When we handicap horse racing we use factors or attributes to evaluate the horses and estimate each individual runner’s chance of winning. Races run on dirt often shape differently than races run on grass. The first place to start estimating the value of each handicap factor is to study your local course or the venues you play. For example, the inner turf course at Belmont plays differently than the Widener Turf Course.
Playing horses with early speed on the inside turf at Belmont makes sense because the front runners are doing well. Therefore, pace is one of the two most important factors in the dynamics of the race. When we talk about race dynamics, the dynamics of a race is what actually happens while the horses are in motion and the race is run. Tempo is a way of estimating position and energy during the competition.
Pace is important in any race, but those horses who can set good early fractions and have some in the tank to finish the race are likely candidates to win on courses such as the inner turf and most gravel courses. On other turf, the pace scenario, while important, is often much different. Slow early fractions and a leisurely pace lead to a furious charge at the end of the race. In these races, class and speed are more important.
Class horses win on grass when they appear to be outmatched by a speed ball. Cheap early speed steals many more races on dirt than on turf where heavier riding leads to fatigue late in the race. Some jockeys try to steal turf by getting so far ahead that they can’t be caught, but that racing strategy rarely works. Again, if you know how your turf plays, you’ll have a better chance of seeing horses that fit the race model.
Another sometimes overlooked angle is having a list of hazards that produce winners on a particular slot. Offspring of some sires seem to do well on some courses and it is useful to know which horses should take special care because of their sire. In the case of dirt race handicaps, that may still be the case.
Dirt racing and speed go hand in hand. Using speed numbers alone won’t keep you in the black as a handicapper, but they do matter. Combining speed and pace is the best way to overcome the challenge of mastering race dynamics on dirt. Class still matters, but if I could only use two of the three factors, class, speed and pace when handicapping on dirt, I would choose speed and pace.