If you've watched the Kentucky Derby or other big races, do you really understand what it is you're seeing? It seems simple enough. Horses run around the track in an effort to reach the finish line first. But it's a little more complicated than that, and knowing what to look for can make watching the races a more rewarding experience - financially too!
Every race actually begins in the paddock. The paddock is the fenced-in oval where the horses parade about 15 minutes before each race and where the jockeys climb aboard. To the trained eye, horses give clues about their upcoming performances. A fit horse will have a shiny coat and look well-muscled. He might prance around the ring and appear "on his toes." If he looks ready to run a big race, he most likely will. On the other hand, a horse with a dull coat or lethargic behavior might be telling you this isn't his day. A horse that is sweating too much (yes, horses do sweat!) or acting irritable might also be a bad bet.
Once the race begins, three things are vitally important in determining the eventual winner. One is the speed "fractions" that are usually given by the track announcer and shown on television. Simply, how fast are the horses going? The second crucial element is the race "shape." Where are the horses positioned in relation to each other? The third is the "trip" each horse is taking. I'll explain these further.
In the wild, horses run in packs, and that's exactly what they do in the Kentucky Derby or any other race. Each horse in the pack has a certain running style. Some horses like to run away from the pack as fast as they can while others -- called "closers" in racing -- enjoy loping along at the back, keeping their competitors in front of them before reaching their top speed. Still others, known as stalkers, run in between the frontrunners and the closers.
Before the race, do you know who the frontrunners are? The stalkers? The closers? Knowing this information can help you understand how the race might unfold. The Daily Racing Form (newspaper and online) provides past performance charts that show the "running lines" for each horse in their previous races. A horse that is consistently first or second during the course of his races would be considered a front runner. A horse that is usually 8th, 9th or 10th out of 12 for much of a race would be called a closer. Stalkers usually sit 2nd, 3rd or 4th as they make their way around the track, waiting to pounce on the tiring frontrunners. Horses are creatures of habit, and most of them have the same running style from race to race.
A horse that is the only clear frontrunner in a race has an important advantage. That horse and his jockey can dictate the pace. By taking the lead and then slowing things down, the horse in front can conserve energy and have something left for the stretch run. He often proves very difficult to catch.
But if there's more than one frontrunner, they might "duel" with each other, racing faster than either should be going early on. They often tire each other out and fade in the stretch, giving the stalkers and closers the advantage. For example, the Kentucky Derby is a mile and a quarter race. If the leaders run the first half-mile in 45 or 46 seconds, they are probably going too fast, and they are likely to run out of gas. But if they go a more leisurely :48 or :49, they should last a lot longer on the lead and could very well stay there all the way to the wire.
It's also important to note each horse's position vis-a-vis the rail. A horse running close to the rail is taking the shortest way around the track. A horse that is farther out from the rail is obviously covering more ground to get to the finish line. It's difficult to predict where the horses will be in a particular race, but the post position is an important clue. A frontrunner that breaks from the first spot in the starting gate is likely to establish his position on the rail. But a horse that starts the race on the outside farthest from the rail might be forced to race "wide" for much of the race and will have to cover more ground.
Finally, we must consider the "trip" each horse is getting. Is he being squeezed or bumped by the competition and possibly losing momentum? Or is he getting a smooth trip that allows him a fluid, relaxed motion? It can make all the difference. You can't predict trips either, but you can watch previous races (also online at the Daily Racing Form) and determine whether a bad trip might've cost a horse his last race. Maybe with a cleaner trip this time, he could be a good bet.
The 2010 Kentucky Derby provided an excellent illustration for all of these factors. Several horses in the race liked to run out front. Predictably, they ran very fast in the beginning of the race (:45 for a half-mile), and they were exhausted by the time they turned into the stretch.
Meanwhile, the eventual winner, Super Saver, ran a slower pace early, acting as a stalker. He also hugged the rail the entire race, giving him the shortest path to victory. Jockey Calvin Borel had Super Saver perfectly positioned to win. The horse that finished second, Ice Box, was a closer that also benefited from the frontrunners going too fast. Unfortunately, Ice Box had a horrible trip. He was forced to slow down and maneuver around other horses several times. He also wound up farthest from the rail at the finish, meaning he probably ran the most distance of all 20 horses. Second place was a pretty impressive result for Ice Box!
Every horse race is a new puzzle. They each have a different shape, a different pace and a different collection of horse personalities. The enjoyment comes from trying to piece it all together before the race and then hoping it unfolds as you anticipated. Knowing what to look for can make watching the races more enjoyable, and it might even help you pick a winner!