Using Race Pace for Handicapping Horse Races

I love betting on the ponies. I have been going to the horse track since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, though, so all of the terminology and concepts are second nature to me. I fully realize that if you aren’t particularly familiar with horse racing it can seem very complicated and overwhelming. It’s not, though, as long as you understand the basics. One of the things you’ll hear people talk about a lot is pace. The expected pace of the race is a very powerful handicapping tool, and it is surprisingly easy to understand and employ. Here’s a crash course in the very basics of pace handicapping:

Running styles

This is an oversimplification, but it is still accurate enough to be meaningful. Basically, there are three main running style a horse can have:

Front runner – This is a horse that likes to be in the lead. He or she will look to get to the lead as soon as they can, and will try to lead wire-to-wire. If there is more than one front runner – also commonly called speed horses – in the race then two things can happen. Either the horses will engage in a speed duel where they push each other very hard because they are both fighting to be in front, or one of the horses accepts that he won’t be leading and settles behind the front runner. The latter is called rating. Front runners typically don’t like to have other horses around them, and they don’t like getting dirt kicked in their faces. Often times a front runner will quit if he gets passed because he doesn’t have enough gas left in the tank to mount a second charge. The presence of speed horses in a field can mean that the pace will be fast early on – like in the first half mile – but you typically need at least two speed horses to get a fast pace because there is no incentive for a lone speed horse to run fast if no one is pushing him.

Stalker – These are the horses that sit in the middle of the pack. They don’t care about being on the lead, but they do want to stay close enough to the leaders that they can make their moves. If the pace is lightning fast up front then they can encounter troubles because they have a big decision to make. If they decide to follow the speed horses and stay in contact with them then they could be too tired to mount their charge and take the lead in the stretch. If they don’t chase the speed horses, though, then they could find themselves too far behind the leaders and unable to close enough ground to catch up. These are typically neither the fastest nor the most explosive horses, but their approach involves the least risk, so they are often the most reliable.

Closer – These are the horses that sit at the back of the field for much of the race before blowing by the field in the stretch in one explosive move. They are looking to save as much energy as they possibly can early on so that they can make just one move. If they run into traffic on the way to the front and have to check their progress they can often be done for the day unless they are a very classy horse because closers often don’t have the ability to stop and restart after they get rolling. Closers generally rely on their being a fast early pace in the race. If the early pace is leisurely then the horses in front of them haven’t been tired out and it will be harder for them to get to the lead because they have to pass horses who are still running with energy and who have less ground to cover.

What kind of runner is a horse?

To tell what kind of runner a horse is is a simple thing once you get some practice. In the past performances the last several races run by each horse is listed. It shows what position they started in, where they finished, and their position at several points along the way in the race. It also shows how many horses there were in the race. If the horse was typically in first or second at each point in the race in the large majority of its races then it is a front runner. If it was consistently somewhere in the middle of the pack – like between third and sixth in an eight horse race, for example – then he is a stalker. If he typically starts the race at or near the back of the field then moves forward aggressively at the end then he is a closer.

Putting it all together

The first step is for the handicapper to identify the basic running styles of each horse in the field. Once you have done that you can look at how the race shapes up, and what is likely to happen based on the pieces in play. For example, if there is only one speed horse in the race then that could be an advantage for him. He is going to be able to get to the front easily, and he is likely to be able to lead without having to run particularly fast or burn a lot of energy. That means that he is going to have a lot of energy left for the stretch drive. On the other hand, three or four speed horses in a race probably means that none of them are going to be in great shape because they are going to either be working harder early on than they would like to, or they are going to have to run a different style of race than they would like to. Closers are much easier to like and trust if you think the early speed is likely to be fairly fast than they are if it is likely to be very slow early on. The stalkers are often like the middle ground – if the race doesn’t set up perfectly for either of the other types then the stalkers can pick up the pieces.

There is one other possibility as well. Sometimes a horse won’t show a clear tendency towards one particular style of running. He’ll lead one day, come from off the pace the next, and stalk a third time. If a horse shows that kind of versatility – and if he wins more than his share of races – then that’s my favorite possible kind of horse. It means that he is capable of finding a way to win regardless of whether he gets his ideal type of race or not. That’s a very easy type of horse to trust.

The most important thing with pace handicapping is not to over think it or get too fancy. Just imagine how you think the race will turn out given the characters in the race. You won’t ever be perfectly right because so much can happen in a race, but by coming up with a theory to work around you can create a scenario that gives you a much better chance of finding the value and making bets you can count on. It’s surprising how often you’ll find a favorite in a race who doesn’t look to have a chance to win based on the pace scenario you imagine.

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