Understanding Pace: Track Pace Bias
by Gordon Pine
As I’ve said in recent weeks, pace involves an interplay of three main factors:
1. The capacity of horses to maintain a fast pace (ability)
2. The desire of certain horses and jockeys to get out in front early (need-to-lead)
3. The track surface (track pace bias)
If all track surfaces were exactly the same at all times, pace handicapping would still be important. The interactions of ability and need-to-lead are fundamental factors in horse racing. But, of course, it’s not that simple. (If you want an easy game, take up chess.) Each track surface influences each race’s pace scenario.
A little aside: so far, I’ve been talking about “tracks.” Actually, I should be referring to track/surface/distances, for which I will lovingly inaugurate a new acronym: TSD.
Obviously, it’s necessary to differentiate between a 1 mile dirt race at Santa Anita and a 1 mile turf race at Santa Anita. Less obviously, it’s helpful to separate out all the different distances. While the track pace biases at different distances at the same track/surface tend to correlate, there can be differences. For instance, sometimes the six furlong distance tends to be more front-running biased than the 6 ½ furlong distance.
Why would there be differences in track pace bias from one distance to another at the same track/surface?
1) It could be the configuration of the track, in other words, where the different posts come up during the running of the race.
2) At a bullring, a race that starts closer to the first turn will tend to favor frontrunners – they tend to establish an easy lead because it’s nearly impossible to pass horses on those tight turns.
3) It might be due to irregularities of the track composition in different parts of the track. Maybe a truckload of sand ended up in a certain spot of the track and hasn’t been well-integrated with the rest of the soil.
4) Maybe the chute is less packed down than the main track, and that tends to tire the early runners at distances that use the chute.
Some TSDs favor early speed. These are the TSDs with harder, less tiring surfaces. The high need-to-lead horses get, in effect, a free lead of two to ten lengths in the very beginning of the race. Because the surface is so hard, they don’t have to gulp down their “cup of gas” during their period of high acceleration at the start of the race. The hard surface allows them to cruise on the front end, and often leaves them in an enviable position at the top of the stretch: with a lead and some gas left in the tank.
For instance, if you look at the recent Bay Meadows six furlong dirt races, you see a classic early speed TSD. Eight of the last 20 races were wire-to-wire victories. (Okay, I’m now going to use a sentence with two obscure acronyms, a feat rarely attempted outside of geeky programming magazines. Please stand back.) The pace contention point or PCP (a handicapping factor I invented and explained publicly years ago in Cynthia Publishing’s fine publication How to Profit From Pars) for this TSD is only .72. In other words, about 80% of the time, the winner is going to be within .72 lengths of the frontrunner at the second call of one of these races.
On the other end of the spectrum are TSDs that favor late speed. These are rare in the United States, but tend to include turf courses and many European race courses. These surfaces are more tiring. They may be softer, slipperier, muckier or sandier. In one way or another, they tire the horses by offering resistance or by not providing a solid surface that the horse can push off of when running. In these situations, the high need-to-lead horses burn themselves out quickly. Their “cup of gas” is drained quickly in the struggle for an early lead on a tiring surface. By the time they get to the second call, where the other horses are starting to really run, they’re through.
For example, Churchill Downs’ 1 1/8 mile turf races tend to favor late speed. This is probably no surprise to most handicappers, but it’s a fact nevertheless. Not that horses can’t wire the field on this TSD – three of the last twenty have done it. But it’s rarer, and winners can come out of the clouds. In one race run on a yielding (tiring) course, the winner came from 12 lengths back at the second call. The PCP for this TSD is 4.47 – in other words, the winner will be within 4.47 lengths of the frontrunner about 80% of the time in this type of race. Quite a difference from the .72 figure at Bay Meadows.
If you have a computer handicapping program or reports to keep you apprized of all the variations in track pace bias at all the different TSDs around the country, that’s fine. As I’ve said before, if you’re not a computer handicapper, you had better specialize in something: one particular track or one particular method. Otherwise, there’s so much variation in the predictive factors that you’ll have a hard time overcoming the track take.
Post position bias is a subject I’ll tackle at another time. It seems like it should be related to track pace bias, but I haven’t found a good way to quantify that yet. There definitely are TSDs where an early lead from an inside post is advantageous, while an early lead from an outside post is disaster, and there are TSDs where the opposite is true. Furthermore, a good jockey can sometimes discover a hard path somewhere on a biased surface, perhaps where a tractor’s tires packed down the soil beneath the top few inches.
Pace handicapping is one of the most complex areas of handicapping. I hope I’ve explained it in understandable terms. It involves the interplay of three main factors: ability, need-to-lead and track pace bias. Think of how each horse only has a cup of gas, how some horses need to be in front early at all costs and how hard surfaces promote early speed while tiring surfaces favor late speed. That’s it in a nutshell.
“Think of how each horse only has a cup of gas, how some horses need to be in front early at all costs and how hard surfaces promote early speed while tiring surfaces favor late speed.”
Understanding Pace Summary
Ability is best understood by thinking of a thoroughbred as a hot rod with a big muscle-car engine and a gas tank filled with about one cup of gas. The vast majority of horses are good for only one extended effort before that cup-of-gas is sucked dry. The rest of the race needs to be run at a more moderate pace, with that equine carburetor just sipping at the cup. That, for instance, is why any trouble which causes a loss of momentum in the running of a race is usually fatal to a horse’s chance of winning. It burns up its cup just getting back up to speed.
Need-to-lead quantifies each horse’s desire to get out in front early. This desire is separate from each horse’s ability. One of the worst horses on the grounds can get out in front at the first call of most races. (He just won’t have anything left later.) Some horses, for various reasons explained elsewhere, need to be on the lead early.
Track Bias. A fast, hard track tends to favor frontrunners because they don’t burn much of their cup-of-gas getting out to that early lead. They don’t have to fight the track surface early, which gives them more in the tank later to rebuff challenges.
Pace related selections or just thoughts
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