Introduction to Pace
Understanding how the race will be run
Level: Beginner
By Dana Byerly, Hello Race Fans Co-founder

“How will the race unfold?” is the first question of pace, but “Who will it benefit?” is the answer you’re trying to get to.

When you start to factor pace, you start to look at the race as a whole instead of solely at the individual entrants. At this point, you might already have a preliminary opinion about each of the horses. Does the horse belong? Is the horse fast enough? How is the horse working?

You certainly want to answer all of those questions, but understanding the pace scenario, or how will the race unfold, can help you find an unlikely horse that will be aided or a favorite that will be vulnerable because of the likely pace.

Running Style
In order to discuss pace, we must first understand running style, which is exactly as it sounds. Each horse has a running style that produces his or her best effort. Some horses are flexible enough to produce a good effort using a variety of running styles.

Aside from watching replays, you can determine a horse’s running style by looking at the running lines in the past performances.

The running line notes the horse’s position in the field at several points of call around the track. The big number indicates the position in the race and the small number indicates number of lengths behind the leader. If the horse is the leader, the small number indicates how many lengths the horse is in front of the horse running in second.

Example of running lines Using Sabercat (left) prior to the 2012 Rebel Stakes an example, in his most recent race (listed first) he broke from the gate in 9th position, 5 lengths from the leader. At the first call he was in 10th place and 8 ½ lengths from the leader. At the second call he was in 6th place and beginning to make up ground, 3 3/4 lengths behind the leader. Going into the stretch he was a head in front of the field and by the end of the race he had opened up a 4 length lead on the field. See if you can figure out how he ran in his prior two races.

As you can see, distance relative to the leader is crucial to understanding running style. A horse can be third or fourth throughout most of the race and still be an on-the-pace-type if he or she is only a length behind the leader. Watching replays can lend clarity in many situations.

While there is no official industry standard categorization of running styles, at the highest level they boil down to this:

Speed
A horse that is most likely to get and keep the lead.

Example – The Factor
In seven of his ten races to date, The Factor has had the lead by the first call.

The Factor


Presser

A horse that is most likely to be up and on the pace but not likely to be leading.

Example – Joyful Victory
In almost all of her races since the 2011 Kentucky Oaks, Joyful Victory has been within two to three lengths of the front-runner, and in her last two, she’s been right up on the pace for most of the race.

Joyful Victory


Stalker

A horse that is most likely to stay off the pace but be close enough to strike easily.

Example – Prospective
In his last two races shown here (prior to winning the Tampa Bay Derby), Prospective sat several lengths off the pace, but was never too far back. In the Pasco Stakes January 14, he was in 8th place at the second call but only 3 3/4 lengths from the leader.

Prospective


Closer

A horse that is most likely to sit well off the pace and make one run late.

Example – Blind Luck
In the snippet of races shown here Blind Luck was frequently at least five lengths off the leader at the second call and in some cases as many as nine lengths behind. Several times, she was still about three lengths from the front going into the stretch. (Lifetime past performance)

Blind Luck

Example – Optimizer
In the 2012 Rebel Stakes Optimizer closed like a freight train for second. He was almost 6 lengths from the leader going into the stretch.

Optimizer


Flexible

A horse that has shown either multiple styles or perhaps no clear preferred running style

Example – Sabercat
In last three races prior to the 2012 Rebel Stakes, Sabercat used three different running styles to win. In his maiden in September, he was the speed; in the Garden Stakes in October, he pressed the pace; and in the Delta Downs Jackpot in November, he stalked the pace.

Sabercat

Usually you can quickly determine the running style of each horse. From there, you can begin to get a sense of how the race is likely to unfold, which is also referred to as the race shape. Is there a lone speed? Are there multiple “need to lead” types? Is it unclear who will be the speed? This is one part of how the race will unfold.

And how about that pace?
Once you’ve figured out the preferred running styles of the field, it’s time to determine the preferred pace scenario of each horse. Does a closer or stalker always need a fast pace, and if so, will he or she get it? If there are multiple speed horses are they all “need to lead” types or can any of them rate behind the speed and still win?

To make this determination, you’ll look at the fractional times for each start listed in the past performance to determine what kind of pace has produced the horse’s best or worst efforts. Generally speaking, fast or slow fractions will be relative to the class and distance of the race. Shorter distances will be faster and longer distance, especially over the turf, will be slower.

Joyful Victory

Using Joyful Victory again, her two most recent races (listed on top) are on the slow side. The Optional Claiming race on January 11 was on the turf (as indicated by the T in the circle to the left of the distance) and perfectly illustrates the pace difference between a turf race and a main track race. If you look back to her 2011 races, they all have a much zippier pace and the Honeybee Stakes on March 12, 2011 had an exceptionally fast pace for the distance.

