Pace Handicapping – Horse Betting 101

Daniel Collins

Written by: Daniel Collins

Last Updated:

Read Time: 10 minutes

In horse racing, the winning horse is of course the fastest one in that race.

All horses start in a straight line and the first one to cross the finish line is the winner, he therefore covered the race distance the fastest.

One can therefore assume that a horse who has had quick times in his last races is likely to run quickly again and if all indicates that he can run faster than the field, he is likely to be the winner. Easy game.

The logic is sound, and it is crucially important to pay attention to horses’ performance in terms of quickness to finish the races. This is what speed figures accomplish.

As we have covered in another article, the speed figure attempts to standardize the timed performance of every horses so that horses who ran on different racetrack, distances and at different times can be compared.

But with speed figures alone, the bettor is missing a key determinant of final time performance.

Why do we need pace handicapping?

The speed figure is extremely useful to determine the quality of a horse, but proponents of pace handicapping will argue that the way the race unfolds will be a bigger determinant on the performance of the horse than his past speed figure.

Thoroughbred racing on dirt surface, the most popular version of horse racing in the USA and Canada, is a different game than horse racing elsewhere in the world.

On a normal day, the dirt surface will be labelled fast which really means hard. On such a surface, the horses will be able to achieve peak speed rapidly and then they will gradually slow down.

It looks like some horses accelerate in some sections of the race or in the stretch but it is an illusion. The horses that seem to accelerate are in reality slowing down less than the horses they overtake.

Pace handicapping helps the bettor determine what horse is likely to go early and which will stay fast late.

This will impact how the race unfolds and that dynamic is extremely important as we will see below.

The different Pace styles in horse racing

The horses who have the best top speed and accelerate quickly are labelled as having EARLY speed, usually shortened to E when grading horses. They jump out of the gate and quickly reach top speed, leaving the horses who accelerate slower behind.

A type-E horse will usually start slowing down in the stretch and that gives the opportunity to come from behind horses to try to overtake him unless he was able to keep enough energy.

On the other side of the scale, there are two types of “come from behind” horses, the PRESSERS and the STALKERS.

The pressers (type-P) have enough early speed to be able to stay relatively close to the type-E horses in the first part of the race. They are in striking position if the Early speed horses slow down.

The stalkers (type-S) are slow to accelerate and might be multiple lengths behind the leaders in the early stages of the race. They can maintain their speed much better though and in the last stages of the race it looks like they are flying and overtake the other horses impressively.

How to spot the pace style of racehorses

To determine the pace style of horses, the first thing is to look at his past performance and the running lines in his past races.

The running line is the progression of his place in the race compared to other horses. A running line will tell you where the horse was at each call of the race and the distance in lengths he was in front or behind the leader.

An early speed horse will be leading (or close to first) in most of his running lines at the first and second call. If a horse has often been in the lead at first call or within one length of the leader he is an early speed type horse.

If on the other hand the horse is usually 3rd, 4th , 5th and about 2-3 lengths from the leader at the first and second call, he is a presser. He does not have the speed to take the lead but he stays within striking distance.

Horses that are usually more than 3 lengths from the leader and among the lasts in the pack are the stalkers.

Most horses will keep the same style regardless of the distance of the race but try to look mostly for the running lines for the distance of today’s race (sprint or route)

Now that we have labelled the participants in the race, we can get to the meat of the subject.

Pace handicapping and track bias

First of all, pace handicapping is useful because many racetracks have what is called “track bias”.

Track bias is the tendency of the racetrack to give an advantage to horses who have a certain pace style. The track bias might also be giving horses that start from a given post position. For instance, a horse starting on the outside of the starting gate and who has an Early speed could have an advantage over others.

It’s important to note that track bias is not a choice from the racetrack operators (usually).

Some racetracks have soil composition or configuration that favor some pace style more than others and there is little that the track operators can do about it… Some track administrators will use water or adding layers to counteract the natural bias but it is usually a losing battle. Most track biases are pretty constant.

In the USA, most dirt tracks, especially in the sprint distances, tend to favor early speed horses and many races are won wire-to-wire. Sprint races are won wire to wire 30-40% of the time at some tracks and often all the horse needs is good early speed and the right post position…

Knowing if the track on which you are betting favors a particular style and knowing the pace style of each horse in the race is therefore crucially important.

If your favorite track has a bias and you know about it, you can find profitable betting opportunities just by looking for horses that fit the bias.

Where can I find information about track bias?

The basic way to determine if a track has bias is to look at the race results. If you compile the race results and keep statistics on the winning post positions and running lines for the different distances, you will be able to find if the track has bias. It is of course insanely time consuming.

Thankfully some services actually do this hard work for you. You can find a weekly track

bias information for free on or buy track bias reports from Equibase. The price of the report is very easily paid for if the bias helps you win a single bet or saves time in your handicapping.

Please remember that the bias is likely to evolve as administrators make changes to the tracks or because of weather, season or any other reason. It is therefore important to check the status of the track bias regularly.

We list below major racetracks with some track bias but again, make sure that you check on the bias before betting as these are likely to evolve.

