Pace Makes the Race & a Winning Horseplayer At Keeneland

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Ed DeRosa

March 31st, 2015

The Keeneland Race Course main track has certainly challenged horseplayers the past ten years. From the speed-favoring golden rail of spring 2006 to the ever-evolving Polytrack from fall 2006-spring 2014 to the return to dirt in October 2014, staying on top of how horses raced on the surface (and how horsemen prepared their charges to do so) was never easy.

But it could be lucrative.

Other than a crazy run of favorites in spring 2013 (most campaigned by Eclipse Award-wining owner Ken Ramsey and his merry band of Kitten’s Joy homebreds), Keeneland had gained (earned?) a reputation as a track that could be counted on for big prices—especially in its marquee events such as the Ashland and Blue Grass Stakes that will be contested on Saturday in Lexington.

What brought these prices home? Evenly matched fields? Inscrutable synthetic surface form? Jockey adjustments? A combination of those variables, for sure, plus another element: overthinking the handicapping process.

In the vast majority of American races, speed is king, and early speed is the court jester that makes you laugh for ignoring a well-priced winner who goes gate to wire. Doug Salvatore writes about it on the blog, and it’s been the topic of countless handicapping treatises from Steve Klein’s The Power of Early Speed to chapters in practically every handicapping survey tome published.

And yet horseplayers constantly look for reasons to ignore early speed. Turf sets up for closers, synthetic races are all won closing wide, etc.

While it’s true that certain surfaces (and tracks and class levels) have a certain profile, handicappers should be careful not to overweight the mode of how a race is won. I.e., just because closers most often win a race does not mean that a frontrunner cannot offer value.

Stats from the 2013 and 2014 fall meetings at Keeneland play this out. The 2013 was the last autumn meet for Polytrack while 2014 was the first with dirt. The top last-out E1 pace figure in the Past Performances produced an ROI of +41% in all main track races in October 2013 and “only” (in quotes because it’s still impressive) a 2.5% positive ROI for the same meeting in 2014.

Bettors mostly ignored early speed on the Polytrack, but those who didn’t were rewarded handsomely, and unlike Salvatore’s examples from the blog post cited above, you didn’t even need to know who would get the lead to cash in on this angle—only know who ran the fastest to the first call last time out based on the Pace Ratings.










Speed Last





Speed 2/3





1st call





1 call 2/3










The chart above was generating using my ALL-WAYS database. Speed Last is the best last-out Speed Rating. Speed 2/3 is the two best Speed Ratings from the last three starts. 1st call is the best last-out E1 pace rating; 1 call 2/3 is the two best E1 pace ratings from the last three races.

The best last-out Speed Rating remains a powerful dirt handicapping angle, and we already know early speed is powerful regardless of race type, surface, location, etc. So what happens when we combine the two?

At the 2014 Keeneland fall meeting in non-maiden main track races, horses who had both the best last-out Speed Rating AND the best last-out E1 pace rating won 38% of the time with a return on investment of +27%.

It’s humbling as a handicapper—someone who enjoys spending time trying to outsmart everyone else—to see that I could have paid for Christmas last year just betting that angle. Maybe I can make enough for my Derby bets this year.

For more information on pace handicapping, check out Night School at 8:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday!