Introduction to PaceUnderstanding how the race will be run
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.
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.
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.
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 Â½ 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:
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.