Belmont Stakes Pace Scenario
by Trevor Whenham - 06/03/2009
If you read any analysis of a big horse race you have probably read about the race's pace scenario. This is a crucial consideration when you are trying to handicap a race. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't totally understand what a pace scenario is, so they can't make the most use of it to reach a handicapping solution. This year's Belmont is a good race to use to get to understand a bit more about pace scenarios because it isn't too hard to decode.
In basic terms, a pace scenario is just a guess of how a race is going to be run - who will be in the lead when and the strategies horses will employ. Based on how you think the race is going to play out you can then determine if a particular horse has a style that lends itself to success in the race. For example, a front-running horse might be able to win the race wire-to-wire if there isn't a horse that will be pressing him early on and forcing him to run faster than he is comfortable with. A horse that prefers to hang well off the pace and close hard at the end, on the other hand, would probably prefer a fast pace up front at the start of he race so that the horses he is looking to catch and pass at the end are tired.
The best way to determine how a horse prefers to run is by looking at his past performances that can be found in the Daily Racing Form, the track program, or online. Those past performances show not only where the horse finished in each race he has run, but also the gate he started in, and where he was in the field at various points in the race. A horse won't necessarily be able to run the same style of race every time out, but if you look at what he has done most often, or what he has done when he is most successful, then you can get a good sense of what kind of horse he is. The goal is to be able to loosely group the horse into one of three or four groups based on his running style. I like to use four types - wire, presser, stalker, and closer or rally. A wire horse wants to take the lead early and stay there. A presser likes to stay just behind the wire horses and press the pace early on before trying to take over the lead when the wire horse falters. A stalker would ideally sit in the pack that follows behind the wire and presser horses and make a move to the lead around the final turn or at the top of the stretch. The closers will be further back behind the stalkers - often much further back. These horses typically have just one sustained run in them, so they look to conserve their energy through the race before trying to sprint to the lead at the end.
Once you have grouped the horses into their groups you can see if the setup gives one horse a particular advantage, or if it will impede them from running their best. You also want to see if several horses have the same style. In general, if you have two horses that will look to run the same style then the better horse has a better chance of succeeding. Once you get comfortable with breaking down a pace scenario it's amazing how often you can correctly predict what the race will look like, and how it can help you pick out a likely winner.
The Belmont has a very interesting pace scenario. There are no wire horses in the field, though that isn't that uncommon. What is less common is that there is also just one real presser - Miner's Escape. That horse would probably be more comfortable in second early on, but he might be forced to take the lead because no one wants it. There are also just a couple of horses - Dunkirk and Charitable Man - that are typical stalkers. Because they won't have much of a pace to stalk they will likely have to be closer to the action early on than they want to.
That leaves seven horses in the race, and they all have something in common - they are all closers. Some, like Mine That Bird and Summer Bird, are very deep closers who would like to be far off the pace, while others like Chocolate Candy like to stay slightly closer to the lead. Because so many horses have the same running style, and because they won't likely have a well-established pace in front of them, there is likely to be a recurring theme in this race - discomfort. Not only are a lot of horses going to be asked to run farther than they are probably comfortable with, but they could be asked to do it in a style that is different than they prefer. The stalkers won't be able to stalk a pace that doesn't exist, and it's obviously not possible for all of the closers to hang back at the back of the field. The trick, then, will be to decide which horses will be able to run their style, and which horses will be able to benefit most from how the race sets up. Which horses will adjust best to the changes asked of them, and which horses won't have to change at all? I have my theories, but I'll leave you to determine your own pace scenario.