Often, you’ll hear trainers or turf writers referring to a big race as a “key race” in a horse’s preparation for some other race. What they usually mean is that the race was essential to the trainer’s plan for that horse, a race that meant a lot for the horse’s development. But when you hear handicappers and horseplayers using the term “key race,” they usually mean something entirely different. What they’re talking about is an angle you can use to pick overlooked horses and hopefully hit the next race for a decent price.
The key race angle looks at the last race that a horse ran to evaluate the strength of the competition. One way to do that is to simply look at the class of the prior race and see if the horse is moving up or down in class in the race that’s coming up. But the key race angle looks deeper than that. It looks at all of the individual runners in the last race to see how they’ve done since that start to decide just how tough the race was to win.
When you look at the company line in a horse’s past performances – where the top three or four finishers are listed – sometimes you will see a name in italics. That means that particular horse won their next race. When you see that more than one of the top finishers won next time out, you may have a key race on your hands.
If you have access to more data, you can dig deeper and see how all of the finishers did next time out. When a decent percentage of the field returns to win or run close to the top of the field, it’s a sign that the race was stacked with good competition, which means that all of the horses could run well next time out, even if they finished out of the money.
The inverse of this angle is also useful. When a horse you’re looking at is exiting a race where the top finishers soiled the bed next time out, it could mean that your horse’s results in that race aren’t as impressive as they may seem. This is called a negative key race. Negative key races can help eliminate a horse in a race where you’re trying to beat the favorites.
There’s another twist on this angle, and that’s to look at a horse that finished second or third in its last race, but still finished several lengths ahead of the rest of the field. Sometimes all we look at is how many lengths a particular horse was beaten by. But the lengths a horse beat everyone else by could be helpful information. Perhaps a horse was simply second or third best in a particular race, but still light years better than all of the other horses in the race. These horses can sometimes be overlooked when they deserve to be betting favorites on account of a disappointing place or show finish in their last race.
When evaluating a key race, pay attention to the class of the next races that the horses are winning. If a race seems to be a key race because of a lot of strong next-out performances, but those next-out races are also big class drops, then you may not have a real key race on your hands. The key race angle assumes equal or better class races for horses making their next starts. If the current race you’re handicapping is also a class drop, then the other class drops are much more relevant. But otherwise, they may negate your key race. The same could be said to a lesser degree for distance, surface, and track condition. Beware of comparing two races that are run in radically different circumstances. Try to always compare similar races.
Will the key race angle always work? Of course not. But when you see a horse exiting a key race and the odds are looking nice, it’s worth firing off a bet. After all, aren’t we all just trying to beat the chalk?