Who benefits?
As with most things in racing, there is no shortage of conventional wisdom about what type of running style benefits from any given pace scenario.

The Lone Speed
The lone speed is a powerful angle. In many cases, the lone speed will keep the pace slow to essentially neutralize the off-the-pace runners, as it’s typically harder for a horse making one run to gain the needed momentum off the slower pace. The chart for the 2011 Just a Game Stakes illustrates how C.S. Silk pulled a huge upset by setting a slow, deliberate pace and running away with it at the end. The fractions were 25:24, 50:58, 1:15.59, 1:40.53). Watch the replay.

Speed Duel
When it looks like two or more speed horses might knock heads, everyone else has the advantage. The usual scenario is that the speeds will duel and tire. Some trainers will even strategically send out a “rabbit” to tire out the front-running competition. The chart for the 2012 Santa Anita Handicap shows a great example of speed duel with fractions of 22.26, 44.55, 1:09.08, 1:34.14, 2:00.41. The outlandishly fast pace helped closer Ron the Greek come from last to first. Watch the replay.

No Clear Speed
This is usually the worst situation from a handicapping perspective. In some instances, an unexpected horse can emerge as a front-runner, but it’s not often easy to tell who that might be.

Distance and surface should also be factored into how you assess pace. For example, turf races are run slow in the beginning with a sprint to the wire, whereas dirt races are usually run-and-gun from the beginning. Fractions are less important than running style for sprints because the fractions aren’t going to vary as much as they can in longer races. It’s also worth noting that closers are usually more subject to traffic issues than horses up on the pace.

Putting it all together
Now you should have an idea of the race shape, or where each horse is likely to be during the race. Putting that information together with the preferred pace scenario of each horse should put you in a good position to postulate how the race will unfold. And once you’ve figured out how the race will unfold, you can circle back to each individual horse and determine who will benefit.

Here are the steps you want to perform at the highest level:

1. Determine the running style and preferred pace scenario of each horse in the field
2. Determine how the race will be run (lone speed, multiple speeds, no speed)
3. Determine who will benefit from the likely pace scenario or scenarios (Can a lone speed wire it? Will there a speed duel that aids stalkers and closers? Is the race wide open because there is no clear speed?).

Pace is only one piece of the puzzle. Class, breeding, fitness and speed are all also determining factors (along with others!), but understanding pace will give you an edge when it comes time to make final decisions about who can win a race.

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Charts and PPs provided by Brisnet

16 comments

  • Am having a problem finding a clear description or definition of what it means for a horse to be able to “rate”. I think I know that it means basically to “slow” a horse enough to get him to “relax”, not “chase the pace” so hard. Anyway, what is your description or definition of this term?

  • As with most things in racing, I think “rate” could be interpreted a couple of ways. Your definition definitely fits, especially with a horse like Hansen, who performs better when he can relax (either on the lead or behind a pace setter). His race in the Gotham where he relaxed and stalked the pace is a good example.

    I’ve always thought of rating as sitting behind the pace, regardless of whether or not the horse is right on the pace or a little bit off of it, essentially stalking.

    Would love to hear other thoughts as well! Thanks for stopping by Ann Maree!

  • Where can I get reliable pace figures. I know Brisnet has them but I don’t need the PPs or any other stats that come with them. Would be willing to get software if necessary.

  • Hi, Barry,
    Brisnet.com’s Multicaps & ALL-Ways data files include pace figures. The software each goes with is free. The PP data files include as well, but you need your own software. The ALL-Ways files also include some Brohamer & Quirin data and the software keeps track of various performances.

    Let me know if you have any other questions

  • Let’s say in its recent prior starts, a horse had the lead at the start of the race and at the first call, but the horse dropped back in the late stages of the race and finished far from the lead. Would it still be a good idea to pick and bet this horse?

  • Hi Ryan,

    This is tough question to answer out of context, and even with the full details it’s likely that everyone you ask may have a different take. So, in the interest of “teaching one to fish”, here’s what I would try to ascertain in order to make a decision:

    1. Did the horse have any pressure or was he the lone speed? If he’s coming under pressure and tiring out late, it could be favorable if it looks like there will be no pressure in the current race.

    2. What is the horses usual running style? Is the horse usually a pace setter? Have they ever won setting the pace? Sometimes when there’s no likely speed a horse who may not normally set the pace ends up in that position. If that’s the case the horse may have faded because he wasn’t put in the best position to win (i.e., sitting off the pace).

    3. Is the horse cutting back in distance? Let’s say the horse sets the pace and fades in the stretch in a 1 1/8 mile but is cutting back to a mile or less, that could mean the horse will be better positioned to carry his speed the entire way (but I would still look to see how many other potential pace factors are in the field).

