Different Horses Run at Different Paces

"Pace makes the race" is one of the most common sayings in horse racing, and understanding how the pace set-up of a race is expected to unfold is a key component of good handicapping. This generally comes down to determining which horse or horses are going to be taking the lead in the race, how fast they are likely to go, and if they will be able to maintain that pace through the entire race, or if they are likely to tire and get caught from behind. 

For obvious reasons, using pace in handicapping is more applicable to middle-distance and long distance races from one mile and up. In shorter races, you can expect that all horses are to a certain degree "speed" horses, and in races of 5 1/2 or 6 furlongs, there is less use of tactics to try and control the pace. Sprinters do exactly that - sprint from the gate to the finish.

In longer races, however, there's generally more a mix of horses with early speed, horses that stalk the pace setters and horses that come from behind. What is required as a handicapper is to determine which horses in a particular race fit each description, and then use that information to decide how the race is likely to play out.

Finding Speed Horses

Like all things handicapping, most of the answers are found on the past performance information. Taking a look at the PPs for the 2017 Easy Goer Stakes run at 1 1/16 miles on the dirt at Belmont Park, we can find examples of all of the types of horses listed above.

SS1

Outplay, for example, is clearly a speed horse. In all five of his races, he broke from the gate either in first or second place and in his past four he was in first place by either the first or second call of the race. This is a horse that wants to be on the lead and represents the "early speed" in the race. He wasn't alone in that regard, however.

SS2Although it's a small sample size, from what we know, we can expect that Wicked Macho is also going to be involved in the early pace-setting in this race. From a handicapping angle, having two or more horses intent on battling for the lead is generally a good thing, as a "speed duel" often allows horses that stalk or come from the back of the pack the chance to catch up when they turn for home and the early speed horses burn themselves out in their fight to be in the front. 

Finding Stalking Horses

What's important to remember about stalkers is that they don't necessarily have to be the horse running in second or third place, but rather that they have enough "tactical" speed to always be racing within a couple lengths of the leaders, no matter their actual position in the race.

SS3

From the same race, we find West Coast, a very good stalker. As we can see, in three of his four races he broke from the gate in second or third place, and even in the race where he broke poorly, he was still only 2 1/2 lengths off the lead out of the gate. By the mid-point of every race he was in the top three and either in front or within 2 1/2 lengths of the leader. 

Finding Closing Horses

Closers are, just as the name implies, horses that like to run near the back of the pack and then "close" on the leaders in the late stages of the race. If you are looking at betting a closer to win, you should be very confident the pace of the race sets up as a speed duel between two or more speed horses, making it more likely that early speed will collapse late in the race and give closers a chance to catch up as they come down the stretch. 

In races where there appears to be only one speed horse, it's recommended to stay away from betting closers to win, as that lone speed horse is more likely to "control" the pace - that is, run just fast enough to stay on the lead without burning out late in the race - making it more difficult for the closer to catch up. That's not to say these horses should be completely avoided, but generally, you should be looking to include them in the second or third spot on exacta and trifecta bets.

SS4

In a race without a lot of closers, You're To Blame appears to be the best of the bunch. In his last two races, he came into the stretch 11 and 6 lengths off the lead, and then made up 5 1/2 lengths and 2 1/2 lengths in the stretch drive. Prior to that - in a lower class of race - he was much closer to the lead, but still coming from near the back of the pack. 

One very important thing to note with a closer like him is what the split times were for the race leader in the early part of the race. Anything under 23 seconds is a fairly quick time and one of his races went in 22.78, the other in 23.09, and the most recent, where the first time was recorded at the half-mile, 44.79 giving an average of the first two 1/4 miles being run under 23 seconds. Granted, two of these races were sprints, but the point is to know what constitutes fast fractional times in racing.

Putting Pace Information Together 

So how do we use all the of the above information together to handicap the race? We know that there are at least two speed horses in this race, which should indicate the early part of the race will be quick, and there's a chance that speed will collapse at the end. We know West Coast is a very good stalker who should be able to get a good position right out of the gate and race just behind the pacesetters. And we know that there will be at least one horse in the form of You're To Blame that will likely be making up ground at the end. 

We could reasonably expect that West Coast will be right there and ready to pounce on the leaders as they start to tire and will likely get to the front at some point in the latter stages of the race, and given the expected pace scenario, You're To Blame will be coming late and could grab a piece of the prize money.

As it turned out, Wicked Macho had the lead 1/4 mile into the race, setting very quick fractions of 22.79 and 22.83 to get there. By the time they hit the top of the stretch, he was used up and faded badly to finish fifth, more than 18 lengths behind the winner. 

Outplay adopted slightly different tactics than in the past, stalking 2-3 lengths off the pace for most of the race, getting into second position at one point before finishing third.

You're To Blame raced near the back of the pack, was 5 lengths off the lead after they raced 3/4 mile, and then came flying late to pass six horses and grab second.

West Coast broke from the gate about mid-pack, was within 2 1/2 lengths of the lead by the 3/4 mile mark, and then blew past the front runners as they came into the stretch to go on and win. 

In other words, it played out exactly as it seemed it would on paper.