What is the first thing you consider when you prepare to handicap a Thoroughbred race? Many full or part-time horseplayers agree that an overview of the entire race setup is a key first approach.
One of the most common phrases in handicapping is ‘pace makes the race,’ which means that how fast or slow the early part of any race will influence the final result.
The most dangerous horse in any race, at any distance, is one with early speed. Front runners dictate tempo and if a speed horse does not have any other pace pressure, it makes him a danger to steal a race. Conversely, if several horses gun for the lead early in a race, the stretch runners will have the best momentum in the late stages.
Who is the speed?
Determining the horse (s) who will be part of the pace has challenges of its own as many variables apply: race distance, trainer or jockey intent and equipment changes.
Woodbine’s new racing season gets underway with several days of five-furlong races, a sharp distance that requires quickness more than speed.
Take a look at the half dozen horses below from a recent five-furlong turf dash at Gulfstream Park. Which one do you think was the dominant front runner of these three?
There were other quick runners in this field, but these were the main players in this $16,000 claiming race.
Take a look at how quick Noble Prince is in similar races: most recently he was in a battle through a rapid first two furlongs in :20 4/5 and half a mile in :45 2/5 and two starts ago he was clear on the lead through a half mile in :43 4/5.
None of the other horses shown have this kind of quickness, so they figure to be chasing or pressing Noble Prince.
The question that you must answer next is, 'What happens when these quick horses are challenged on the pace?' In the case of Noble Prince, he puts up a good fight but he is much better if he is left alone on the front. The presence of chasers such as Great Attack (1 ½ lengths off :44 last time) could leave him vulnerable in the final strides.
Deer Dog is NOT a pace consideration since his big leads on the pace came at six-furlongs and on the dirt. Red Fever could also be considered a pace chaser based on his sudden explosive run last time out. Super C Me is quick enough to be close but like Red Fever, how will he react if he does not get the early lead from Noble Prince?
The result of that race at Gulfstream was that Noble Prince managed to get to the front by just over a length early in the race with great Attack and Deer Dog chasing. Some bumping in early stretch may have caused Noble Prince to lose his momentum a bit and Deer Dog rushed up the rail to win at 5 to 1. Interesting to note that Deer Dog’s only other turf outing was at five-furlongs and he just missed winning after being “checked."
Showing speed at six-furlongs does not necessarily mean a horse can be a front runner at six-furlongs; the distances are dramatically different in terms of pace structure. The same can be said about horses who show speed at seven-furlongs but are not as quick early in six-furlong races.
Horses stretching out from sprints to route races of 1 mile or more are often front runners in the longer races.
Need the lead?
It is always a good idea to look as many of an entrant’s recent races - running lines or videos - to see what style a horse used when it ran its best races.
Look at Heart to Heart, a classy, graded stakes-winning Ontario-bred who is small in size but big in heart:
If Heart to Heart is allowed to control the pace he is very tough to beat. He is currently on a three-race winning streak because he has had things all his own way on the front end.
Look at his races when he is not the early leader at the “first call” (two-furlongs into the race or, in longer events, four-furlongs into a race); he has lost every time.
Handicapping how a race will set up is difficult enough just by looking at the previous races of horses and then the human factor comes into play. A trainer or jockey of a speedy type of runner may decide in advance that there could be too much speed in the race and try to change tactics. Or a front runner could stumble at the start or break slowly, changing the entire complexion of the race.
Horses that are preparing for longer, major stakes races such as the Queen’s Plate or Kentucky Derby may be taught to relax more early in their races and thus you may see some experimenting going on with his running style as he stretches out in distance.
This is where a little bit of reading between the lines could come in handy.
In the Tampa Bay Derby on Mar. 12, a field of 10 3-year-olds with Kentucky Derby aspirations went to post and on paper, it looked to be a race filled with speed.
However, comments in track press releases from trainer Stanley Gold, whose Awesome Banner had just flopped in his first route race attempt in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, suggested he thought his horse could run better if things went a little differently than they did in that previous race. In the Fountain of Youth, Awesome Banner was urged along to hurry to the lead and he had to go quickly, leaving him empty for the stretch run.
In the Tampa Bay Derby, following the scratch of front runner Morning Fire, Awesome Banner was relaxed well off the pace, resulting in a slower pace scenario than many predicted and stretch-out sprinter Outwork ended up coasting along on a comfortable lead. The end result was Outwork, after going :24 and :47 4/5, leading late until Destin, a stalker, came and got him by the finish and Awesome Banner, not happy with his trip, fading once again.
(As noted above, DAILY RACING FORM has added the notations H and S for hot and slow pace fractions on selected races. A dark-cricled H means very hot pace. Past performances courtest of DRF)
The addition of blinkers are meant to add focus to a horse’s approach to a race and sometimes this can make them a lot more eager out of the gate. It is common to see this change of equipment add a bit more early speed to a horse’s running style while taking the blinkers off a speedy runner may help a horse relax.
Watching replays of horses’ previous races or studying past charts will help you determine if a front runner was going too fast on the pace for that particular day (remember, a track surface can be very quick or very slow on some days) or if he was in a multi-horse pace battle. A contested pace between two or more horses may not yield rapid pace fractions but can still have an effect on how much the speed sticks around at the finish.
A little bit of research can help you get an idea of how you think a race will be run and that can go a long way in making a decision of what type of horse may win.
First 2 furlong pace fractions at a glance – a general guide
Dist Very fast Average Slow
5 furlongs :21 :22 :22.60
6 furlongs :21 4/5 :22 2/3 :23
7 furlongs :22 :22 4/5 :23 2/5
1 1/16 miles :23 :24 :25
1 1/8 :23 2/5 :24 2/5 :25 2/5
First 4 furlongs (half-mile) pace fractions at a glance
Dist Very fast Average Slow
6 fur. :45 :45 4/5 :46 1/5
7 fur. :45 :46 :46 4/5
1 1 /16 mi. :46 4/5 :47 2/5 :48
1 1/8 mi. :47 :48 :49