It’s Post Time with Joe Kristufek: Pace Makes the Race


Understanding pace is a key component for picking winners.

In simple terms, the pace in a race is how fast they go in the early stages. It is determined by the fractions set by the early leaders in the open half of any given race.

In sprints, horses must be fast over short distance, while in routes, stamina is at a premium, therefore, in most cases, the shorter the race, the faster the pace.

For example in a sprint race, a typical opening half-mile would be run in roughly :46, while in a route (race at a mile or greater around two turns) the pacesetter would race closer to :48.

One second equals roughly five horse lengths, so the difference between a :46 and :48 opening half-mile is approximately 10 lengths.

10. Pace makes the race

The more energy a horse can preserve early in the race, the more they will have left in the end. If the horses in the first flight are conserving energy and the pace is slow, it will be more difficult for those trying to close ground to catch up, regardless of how well they run.

If there are several committed front-runners entered in a race, there is a good chance they will burn each other out, opening the door for a rival to close from the middle or back of the pack.

If there is only one true speed horse, and that horse is ratable (agreeable to the jockey’s commands to conserve energy), that individual could hold a tactical advantage. A front-runner that is allowed to back down the early fractions should, theoretically, have a lot left in the tank for the all-important stretch run.

Our job as a handicapper is to reasonably assume how each individual race is going to develop from a pace standpoint.

When handicapping a race, based on past performances and today’s distance, start by assigning a style indicator to each horse: speed – presser – stalker – closer.

This exercise will lead to reasonable visualization of how the race might play out.

Speed - Demands the lead

Presser - Forces the issue

Stalker - Spies the leaders

Closer - Rallies from the clouds

9. Speed

Speed horses demand the lead. They are the front-runners. The pacesetters.

Speed horses do their best work when:

A)   The pace of the race is slow.

B)   The track surface is favoring front running types.

C)   The rail is good.

8. Presser

Pressers are blessed with natural early speed. They force the issue, but prefer to let the speed horses do the dirty work before increasing the pressure on the turn for home.

Pressers do their best work when:

A)   The pace of the race is slow to moderate.

B)   The track surface favors front-running types.

C)   The two-path or the outside is the place to be.

7. Stalker

Stalkers are the most tactical of all racehorses. They place themselves midpack, within striking position of the leaders.

Stalkers do their best work when:

A)   The pace of the pace is moderate to fast.

B)   The track surface is playing fairly.

6. Closer

Closers are not blessed with early speed but are capable of finishing fast. Found at the back of the pack, they don’t move until the turn or even at the top of the stretch. In larger fields, they are often the victim of traffic trouble or forced wide late, thus losing valuable ground.


Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

Closers do their best work when:

A)   The pace of the race is fast.

B)   The track surface is tiring.

5. Post positions

Post positions are a key component to visualizing how a race might play out.

Horses with speed prefer to be drawn outside the other pace-pressing types. It allows them to press instead of being pressed.

Unless a front-runner is the only speed horse in the race, an extreme inside post can prove deadly. The jockey has almost no choice but to “send” his mount toward the lead or risk getting caught behind a wall of runners with a horse who must be in front to run well. A horse that has to be used early will not have as much left in the tank when it counts.

Horses with tactical speed in route races can be at an extreme disadvantage when they draw an outside post, particularly in races where there is a short run into the first turn. A horse that is not fast enough to get position, but is just quick enough to outrun the closers to his inside, is very likely to get hung wide on the first turn, losing precious ground in the process.

In a race of three speed horses or less, the one who draws the farthest outside has the advantage, particularly if they are tactical enough to rate just a bit. In many cases, the rail horse pushes to keep position, the middle horse gets the dreaded “in between” trip while the outside horse can relax with clear sailing.

Saving ground is always important, particularly in turf and synthetic races and in routes. It helps in dirt races, too, but some horses simply don’t like kickback in their face and prefer to race in the clear.

Most trainers and riders will tell you that saving ground on the turf is critical. Horses are more bunched in turf races, and a sprint to the finish line often determines the result. Horses with good tactical speed and inside posts are golden on the grass. They can draft in behind horses, and nine times out of 10, they’ll find a lane to run through once they hit the stretch. 


Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

These types of horses get into trouble when the speed in front of them is cheap. Once they tire, they tend to back up and fade into the horses that are following them. With horses rallying to the outside, they could easily get locked in a hopeless box.

If you like a horse with tactical speed from an inside post, make sure that the front-runners are talented enough to carry you into the stretch. If the early runners are quitters, their fade could cause the inside runners to steady, check, or wait longer for room then they would like. At this point, horses with clear sailing on the outside will get the invaluable first run. Even if they weren’t able to save ground, a clear run on the outside is always better than a troubled one near the rail.

Post positions aren’t nearly as important with closers, although an inside spot helps them achieve a major objective – to save ground. In a big field where the chances of traffic are increased, closers can be at a disadvantage. A closer’s best shot comes in a medium-sized field, with a couple of speedsters.

4. Jockeys

When they’re on the best runner, most jockeys can win, but some riders do their best work when riding a horse with a particular style.

Some riders are particularly adept at getting a horse out of the gate and getting them to relax on the lead. Others are good at biding their time, judging pace and finishing strongly.

Knowing how a rider fits the horse can help a handicapper envision how a race might play out.

3. Visualize

You’ve assigned pace indicators to each horse, have a handle on riders and the post positions. Now, it’s time to visualize how the race might play out.

There are many unforeseen factors that could throw a wrench into the plan.

For example:

  • A speed horse breaking poorly from the gate and being forced to rush up.
  • A presser forced to race wide throughout.
  • A stalker or closer pinned or caught between horses in a claustrophobic position.
  • Traffic.

However, it is to our advantage to try and imagine how a race will unfold, given a clean start.  

Questions we have to ask ourselves.

Where will each horse be on the track past the opening half-mile?

How fast are the early fractions expected to be?

Which horses should benefit from the anticipated pace scenario and the trip?

2. Watching a race

In order to truly comprehend pace, one must learn how to watch a live race, and perhaps more importantly, a replay.


Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

Does the jockey have a tight hold or are they scrubbing on the horse to keep up?

Is the horse pulling or fighting the jock?

How much energy did a horse finish with?

One cannot judge pace purely on fractions. Track conditions, and on turf, where the portable rail is set, can greatly alter times.

Pace is best judged by watching how the race plays out and taking good notes.

1. File away info for later

Once a race is run, it is important to make proper evaluation.

Were any horses compromised by pace and/or trip?

Regardless of where they crossed the line, at the finish and in the gallop out, were the horses tired or finishing with energy?

Taking good pace and trip notes can help put us in position to score the NEXT time horses run.

In the end, regardless of pace and trip, a horse can’t win if they’re not fast enough, but all things being equal, if you can accurately visualize how each race should be run, you’re chance of cashing tickets on a consistent basis will improve considerably.

Remember, with knowledge comes horsepower!

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