    4. Is the horse dropping in class? Again, I would still want to know how many other potential speed horses there are and if the horse had ever won wire to wire, but this could be a positive.

    5. Does the work tab reflect any endurance works? Maybe in the previous effort the horse wasn’t fit or was rounding into shape? See if there are any patterns in the horse’s form cycle (i.e., they rarely win first out off a break but usually win by the second or third start).

    6. Watch replays, maybe there were other factors for the horse dropping back. I can’t really think of any but I would still be inclined to watch the replays!

    Good luck!

  • Thank you, Dana. This answer really made a lot of sense to me. Keep up the good work!

  • Thanks Ryan, and you’re welcome!

  • How can I tell when a horse needs to stretch out in distance? I know that if a horse got tired in its last race and finished far from the lead, and that last race was a route race, this horse can use a cut-back in distance if today’s race is a sprint. But when a horse did poorly in its last race, and that race was a sprint, what can I do to determine if this horse needs to stretch out?

  • Hi Ryan,

    As always, it really depends on context but here are a few things to try to answer…

    1. has the horse ever run at today’s distance? how did he or she do? if he or she did poorly has anything changed about them? A few examples: maybe a horse has finally learned to relax and could now carry his or her speed? or maybe a horse has learned to rate and will be less likely to flame out early?

    2. If the horse has never run at today’s distance or longer, try to look in to his or her pedigree a bit to see if there are any stamina influences. What I do if I’m not familiar with the dam and sire is to look them up on Equibase and dig into some charts of past races. Pedigree query (http://pedigreequery.com) is also helpful because they frequently summarize the horse’s accomplishments (win, place, show by age) and include distance. Going back a couple of generations can really help you uncover a horse with stamina in the pedigree that isn’t readily apparent by the dam/sire. Plus, it’s of fun to do this research! We have a pedigree section that can be helpful:

    http://helloracefans.com/handicapping/pedigree

    3. Check the work patterns, some trainers are going to work all of their horses with the same 4 or 5F work no matter what, but others will put some endurance works into a horse when they’re getting ready to stretch him/her out. That could be a good clue as well.

    Hope this helps!

  • Hi,

    Where can I gain access to the running lines if they are still available?

    Thanks, Luke.

  • Hi Luke, the running lines are available in the past performance. The examples above are all examples of what the running line looks like.

    Let me know if I’ve misunderstood your question, and thanks for stopping by!

  • Can you tell me what the term- In for the tag means? I hear it used all the time but not sure of its meaning.

  • Hi Bobby – in for a tag means that the horse is eligible to claimed. The most common usage would be when the race is an allowance optional claiming race. Here’s the definition from our Overview of Conditions post:

    “Another variation on the allowance race is the optional claiming race, which combines elements of allowance and claiming conditions. Horses entered in an allowance-optional claimer must either meet the allowance conditions or run for a price.”

    Without verifying it, my guess is that the phrase has origins in the fact that a tag is hung on a claimed horse after the race.

    Here are a few more links with information about claiming races:
    http://helloracefans.com/handicapping/overview-of-conditions/
    http://helloracefans.com/trip-notes/understanding-luck-episode-2/

    And here’s an screen grab from the HBO show Luck showing a tag on a horse, I’m not sure if they really look like this but it’s a good illustration of the concept:
    http://helloracefans.com/img/hdr_understanding-luck-ep2.jpg

    Thanks for stopping by and I hope this helps!

  • What are the fractions of a slow pace as opposed to a fast pace. I’ve heard that a slow pace has fractions like :24 2/5, :49 1/5, 1:13 2/5 and so on.

  • Hi Ryan – Opinions may vary but I’d say there’s a slight bit of variation based on distance. I would consider your example slow for a dirt race and maybe closer to average for a turf race.

    Another factor is distance, for example 23:40 might be a solid opening fraction for a race at 8.5 furlongs and up but pokey for a sprint.

    Here’s a thumbnail:

    for races at 8.5 furlongs and up I would consider something like this average/solid/OK and anything above or below fast or slow: :23.50, 47, 1:12, 1:36. And those might be on the fast side for 10 furlongs and up. AND, different distances have different points of call, etc so what might be the second point of call at 8.5 furlongs would be the first at 10.

    For sprints I’d consider something like this to be about average: :22, :45, 1:10, etc. With sprints first two points of call are going to be uniform, this is example is more of a 7 furlong example. But you get the idea.

    One more thing, these examples are really for dirt as turf races are run so differently. Unless it’s a mile or a turf sprint the first two or three calls are likely to be pretty pokey. Running lines with fast fractions in turf really stand out/are easy to spot. Also, you’ll probably find examples where the race started slow and sped up or visa versa. Hope this helps, and thanks for stopping!

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