Horse Betting: The Importance of Early Speed

by | Last updated Jul 12, 2022 | Horse Betting

Handicapping Fundamentals

Horses with early speed – those that can get the lead at the first call in a race, regardless of class, field size or odds – win far more than their fair share of races and produce a positive ROI (Return on Investment). There are handicappers and professional bettors who make their living off this handicapping factor alone.

The ability to identify the early speed in a race is arguably the most valuable skill a handicapper can possess. Why? Because regardless of Beyer Speed Figures, current form or any other handicapping factor, horses with early speed not only win more than their fair share of races – they ALWAYS have an influence on the outcome of a race.

And truthfully, if you cannot determine the early speed in a race, you will have no idea of how the race will set up, and thus will not be able to accurately determine the REAL chances of the contenders – which might be other speed horses, need-the-lead types, deep closers etc.

Early speed should not be confused with final times or how fast a race ran, which is best measured with Beyer Speed Figures. When looking for early speed, we want to know which horse (or horses), are going to be on the lead at the first call of a race. Handicappers able to determine who these horses will be and bet them properly are almost assured of making a profit at the races. They have a tremendous edge over their fellow bettors.

Early speed horses can do one of six things in a race – get the lead by themselves, force the pace, press the pace, set the pace under pressure, engage in a duel or chase the leader(s).

Speed horses able to get the lead by themselves and open a clear lead are among the best bets in racing. Horses able to secure the lead under mild pressure are also excellent bets. While the latter have a lower win percentage, they still win more than their fair share of races and produce a positive ROI. And although horses who duel for the lead at the first call have a lower win percentage than lone speed horses or pressured speed horses, they also produce a positive ROI.

ROI can be further increased by eliminating certain types of early speed horses. For example, some speed horses will not try in the stretch when unable to secure the early lead. If these horses have to force the pace (within a half a length of the leader), press the pace (within 2-3 lengths of the leader), or chase other speed horses, they will fade. However, if one of these need-to-lead types does happen to find themselves in a race where they can secure the early lead, especially a clear lead, they can be very tough to beat at great odds. There are also those rare horses which continually open long clear leads early in their races and inexplicably quit in the stretch – every time. Both types of speed horses mentioned above are relatively easy to identify with a quick scan of the past performance lines and can often be eliminated from contention.

If you can determine who the first call leader will be in every dirt race you bet on, and you bet only that horse, you are almost guaranteed to make a profit over the course of a season. Throwing out need-the-lead types that cannot get the early lead and proven quitters will only increase your profits.

It is important to note that when discussing early speed we are only concerned with dirt races. While speed horses also win more that their fair share of races on the turf, their percentages are lower and their overall trips are probably more important. The jury is still out on artificial surfaces such as polytrack, but early evidence suggests that speed does not hold up as well on these surfaces as it does on dirt. More races have to be run over these artificial surfaces before accurate data and predictions regarding early speed can be made.

Favorites win approximately 29-33 percent of the races in any given year at any track. This is a proven statistic, as is the fact that betting only on favorites will result in a negative ROI. Throw early speed into that equation however, and a whole new world opens up. Horses at 3-1 or less which are also able to secure the lead at the first call will win anywhere from 35-75 percent of their races with a positive ROI. The lower the odds, the higher the win percentage, but the ROI remains positive. And while the win percentage of horses able to get the lead at the first call goes down as the odds go up, these horses still win more than twice as many races as their come-from-behind rivals and produce a positive ROI that naturally increases with the odds.

Similarly, horses able to secure the lead at the first call in small fields will win a higher percentage of their races at a lower odds but still produce a positive ROI. As field size increases, early speed horses win a lower percentage of their races but at an increasingly higher ROI. With regards to class, the win percentages for early speed horses remain relatively constant throughout all levels, but the ROI increases in the cheaper quality races.

As a fundamental handicapping skill, the ability to identify early speed will not only help you make a profit at the races, it will also give you insights into the internal dynamics of each individual race. You will begin to understand the influence of early speed on final times, running styles and race results. You will be able to predict how a race will set up before it runs. You’ll know where each horse is likely to be at different stages of a race and how their running position will influence their chances of winning.

You’ll know whether there is likely to be a duel that sets the race up for closers, a pressured pace that might result in the early leader winning, or a lone speed horse. You’ll know, based on the influence of early speed, which horses have the most probable chance of winning at the best odds.

In our next article we’ll discuss some simple techniques that can be used to find the early speed in a race. In the meantime, the most important question you must answer in every race you handicap, before you make a bet…

Need more speed? Learn how to determine the speed in any race using Quirin Speed Points

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.