  • AQUEDUCT TRACK BIAS: Early speed horses (sprints and routes)
  • CHURCHILL DOWNS TRACK BIAS: Early speed horses (sprints and routes)
  • DEL MAR TRACK BIAS: Early speed horses (sprints and routes)
  • GULFSTREAM PARK TRACK BIAS: Early speed horses (sprints and routes)
  • MONMOUTH PARK TRACK BIAS: Early speed horses (sprints)
  • MOUNTAINEER PARK TRACK BIAS: Early speed horses (sprints and routes)
  • PENN NATIONAL TRACK BIAS: Early speed horses (sprints)
  • TURF PARADISE TRACK BIAS: Early speed horses (sprints and routes)
  • WOODBINE TRACK BIAS: Presser horses in sprints, pressers/stalkers in routes

Another disclaimer, the track bias is a strong factor but not the only one so don’t bet everything on it. You still have to pay attention to the fundamentals and make sure that the horse fits in terms of speed figures and class, even if he has the right pace style for that track.

Pace scenarios and impact on betting favorites

Aside from assisting in finding horses that are likely to be helped or hindered by the track bias, pace handicapping helps find situations where a good horse, even a favorite, might see his chances spoiled by the pace.

Pace handicapping scenarios help you picture how the race is going to unfold and determine what horses might benefit or be negatively impacted. If a favorite is going to be negatively impacted, the race might be a great betting opportunity as casual bettors are unlikely to spot the problem.

There are two main profitable pace scenarios in dirt horse racing:

  • A race with a single early speed horse (or an early speed horse much faster than others)
  • A race with multiple competitive early speed horses.

In the first case, unless the track bias works strongly against Early speed type horses, that horse is likely to get an easy lead and not be put under pressure for the whole race. That will allow the horse to conserve his energy and still have some in the tank in the latter parts of the race to fend off opponents.

In the second case, it is the perfect opposite. Multiple horses will try to go for the lead and they will post very fast fractions in the early part of the race. They will exert a lot of energy and be under stress and will most likely run out of steam in the stretch or earlier. The horses who have stayed behind and kept energy will easily overtake them.

Best bets based on pace handicapping

Going back to the scenarios of the previous section, it is a good idea to take a stand against a betting favorite if he is likely going to be negatively impacted by the pace scenario.

In the first pace scenario, a single early speed horse, if that horse is the favorite there

will likely be little value in the race. All the signals are green but everyone and their neighbor likes the horse so the odds are likely to be tiny and in this case, the risk reward ratio is not there, even if the horse is almost certain to win.

On the other hand, if the only early speed in the race is not the favorite, it should be a very interesting betting opportunity. The favorite is usually overbet by the public and so any other horse with a decent chance has theoretical value. If a horse is the sole speed and especially if he is going to be helped by the track bias due to his post position, this is an amazing betting opportunity in most tracks in the USA.

In the second pace scenario, if the favorite is one of multiple horses that are going to fight for the lead, there is a good chance that he will run out of steam at some point in the race. Try to bet on come from behind horses in that scenario. The one to pick depends on the pace scenario again but also on the usual handicapping techniques.

If the pace is looking to be very hot (multiple horses going for the lead, most likely going very fast early), the stalker horses might have a perfect setup to overtake them all in the stretch.

If the pace is going to be hot but reasonable, try to select a presser-type horse, who is likely to be in striking position close behind the leaders.

How to determine if the pace is going to be hot?

This is where things get tough because at this point it requires interpretation and access to more data.

Spotting the pace style of horses is easy. But how do you determine if the pace is going to be hot or not?

After all, if a horse is way faster in the early stages than others or a much better horse, the style of the other early speed horses does not matter, they will also be left in the dust.

It is therefore important to be able to quantify the early and late speed of horses and for that, you need to use pace figures. The pace figures are available in some publications, especially the Daily Racing Form and Equibase.

The pace figures are akin to the speed figures, it is a standardized format to compare early and late speed between horses who ran at different tracks at different times.

The pace figures for a same horse can vary drastically between starts, much more than speed figures, because a horse’s pace in a race depends largely on what the other horses do…

But with these pace figures you will be able to see which horses are able to post fast fractions at the start and if multiple horses with similar figures are going head to head today, there is a good chance that they will go at it early and create an unsustainably hot pace.

In this case, bet on a presser or stalker. You can also use pace figures to see which ones should

be able to stay close to the action and/or post such good times in the last quarter and stretch that they can overtake everyone in the end.

Considering the propensity of American horse racing tracks to favor early speed, being able to spot who are the early speed horses and who is the fastest is crucial. It is even more important at the racetracks which have a strong track bias.

Even if the track plays pretty fair and does not have a strong bias, pace impacts the

result of races greatly. Therefore pace handicapping should definitely be on your radar before betting.

With a proper analysis of the pace, you should have a relatively good idea of how the race is likely to unfold and which horses might be positively or negatively impacted.

If you have access to pace figures, you can also get an idea of which horses are going to be the most affected and bet accordingly.

On big racing days and popular racetracks, a lot of the money wagered is bet by amateurs or inexperienced players. They tend to keep analysis minimal and often will bet on the favorite or low odds horses to maximize their chance of winning or at least not losing everything they brought to the track.

The existence of this type of bettors is the reason why savvy horse racing handicappers can turn a profit in the game.

By using pace handicapping and knowledge of track bias, the expert handicapper can find longshots with a decent chance or winning or at least races where the favorite is likely not as strong as it looks.

These are the profitable races to bet on and we hope that with the short explanation we gave you about pace handicapping you will be in a better situation to capitalize on those.