Welcome to Handicapping 101 where our resident handicapping expert, Matthew DeSantis, provides you with the basic tools to get started playing the ponies and picking winners.
There are three basic elements to handicapping, which is the skill of analyzing a horse race:
Understanding Pace, Speed, and Class will allow you to identify likely winners and compare horses to each other when reviewing racing forms.
There is an adage in horse racing that “pace makes the race.” Pace refers to the speed at which a race is run. We determine pace by examining the time it takes for horses to run different fractions of the race at ¼ mile increments. When looking at a race, it is important to see whether the pace will be fast or slow (referred to as ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ in horse racing).
How do you do that?
There are a few ways to determine pace. When looking at a racing form, you can look at a horse’s natural running style. You can see that by looking at their previous running lines, which will show you where they have run at different points in the race in comparison to the rest of the field.
In the case of Evvie Jets (image above), when looking at her running lines you can see she was sitting first or second during the early parts of her races. She likes to be in the front, which is commonly referred to as “being on the lead”.
The more horses that like to run on or near the lead will often lead to a hotter pace as they will all be pushing to get to the front. Conversely, if you do not see any horses that like to run on or near the lead in a race you can assume the pace will be cold. Another way to determine pace is by examining Early/Late Pace Figures provided by TimeFormUS. Pace figures are created by analyzing how fast horses run different parts of a race and then quantifying that between their initial (or early) speed as opposed to how they run at the end of the race (late speed).
Horses with higher Early figures will be your leaders and horses with higher Late figures will be your closers. You can see from Evvie Jets TimeFormUS pace figures highlighted above that she as strong Early pace figures. TimeFormUS also has a nice feature, which is also available on Daily Racing Form, that will show you the early and late pace projections and give you analysis of whether a race will have a hot or cold pace.
Below are two examples:
What to do with pace information?
The general perspective is that if you see a pace with a hot pace and lots of horses wanting to get to the lead, then you should pick horses that will be sitting further back early since the frontrunning horses will wear themselves out, allowing the mid-pack and closing horses to win from off the pace.
On the flip side, if you find a race with no pace or one with only one horse who wants to be on the lead, then choosing the frontrunner is often a good option since the horse will be able to set their own fractions and not feel pressure. Additionally, a slower pace will make it more difficult for mid-pack or closing horses to win as the horses in the front have not been worn out by a grueling pace.
If you a race has an honest pace with an equal balance of frontrunning, mid-pack, and closing horses, then it is time for you to go to the next step on handicapping—speed figures.
Speed figures are a way of quantifying how well a horse performed in a race based upon the final time, pace dynamics, etc. Different racing forms use different proprietary speed figure calculations, but the underlying logic is similar for all of them.
The benefit of speed figures is that it allows you to compare horses that ran at different tracks on different days in different races because they are all being assigned figures using the same universal measure.
For the example below you see the speed figures used by Daily Racing Form (Beyer Speed Figures) for two horses running against each other in a stakes race.
In this example you see that Technical Analysis and White Frost have not run against each other in the races shown, but you can compare their respective efforts through the Beyer Speed Figures. Based upon those efforts, Technical Analysis has consistently earned better speed figures as her worst effort (94) is better than White Frost’s best effort (92).
If the pace scenario is murky, then speed figures can give you a sense of how the horses compare to each other in terms of quality races. In the above example there is not a significant difference between the two, but it might make you a little more comfortable picking Technical Analysis if you see she has consistently outperformed White Frost.
However, relying too much on a speed figure from a single race can be dangerous. In the example below you can see the horse Dazzling Blue has run one race with a significantly better speed figure than her other four career efforts. Her one great effort could be an anomaly since she reverted to her mid-70s speed figures immediately after the big race.
Additionally, pay attention to trends as much as the figure itself. A horse might have had great speed figures in the past but has been steadily declining the last few races whereas another horse might be ascending leading up to a race.
Once you handicap the pace and speed figures of a race it is time for you to look at the final factor—class.
Class refers to the different levels of racing that exist within the sport. There are four general classifications of races: maiden, claiming, allowance, and stakes. There are additional distinctions within each classification, which are outlined in the graphic below.
All horses start out as maidens and those with the most promise compete in the maiden special weight class while those who have not shown as much ability or who have not been able to win after several attempts are dropped down to maiden claiming races. Once a horse wins, they can compete in any of the other classes.
Claiming races are the lowest level races for non-maiden horses. Horses can be claimed by approved entities for the price listed in the race. For instance, if a horse runs in a $10,000 claiming race, someone could claim that horse for $10,000. There are also optional claiming races where owners and/or trainers have the option of putting the horse up for claim or protecting them from being claimed.
Allowance races are the next level up. Horses in allowance races are not eligible to be claimed, but there is a distinction between starter allowance and regular allowance races. Starter allowance races have specific conditions that often deal with a horse having previously run in claiming races. In other words, starter allowance races can be a stepping-stone for horses moving up from the claiming ranks.
Finally, there are stakes races, which are the highest level of races. There are four types of stakes races: listed stakes, Grade 3, Grade 2, and Grade 1. Listed stakes are the lowest level of stakes races while the quality of graded stakes goes up as the number goes down with Grade 1 races being the most elite.
When handicapping for class, it is important to look at what level the race is at and whether any horses in the race are moving up or dropping down in class. For example, if you are handicapping an allowance race, it is important to see whether any horses have recently run in stakes races or are coming up from running in claiming or starter allowance races.
In the example above, you can see two horses running against each other in a stakes race who took different paths getting to that point. Regal Realm had been running in $25,000 optional claiming races before recently running in a $76,000 listed stakes races. Meanwhile, Haughty had run in various graded stakes races and a $145,000 listed stakes race.
Based on the above information it is safe to say Haughty has been running against a better class of horses than Regal Realm. However, looking at class alone leaves you without context as it is possible Haughty has been performing poorly against better company while Regal Realm had been winning easily against lesser company.
Horses dropping in class will often be among the betting favorites since many assume the horse is getting “class relief” by running against inferior horses. While this certainly can be the case, it is also important to be suspicious of significant class drops such as when a horse goes from running against stakes company to a claiming race. The horse might win easily, but it could also be a sign that the trainer knows the horse is no longer competitive.
HANDICAPPING: COMBINING PACE, SPEED AND CLASS
Ultimately, relying on just one factor when handicapping a race can leave you with an incomplete view of how the race will turn out. It is important to take into consideration pace, speed, and class together when trying to pick a winner. When you advance as a handicapper you will discover many other factors to use when picking winners such as trainer/jockey angles, surface switches, pedigree, etc., which we will cover in our Handicapping 201 page coming soon!