Handicapping the Kentucky Derby by Pace

Using the techniques of pace analysis to improve your Kentucky Derby bets.

One of the most frequent questions I have received from readers is how do I select a running line from each horse to create my pace scenarios?

If you ask ten handicappers how they select a running line, you will get ten different answers. But, since so many of you have asked for my opinion, here are my thoughts.

Why Select a Running Line for Pace Analysis?

One reader that I exchanged multiple emails with wondered why I would select a running line to use for my analysis at all, instead of using the [William] Quirin running styles and points. Truth is, I look at those in a similar fashion to “pace doodles” (discussed in Randy Giles book, Extreme Pace Handicapping) and use them as a starting point in determining whether the race should favor a frontrunner or presser.

Finding applicable running lines for each horse will allow you to determine your “Critical Pace Horse” or (CPH). The CPH is the horse that is dictating the pace of the race. It can be either a positive or negative influence on the other horses.

Why Select a Pace Line Instead of Using the Last Race?

A while back, I wrote about my thoughts on the term that many race analysts and handicappers throw around, “bounce”. Call it what you want, but it is not some amazing phenomenon — it is regression to the mean.

That’s right. If a horse has a great race last out, they’ll likely run back to their average. Likewise, if they threw in a clunker, they’ll likely do a little better next time. So, if the horse ran the race of its life last out, unless it is a two- or three-year-old, it is unlikely to repeat or improve upon that effort.

What Should a Running Line Tell You?

A running line used for pace analysis should be representative of the horse’s ability under similar conditions as today’s race. This means class, distance, surface and call times should be applicable.

What Should You Watch Out for or Look to Avoid?

Atypical Fractions

The horse you are analyzing for today’s sprint shows all sprints in their past performances. Great! Yet, that last race showed a blazing pace with a half mile time of sub-44 seconds and it hung in there! Before you get too excited, look back over the rest of his running lines. He hasn’t raced well in a race with a half mile time under 45 seconds in any of the other races in his past performances. You’ll need to discount that race. The track may have been running particularly fast that day or maybe it was the track condition that led to quicker splits.

Likewise, if the half mile call was 48 seconds and every other running line is in the 46-second area, you will need to discount the overly slow time as well.

Track to Track Adjustments

Not all tracks are created equal. Some tracks are mile ovals, others are larger or smaller. It pays to get good par time adjustments from sites like pacemakestherace.com to be able to adjust the fractional times of horses that ship regularly between each track. For me, knowing that sprinters at Parx need to be adjusted to run at Penn National by 2/5ths of a second on the half mile call is a slight edge over the horseplayers that don’t account for that!

Excuses

I know too many handicappers that never read the comments column in the past performances, including our old friend Rail Guy. How can you penalize a horse that gets bumped out of the gate, steadied, and bumped again in the stretch over a muddy track? That is not a great race for comparison. Read the comments and be prepared to give a horse a pass when it has a legitimate excuse!

Recency

When was the race you are considering run? I am willing to go back a bit in history, but you can’t go back to the Obama administration to find an applicable race. My cutoff for recency is typically nine months back. Under certain conditions, I am willing to go back a year, but no further.

Quality Starts

Ideally your analysis wants to base upon a quality start. This means that the horse ran a good race under the similar or harder conditions than today. If you must use a race where the horse had excuses, make a note that he may perform better today. This will also help you to avoid using a race where a horse wins too easily without trying too hard which can offer up fractions that are not representative of the horse’s abilities.

Working Example

I’ll run through an example of a sample past performance running line by running line. I have removed the information that doesn’t affect my decisions and we can assume all ten races have been run in the last nine months.

Pace Line Selection

Line 1

Our horse ran a heck of a race last out, but two reasons would keep me from selecting this running line. First, the race was run against a much lower class than today’s race. Second, that blazing second call time of 44.0 seconds is much faster than any other time he has run over the dirt in any other race by more than a full second.

Line 2

There are two reasons to pass this race. First is class. This horse had no business running in an allowance race. Second is that today is a sprint and that this race is a route.

Line 3

This race is over today’s course and only one class level below today’s conditions. Yet, this race was a route while today’s condition is a sprint.

Line 4

Same course, same distance, and tougher competition, but this race is a pass as well. It was run over an off track. When I anticipate a fast track, I discount races run over wet surfaces. 

Line 5

Blazing fractions in a sprint at the same class! Too bad it was on the turf. Another toss.

Line 6

Distance checks out, class checks out, and the surface checks out, yet our horse was (uncharacteristically) never in this one. Pass.

Line 7

Not the most recent race he has had, but it is under all today’s conditions — distance, surface and class. We just need to adjust for the move from Parx to Monmouth Park.

Line 8

Another route, but this one ran over an off track. Pass. As a rule of thumb I generally don’t use maiden claiming wins as a pace line, especially when it is a maiden claiming race that is not double the claiming price of today’s race.

Line 9

Toss. Short race (4-1/2 furlongs) and over a muddy track make this one a pass as well.

Line 10

Distance, surface, and distance check out, but a troubled trip makes it hard to use this as a gauge of the horse’s ability. Pass.

Verdict? Use Line 7. It is the closest to today’s condition and the horse ran a clean race without any trouble and there were no atypical fractions.

Assessing the pace of horses with limited applicable running lines is not always easy. Knowing when to allow for improvement on younger horses and to excuse races that are not a great fit is key to establishing the probable pace scenarios. If you can get comfortable making these judgement calls you will be well on your way to making a living playing the races!

Ray Wallin
Ray Wallin is a licensed civil engineer and part-time handicapper who has had a presence on the Web since 2000 for various sports and horse racing websites and through his personal blog. Introduced to the sport over the course of a misspent teenage summer at Monmouth Park by his Uncle Dutch, a professional gambler, he quickly fell in love with racing and has been handicapping for over 25 years.

Ray’s background in engineering, along with his meticulous nature and fascination with numbers, parlay into his ability to analyze data; keep records; notice emerging trends; and find new handicapping angles and figures. While specializing in thoroughbred racing, Ray also handicaps harness racing, Quarter Horse racing, baseball, football, hockey, and has been rumored to have calculated the speed and pace ratings on two squirrels running through his backyard.

Ray likes focusing on pace and angle plays while finding the middle ground between the art and science of handicapping. When he is not crunching numbers, Ray enjoys spending time with his family, cheering on his alma mater (Rutgers University), fishing, and playing golf.

Ray’s blog, which focuses on his quest to make it to the NHC Finals while trying to improve his handicapping abilities can be found at www.jerseycapper.blogspot.com Ray can also be found on Twitter (@rayw76) and can be reached via email at ray.wallin@live.com.