Speed RationsA Modern Interpretation of Pace Handicapping
By Derek Simon, Hello Race Fans Contributor
Not what you’re looking for? Read our Introduction to Pace!
There’s an old racing axiom that asserts “pace makes the race,” yet few handicappers seem to know how to properly gauge the impact of early fractions on a thoroughbred contest. No less an authority than Andrew Beyer, the creator of the Beyer Speed Figures that appear in the Daily Racing Form, admits to being clueless at one time.
In the very first edition of Picking Winners: A Horseplayer’s Guide (published in 1975), Beyer wrote: “A horse’s fractional times do not affect his final time. Horses are never ‘burned up’ by fast fractions. There is no such thing as a ‘killing pace.'”
Less than a decade later, however, Beyer was singing a different tune. While offering a mea culpa for dismissing the importance of pace in the first place â€” his negative thoughts on the subject have been removed from newer editions of Picking Winners â€” Beyer presented the 1981 Kentucky Derby as proof positive that the way a race is run can affect its outcome.
“If I wanted to test the influence of pace, I might have designed an experiment like this: Have the early leaders in the Kentucky Derby run the fastest first quarter-mile in the history of the race and judge its effect,” Beyer wrote in The Winning Horseplayer.
” â€¦ The Derby field was filled with brilliant speed horses, notably Proud Appeal and Cure the Blues. They all went charging for the lead, and a bullet named Top Avenger got it, running the quarter in 21-4/5 seconds â€” the fastest fraction at Churchill Downs in 107 years â€” and the half-mile in a swift :45-1/5. Every horse who was near this breathtaking pace collapsed. The horses who were running 1-2-3-4-5 after three-quarters of a mile finished 19-10-18-16-17. As they backed up, all the stretch runners and plodders passed them. The first five finishers at the end of the Derby were horses who had been running 15-19-10-17-20 after three-quarters.
“The winner, Pleasant Colony, was a genuinely good horse, but nondescript plodders like Woodchopper and Television Studio had rallied to finish ahead of superior horses like Cure the Blues and Proud Appeal by margins of 20 or 30 lengths,” Beyer pointed out. “The outcome of the Derby seemed to have relatively little to do with the ability of the horses; it was much more the result of pace.”
Beyer’s belated observations jibe with earlier conclusions drawn by Huey Mahl in his brilliant, albeit short, book/pamphlet Race Is Pace. In that masterwork, Mahl contended that the “average” thoroughbred, in reasonable racing condition, could gallop “all day” (which he literally defined as a couple of miles) at about 32 miles per hour, or approximately 28 seconds per quarter.
“It’s when we ask our horse to run faster than 28-second quarters that we start to put demands on his physical endurance,” Mahl explained. “And the faster we ask him to go, the less distance he can cover before muscle fatigue sets in and he shortens stride approaching the point of total exhaustion.”
Read that again.
For, in those two short sentences, Mahl captures the essence of pace handicapping. What Beyer learned in the 2:02 it took to run the 1981 Kentucky Derby, he could have gleaned in 2:01-4/5 simply by reading the third chapter of Mahl’s book. Because, at its core, successful pace handicapping is nothing more than an understanding of how energy is distributed, which was precisely Mahl’s point.
What’s more, different races require different types of energy disbursement. A sprint race on the main track typically necessitates high early speed, whereas a route race over the lawn demands a stout closing punch. Hence, finding horses that can comfortably cope with the kind of fractions needed to win a particular race often spells the difference between cashing a ticket or tossing it in the air (an age-old racetrack tradition among some losing players).
My own way of assessing pace is via the use of “speed rations,” a concept that I developed in the mid-90’s that evaluates both early and late energy expenditure and assigns a numerical value to each. Like other pace figures such as Moss or BRIS, when used in conjunction with speed figures (Beyer, TrackMaster, “The Sheets,” etc.), speed rations provide a very effective way of determining the likely setup and pace requirements of a given race.
Although I won’t go into how I compute them (for those who remember those old Calgon commercials, it’s an ancient Chinese secret), below is an explanation of the numbers, as well as some tips on using them:
Early Speed Ration (ESR)
A measurement of a horse’s early energy expenditure in relation to the total race requirements. The lower the figure, the greater the horse’s early exertion in that event.
-15 = Demanding
-10 = Brisk
-5 = Moderate
0 = Soft
Tip: Animals that combine low ESRs with high speed figures are often prime candidates to win in wire-to-wire fashion. So too are those steeds with a significant overall ESR advantage.
Late Speed Ration (LSR)
A measurement of a horse’s late energy expenditure in relation to the total race requirements. The higher the figure, the greater the horse’s late exertion in that event.
