by Craig Braddick
When you first watch a steeplechase, you may find the pace of the race to be difficult to judge, especially if you are used to flat racing. When handicapping flat racing, one can get an accurate estimate of the likely pace scenarios by looking at sectional times and the horses’ positions relative to the leader every quarter of a mile in their previous races. In this post, we are going to look at horses who like to be up with the pace early.
Pace judgment in steeplechasing is altogether different. The tracks are all unique as are the position of the fences, and the terrain is undulating from course to course. Add in the variants of distances, and a different approach is needed if you want to work out the likely pacesetters.
We discussed before using the Equibase program and marking a “+” sign next to horses who showed they liked to be among the leaders early in their previous races and marking a “-” sign to signify a horse who may make a late move into a prominent position. This provides you with a nucleus of how the race may be run. Now let’s take some of that information and apply it to different races you may watch.
The short field race: In this example, let’s say a field of five or less. If there is a sole front-runner, disregard his front-running skills. Races of more than two miles are seldom won by a horse leading by six lengths or more the entire way around the track.
The horse may be up with the lead, but it will be likely the jockey may have his arms extended trying to settle him. If the jockey does a good job, he will still have enough reserve to put in a finishing kick once they have jumped the final fence. Or the jockey may try and give him a little cover and risk running “against type.”
The big field race: Let us say a race with ten or more horses. If four or five are front-runners, the chances are there is enough weight in numbers that no one will be forced into a pacemaking role. Expect to see several jockeys holding their horses early and trying to restrain them in the early stages.
However, there is a risk-reward to that strategy. A brisk pace allows horses (especially younger horses or novices) a greater margin of error when making mistakes at fences. By pinging the fences at a fair gallop, they are more likely to stay upright.
Conversely, when younger horses and novices face a dearth of early pace, they are more fidgety, not concentrating as they tug on the bit to be given their head and usually, do not have the same jumping room. In those situations, mistakes are more likely to end up as a tumble.
Front end advantage: Races with a field greater than six and no more than three front-runners are the type where front-runners traditionally have an advantage. They are not competing too much for the lead early yet can still get enough cover to settle down if they are pulling too hard. The advantage diminishes when you go in excess of three miles and there are more than three late closers.
Front end disadvantage: As mentioned above, the short field does not often play to the advantage of a horse who likes to be up with the pace, but another disadvantage is when he is the lone pace against a field of horses who are late closers. The longer the trip, the more pronounced this becomes.
Formula 1 auto racing is a good comparison. The late James Hunt, who won the world title in 1976, said: “Lack of concentration leads to lack of motivation.” When a horses are out clear, they can sometimes start taking liberties with their jumping as the concentration starts to wander from the task at hand, and even the most talented of jockeys can have a tough time keeping the horse concentrated the work at hand.
Truly dominating front-running steeplechasers are a breed apart and in the long run, identifying the consistent ones is not a winning proposition. However, understanding and being able to interpret when a race is set up for their running style can give you a big advantage over others when it comes to working out who you are going to see in front at the conclusion of a race.