Handicapping the Stretch Drive

by | Last updated Jul 13, 2022 | Horse Betting

How to Profit from Watching a Horse Race: The Stretch Drive
By Pro Thoroughbred Handicapper Kenneth Strong

When most bettors watch a horserace they naturally watch the horse they have bet on, at least until the stretch. If their horse is in contention or making a move at that point they will watch their horse all the way to the wire. But once a horse starts to fade, many bettors not only quit watching not only their own horse, but also the entire stretch drive.

They might take a look to see where their horse finished after the race has been declared official, but most simply throw away their tickets and move on to the next race. This is a lazy mistake that leaves future betting profits on the table – but it also provides an edge to the astute race watcher.

The stretch run can reveal all kinds of future winners and horses that will perform better in their next starts – to those willing to put in the extra effort of watching the replays and making notes. There are numerous reasons a horse can fade in the stretch or fail to get a call in a race, and there are many performances that are better than they look on paper.

While obvious trouble in the stretch is recorded and available to the public in the past performance lines of racing publications, this information is available to the majority of bettors and provides no edge at all. An edge may be gained however, by watching all horses all the way to the wire and looking for quality performances or trouble that may or may not be recorded as follows:

If a horse has been dueling for the lead or forcing the pace and then fades in the stretch, it at least has an excuse. If the horse comes back in a race where there is a lack of early speed it may be able to gain the lead easily and go wire-to-wire. Speed wins a very high percentage of races, particularly lone speed.

If a horse flashes early speed in its first start off the layoff, it may be indicating it is ready to wake up in its next start. Or it may carry its speed further in its next start and win in its third start off the layoff. Even better, if a horse duels or forces the pace to the stretch and then gives grudgingly to the wire – that should be rated as a very strong performance – a tryer who is giving their best. These types come back to win a high percentage of the time, especially if they happen to find themselves in a race with no speed.

Any horse that can battle for the lead or remain close to the pace and still give a sustained effort through the stretch deserves extra consideration when it comes back in its next race. Even if a horse finishes fourth or fifth, if it is giving its best in the stretch, the performance can still be rated as a good one for that horse. Maybe the horse needed the race off the layoff. Maybe it needs a slight drop in class in its next start to get the job done. If you watch enough races you’ll begin to understand exactly what a quality performance is and bet accordingly when these horses come back to run.

Of course, one of the best indicators of future good performances is heart. The absolute best angle in the stretch drive is a horse that has been extremely game in the drive to the wire. Sometimes these types are noted in the past performance lines, sometimes not.

Win or lose, horses that appear to be doing everything they can to win in the stretch come back to win a high percentage of the time, and they make especially lucrative bets when moving up in class.

One of the best examples I ever saw of this was a horse that had dueled throughout in allowance race. Appearing to be put away numerous times in the stretch, he kept coming and coming, bouncing off the rail, losing his balance while extremely fatigued and almost falling down. But he kept coming. At the wire he missed by a nose – completely exhausted. But he had shown extreme heart and a will to win found only in the classiest of racehorses. He showed up in a minor stakes in his next start, which represented a significant class raise. He won and paid $37. Heart can and does beat numbers on a regular enough basis to make an excellent profit.

If a horse is making a move in the stretch and gets stopped, checked, bothered steadied or anything else obvious to the public, that horse will likely be overbet in its next start due to the published account of its trouble. But there are numerous unpublished incidents that go unnoticed by both the official chart men and the public.

To think jockeys and trainers don’t bet on occasion would be just plain dumb. And while many may not be very good at setting a horse up to win, some are absolute pros. Here are some of the methods they use when trying to pull off their betting coups.

When a horse is making its first start off a layoff some trainers will tell a jockey to send the horse fast and as far as they can, but make sure to take care of the horse in the stretch – meaning don’t abuse or beat the horse when it’s tiring. This has the effect not only of making the horse fitter for its next start, but also of keeping the horse’s confidence up.