0 = Excellent
-5 = Good
-10 = Fair
-15 = Poor
Tip: Because late speed is measured when each horse is being asked for its maximum effort, LSRs can be a great indication of form as well. Young horses with improving Late Speed Rations are often superior to older, more experienced rivals with established figures. Furthermore, any animal that combines a positive Pace Profile with high relative LSRs and good speed figures must be given strong consideration. Entrants that show positive LSRs or those coming off a big win punctuated by a superior LSR are especially strong contenders.
The Late Speed Rations are also very effective in a negative context as well. Horses with consistently poor figures in relation to the rest of the field make notoriously poor favorites and can often lead to great overlays on other, less fancied runners.
A simple comparison between a horse’s Late Speed Ration and the Early Speed Ration of the race in which it was earned. A positive (+) profile is greatly desired and serves to authenticate especially impressive LSRs. The Pace Profile is an easy yet crucial means of relating early speed to late speed.
Tip: The Pace Profile of a particular race can be especially useful when horses are switching distances/surfaces. For example, an animal that has been competing in dirt sprints might be given extra consideration in a turf route if he/she shows a string of positive (+) Pace Profiles, as distance races on the lawn tend to emphasize late speed.
Action, Not Words
Let’s take a look at my speed rations â€” and pace handicapping â€” in action:
The seventh race at Santa Anita on Nov. 7, 2009, was the third running of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, a somewhat oddly named race given that it was being contested on a synthetic surface for the second time in its short history. Of course, many handicappers are aware that all-weather surfaces are fairly similar to grass surfaces in the way that they behave. In marked contrast to dirt, synthetics tend to favor late speed, or high LSRs, as opposed to early foot, or low ESRs. As a result, the 2008 Breeders’ Cup, which also took place at Santa Anita, saw the 23 runners that made their final start on dirt get blanked on the Pro-Ride surface at the Great Race Place.
There were five horses that last raced on real dirt in the 2009 Dirt Mile. Let’s start our analysis by taking a peek at each:
Although he’s the second betting choice and has three previous all-weather surface wins to his credit â€” including a very game score in last year’s BC Juvenile at this very track â€” it’s hard to get real excited about a horse that has had just one 6 1/2-furlong race in a year. Especially since the LSR in that sprint “prep” was a woeful -13. On the plus side, Midshipman should get the early leadâ€¦ for what that’s worth.
Although each of his last two races earned century-figure Beyer numbers, Bullsbay’s recent LSRs (-10 and -9) have been mediocre at best.
Despite his long odds, this guy actually looks halfway decent â€” a little slow, perhaps, but not bad. Although he’s never tackled an all-weather surface before, he has won twice on the grass and last time earned a -4 LSR in the Grade III Spend a Buck Handicap at Calder Race Course.
Pyro hasn’t run well on a synthetic surface in two tries and enters this contest following a win at seven furlongs, making him a toss on multiple levels.
Todd Pletcher trainee looks like a more talented version of Mambo Meister. The -3 LSR he recorded in the Kelso is an excellent number for a dirt race (typically dirt LSRs are about five points inferior to all-weather surface and turf figures), and Ready’s Echo has placed in Grade 1 company twice.
Now, let’s examine the rest of the field, starting with the 7-5 favorite, Mastercraftsman:
Unfortunately, there’s no way to get accurate pace figures on foreign races, but a couple of things make me dubious about this guy regardless of the figs. To start with, trainer Aidan O’Brien hasn’t exactly enjoyed a lot of success shipping horses to North America over the years. And worse, Mastercraftsman prepped for this race in the Diamond Stakes, a 1 5/16-mile affair in Ireland. Given that the early splits in UK events are generally slower than those in equivalent US races, this marathon prep is troublesome, as it suggests that the son of Danehill Dancer is likely to be further off the pace than he might be comfortable with. Altogether, there just too many question marks for a horse that’s getting so much betting action.
Not much to recommend here: Mr. Sidney is winless off the green and his last all-weather surface LSR, earned in a N2X allowance race at Keeneland in October of ’08, was an uninspiring -5.
On the plus side, the son of Candy Ride definitely likes faux dirt; on the negative side, he simply doesn’t look good enough to win.
Here, at last, is a horse that I can actually envision winning this race. Yeah, I would’ve preferred a better prep, but look whom he beat last time â€” Mast Track, a former Grade 1 winner. Plus, he’s got five triple-digit Beyers to his credit.
I’ve saved the best for last. Not only is the 106 Beyer that Furthest Land garnered in the Kentucky Cup Classic tied with Bullsbay for the best last-race speed figure, but the +1 LSR he earned in that Grade 2 event also tops the field.
As many of you already know, Furthest Land held off Ready’s Echo to win the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at 21-1, proving that pace does indeed make the raceâ€¦ or at least it did in this case.
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Reprinted with permission of the copyright owner.