Betting on Frontrunners: Know Before You Go

By Ray Wallin

Ask almost any handicapper about what pace style they think has an edge at the track and you will get the same answer: Early speed

As handicappers we frame our reference of track bias on whether it is favoring early speed horses, not closers or off the pace runners. There are countless books and articles written on the subject but very few on stalkers and closers.


Early speed either wins or dictates the outcome of a race. Deciphering the pace of the race is a little bit of art and science. You can look at the projected fractions based on previous running lines to see who has an edge, but it is in the comparison of runners within the race where many other factors come into play.

Blindly playing early speed horses is a recipe for disaster, like playing the favorite in every race. Yet if you play the right early speed, like playing the right favorites, you will grow your bankroll. It takes asking yourself a couple of key questions about the frontrunner you are considering determining if he is worth playing.

You need to start with identifying the potential early speed horses in a race. Some past performances list out the Quirin running style and speed points. This is an excellent way to hone in on what type of runner the horse in question is, but it is not always absolute. You will need to look through the running lines to either confirm or change the listed running style of the entrant.

In most cases you will be looking at E and E/P horses, but it pays to check every entrant, including horses listed as NA. NA horses may be horses with only a handful of starts and may have had been outclassed, run in different conditions, or have had troubled trips. These may be a bit more of a gamble, but in the right spot they can shine.

Are they the only one?

Once you have identified what horses, if any, you think are frontrunners, you need to see if you have a lone early speed horse.

Lone early speed can be dangerous. The premise is that if there is only one horse willing to get to the lead and stay there, he has a good chance of taking the field wire to wire. It doesn’t matter if they are a strong or weak frontrunner if there is no one there to put pressure on them. There are caveats to this but being the only one in the race willing to shoot early is a good sign.

Will they last on the lead?

We have all encountered a horse that is low odds and shows a ton of early speed in their past performances, but never seems to win. They sport a record of 1-for-42 with a dozen second or third place finishes. They have tried every distance, class, condition, and surface. It doesn’t matter where they run, they can’t seal the deal, even when they are out on the lead by themselves.

If you have encountered a horse like this, hopefully they haven’t burned through your bankroll. These habitual quitters are notorious for getting loose by four or more lengths at the half mile, usually at reasonable fractions, before getting passed in the stretch by a slew of horses. These horses often have the best speed figures in the field, so they draw a lot of money at the windows before burning it up in the last 100 yards.

When you evaluate a frontrunner, especially a lone front runner, make sure they know how to finish the race. I’m not saying that these habitual quitters won’t win once in a while, but they won’t win often enough to justify playing at a short price.

Can they handle the pressure?

In reviewing your frontrunners, you have found one that is not a habitual quitter. The next question to ask is whether they are a strong or weak frontrunner.

A strong frontrunner can duel on the lead. This is the horse that wants the lead but can also be within a half-length and still be running hard. This is the horse that, unless faced with a wickedly fast pace, will be in the picture late.

Conversely, a weak frontrunner is not to be completely discounted. While they fold when pushed along by other speed or early-presser horses, they will show races in their past performances where they got out to the big early lead like the habitual quitters do but had the gas in the tank to hang on and win. They may give up ground in the stretch, but that is often the jockey gauging that they don’t need to push the horse any harder. They are going to get paid the same whether they win by a length or 20 lengths.

Knowing which horses can handle pressure and which horses can’t will benefit your decision making in races where there is a lot of speed.

Are they in the right spot?

A few years back I played in an onsite handicapping tournament at Delaware Park. While sitting in the old simulcast area, I got chatty with the guy at the next table over. We both had about 40 minutes before our next play. He was down to his last $10, and I was sitting on the cut line. We were both looking at the same race for our next play, the seventh race at Aqueduct.

The race was a mile over the outer dirt track for $20,000 claimers. I was fixated on a horse that was dropping from $30,000 and trying the one-turn mile for the first time at a reasonable 4-1 on the morning line. Tournament Todd nodded in quasi-agreement with my take on the field and pointed to his pick. He had selected a shipper from Finger Lakes who had shown blazing early speed at 6 furlongs before being stretched out to a two-turn mile in a low level starter allowance.

I couldn’t disagree that I felt his horse would get out to the early lead. In fact, I figured he would be a solid four or more lengths clear by the half mile. The kink in this horse’s armor to me was he had only run competitively in the $5,000 claiming ranks. His record suggested he could seal the deal, but I couldn’t see a lower tier horse shipping in to this level and being successful.

We both plunked down our contest wagers. As expected, his entry was out to the early lead, not by four lengths, but by six lengths at the first call. Admittedly I started to sweat a bit, but as he hit the half mile call, he was only clear by six lengths. As they turned for home, he went wide through the stretch and conceded the lead to my dropper who trotted home to win by nose over another late runner.

While a horse may look great on paper with outstanding figures, the basis of those figures needs to be considered. Can the horse handle today’s surface or distance? Is the horse completely outclassed, like in the case of Tournament Todd?

Whether you love early speed or detest it, it is an integral part of handicapping. There is money to be made by correctly projecting the early pace and how that sets up the rest of the race. By asking yourself a couple of key questions you too can work towards your goal of making your living playing the races.