If a rider is whipping an obviously tired horse in the stretch, the horse can become discouraged that it has not lived up to expectations – not to mention the fact that they are experiencing severe physical and psychological discomfort. If the jockey however, lets the horse take it easy down the stretch, the horse will feel it has done everything asked of it and will often come into to its next race mentally healthy and physically fitter. Make sure to watch exactly how a jockey handles these types down the stretch.

While the above scenario is most interesting in the first start off a layoff with regards to setting a horse up for a bet, it can also occur in the second start off the layoff and less commonly during a horse’s regular racing schedule. There are also a few additional ways trainers and jockeys can set up horses to win.

Sometimes a trainer will tell a rider (or the rider will simply take matters into
their own hands and do this) to take a hold of the horse early in the race and only let the horse run in the stretch. A horse that rallies from the back of the pack to finish seventh beaten eight lengths certainly doesn’t jump of the page on paper, but if you have watched the whole race including the stretch drive, you will know better.

Another move betting trainers like to make is to have the rider let the horse roll in the middle of a race, and then take a hold of the horse in the stretch. Taking a hold does not mean the obvious stiffing of a horse; it simply means the horse isn’t abused in the drive to the wire.

The best jockeys, those with great hands, can perform beautifully in the above scenarios – so well in fact that that the official trackmen, handicappers and the general public never notice. The worst jockeys look terrible trying to pull off the above scenarios.

When looking for effort by a jockey down the stretch you should always watch the head-on replay, as you cannot always see whether the jockey is using the whip or putting in a full effort through the
stretch. The most talented jockeys can make it look like they are riding their horses down the stretch when in actual fact they are preventing a horse from winning. It’s a fine art that only the best can accomplish, but you can usually determine effort or non-effort by watching a combination of the live race, the regular replay and the head-on replay.

The worst example I ever saw of a botched stiff job was a horse making its second start off the layoff who had dueled from the outset. Still in contention in the stretch, the jockey never pulled out the whip or moved his hands once during the drive. The horse finished second beaten six inches, despite the best efforts of the jockey to stiff him (not ride the horse to win). Not only was it one of stupidest performances ever by a jockey (who was a bettor), but it psychologically damaged the horse, who couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t being asked to win (and he would have won). The horse came back as the heavy favorite in his next start and never ran a jump. A little payback for the jockey and trainer who tried to put one over on the public.

The final thing we’ll talk about in the stretch is lame horses. If you watch races in California you’ll see exaggerated versions of this on occasion with well-bet horses that have finally run through their overused medication.

The horses will start bobbing their heads in the stretch, veering in and out etc. until the jockey takes a hold of them. Jockeys ride horses hard in the stretch in California, even the lame horses, so a horse has to be in very bad shape for a jockey to take a hold of these types at California tracks.

But the above example of lameness is an obvious scenario and is usually recorded in the racing publications. What you really want to look for are horses that are showing more subtle signs of lameness in the stretch, especially favorites. Remember, horses that finish back in the pack will go unnoticed by most bettors and handicappers, even when favored. If you watch the whole race for horses that are well bet and finishing up the track, and you can spot lameness problems, you’ll know better than to bet these horses the next time they run – especially as heavy favorites dropping in class.

Some of the best bets in tracing can be had by boxing the contenders in a race where you know the heavy favorite was lame in its previous start and will likely come up with a sub par performance. While lame horses do occasionally come back to win with the help of cortisone and whatever else is considered “legal” medication, most will not.

In summary, make sure to watch all horses in a race and analyze their stretch performances in context of their overall race performance, the jockey’s effort, and the lameness factor. Once you have watched enough races, you will begin to understand which types of horses can come back to run well at good odds, which jockeys and trainers are capable of setting a horse
up to win, which don’t have a clue what they are doing, and which cannot manage lame horses properly.

You think that might give you an edge on the public?

You bet!

How to Bet on Horses

Read our Race Betting Guide to get insight on all of the types of wagering options in horse racing. Dig deeper below to get tips on the most popular exotic wagers with winning strategies provided by expert Kenneth Strong.