How many times have you seen a horse finish strongly to win, but then only plod home at its next start and never look a winning hope? What about the front-runner that defies all challengers in the straight one start, but is then beaten inside the 200m mark at its next? These sudden form reversals may seem like just another element in the great uncertainty of racing, but they can often be explained by one very important factor, the influence of early pace.

Early pace refers to the speed each race settles into after the field has accelerated from the barriers and jockeys have found their position in running. It’s often measured as speed to the 800m or 600m mark. What makes early pace so important is that it varies from race to race, depending on the speed and preferred running style of each horse, their barrier draw and the riding tactics of jockeys.

In some races there may be a lack of natural leaders or horses that have good speed out of the barriers. That means there is no need for the jockey’s to be too urgent in the early stages and they can find their positions without asking their horses to run too fast. The end result is that the field tends to run along at a slow pace and then sprint home from the 600m mark or sometimes even the 400m mark. In other races there may be a number of horses that have good natural speed and like to race somewhere up near the lead. Depending on barrier draws the jockeys on those horses have to be more urgent early, run faster to find their position and that helps to establish a genuine or strong early pace.

Different levels of early pace have different implications for how well suited individual horses are and the challenge they face to win the race. Consider the following example of three races run over 1200m. All races finish with the same final time of 70 seconds, but each has a different level of early pace.

How do these different scenarios affect the winning chances in each race?

For the time being we will assume that each horse has the capability to run an overall time of 70 seconds for the entire 1200m distance and examine how easy or difficult their task might be in each scenario.


Race 1 – Slow Early Pace

In this race the leaders have had an easy time in front and run the first 600m in 36 seconds. With plenty of energy in reserve, they sprint home in 34 seconds to finish the race in 70 seconds.

If the leaders are sprinting home in 34 seconds, the runners behind them need to sprint faster to make up enough ground to win. The following diagram shows the task different horses face over the final 600m of this race.

A horse 6 lengths off the lead must sprint its final 600m in 33 seconds, while 3 lengths off the lead requires a final 600m of at least 33.5 seconds, just to finish in a dead heat with the leaders. That’s based on an average of 6 lengths per second in horse racing.

They key point to understand is that regardless of how slow a horse goes early, the all have a maximum ‘top speed’ and fastest time they are able to run for 600m, 400m etc. On a standard good track, it typically takes an above average horse to run faster than 33.5 seconds over the final 600m of a race. The ability to break 33.0 seconds on a standard good track rests with only a very few top class horses.

So even though a horse might have the ability to run 70 seconds for 1200m, setting 6 lengths back in this slow pace race where the leaders will run home in 34 seconds makes the task for that horse of running 70 seconds overall and winning the race virtually impossible. A horse 3 lengths away has a slight chance, but only if it’s above average in ability and can sprint home in 33.5 seconds or faster. Leaders and those within one length of the lead in this race are ideally suited.


Race 2 – Even Early Pace

Here the leaders run along at a more even speed of 35 seconds for the first 600m with enough energy to sprint home in the same time of 35 seconds for a final time of 70 seconds. Horses off the lead are now a little better suited as you can see in the following diagram.

A horse that is 6 lengths off the lead in this race would need to run its final 600m in 34 seconds to finish equal with the leaders. This is one second slower than what was required under slow pace conditions. It still takes a good performance to win in these conditions, but the task is certainly within reach.


Race 3 – Fast Early Pace

In this race the leaders run along quickly, clocking 34 seconds for the first 600m with only enough energy to run home in 36 seconds. Horses off the lead now face a much easier task.

A horse 6 lengths off the lead only needs to run its final 600m in 35 seconds, 2 seconds slower than what is required if the early pace is a slow 36 seconds, despite the overall time being the same. This horse can run along at a constant speed through each section and will be the one making up a stack of late ground to win, even though they aren’t running home especially fast.

You can see from these three race examples that even though the final time is the same, the level of early pace has a profound effect on the winning chance of each horse and how the result of each race is likely to play out.


The advantage of being on the lead or close to it

The reality of racing is that horses racing closer to the lead have more pace scenarios which they are suited by compared to horses settling well back off the lead. Leaders and those closer to the lead can win in just about any pace scenario, providing they have the same overall time ability of those back off the pace. The only cases this doesn’t apply is when the leaders cross the threshold of running too fast early, which results in them burning out and actually running a time slower than their best. Only a very small percentage of Australian races are run this way.

This key point is the reason why effective betting strategies should focus on horses likely to settle anywhere from on the lead to no more than 2-3 lengths off the lead. It’s very rare that they are unsuited by the race pace and they win a significantly higher percentage of races compared to those midfield and further back, which are rarely advantaged by the race pace.


There are some exceptions to the rules

While these concepts of pace vs position in-running suitability fit most of the horse population, there are some horses that have traits which are contrary to the average. For example:

  • Some horses are more ‘one paced’ types that can sustain a decent speed for distance, but lack the acceleration and top speed to sprint genuinely fast sectionals. When a horse like this tends to race up near the lead, they are best suited by a genuine speed that allows them to run their best overall time. If they set a slow pace in front, they’ll be outsprinted over the last 600m by those chasing and perform well below their true capability.
  • Other horses can’t sustain a good race pace even if settling back in the field and high pressure races tend to dull their finishing ability. They are often horses that lack superior overall time ability, but are very fast over 600m-800m. Even if settling back off the lead in a slow pace, these horses can often get close enough with 600m to go and then use their superior sectional speed to still run home and win (providing they don’t face an impossible task.)

These exceptions to the rule though are very much the minority, so a thorough understanding of the general concept of race pace and its influence will serve you very well as a punter.


Practical guidelines for betting

There are some key principles about the implications of race pace that are well worth applying to your betting:

  • Focus your WIN betting strategies on horses likely to race anywhere from on the lead to no more than 2-3 lengths off the lead. It means your horse will rarely be unsuited by the pace and is far less subject to bad luck for that matter as well. Being closer to the lead is a tremendous winning advantage and will make your overall betting far more profitable.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of liking horses that ran home from well back off the pace when the final sectionals were anywhere from slow to average (you can compare races across the day to get a guide.) These horses were well suited by a pace scenario they are unlikely to get next start and typically end up well under their true price. They can be good LAY prospects, especially if you doubt their overall ability to win the upcoming race.
  • Horses that have a pattern to get back in the field in a race where the early pace looks slow and / or the track pattern is suiting those closer to the fence / lead can be good LAY prospects.
  • A horse that ran home in fast sectionals when unsuited by the pace can make a very appealing betting prospect at their next start, IF they are able to take up an appropriate position in-running (see the first guideline above).
  • Finding a horse you like that can take up the appropriate position and be suited by the pace COMBINED with one or more of the main dangers likely to be unsuited by the pace is a very appealing WIN betting scenario.

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