH POINT — The Thursday South Point Six progressive carry-over was not won this week. The contest carry-over has ballooned to $7,740.

■ HILTON — The popular Super Saturday handicapping contest returns to the Las Vegas Hilton SuperBook on Saturday. The entry fee is $30.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com.

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