Belmont Stakes Race Dynamics: Does Traditional Figure Handicapping Hold Up?

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There are many ideas floating around about how to analyze the Belmont Stakes for handicapping purposes. Some believe the longer distance favors those making a late charge. Others think that those near the front have an advantage. TimeformUS has Pace and Speed figures for the Belmont Stakes going back through 2004. It isn’t a sample size a statistician would consider sufficient, but it’s worth a look, if only to dispel some of the sillier notions that are out there.

Speed Figures

  • The average winning TimeformUS Speed Figure for the Belmont Stakes is a 116. This does not compare well with the other two legs of the Triple Crown races. The Kentucky Derby averages 121 and the lowest winning figure in the last 12 years was Giacomo’s 115 in 2005. The Preakness is higher still, with a 123 average and a low of 118 — Big Brown’s 2008 win.
  • This isn’t without reason. Obviously, horses are rarely bred with the Belmont Stakes in mind–The distance is longer than most will ever be asked to run again.
  • Only three times in the past 12 years has the Belmont Stakes TimeformUS Speed Figure been greater than (or even equal to) that of the corresponding Kentucky Derby. It occurred in 2004, when Birdstone’s 123 surpassed Smarty Jones’s 121. It happened again in 2005, when Afleet Alex ran a 117 winning the Belmont after Giacomo ran a 115 in Kentucky…
  • And then there is American Pharoah. Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 2.12.38 PMHe was assigned a 128 for his Belmont last year, after his 127 in the Derby and his 124 in the Preakness. This was the first time that the Belmont Stakes TimeformUS Speed Figure surpassed the Preakness Stakes’ winning figure from the same year.
  • The moral of this story? Typically, don’t expect speed figures from the Derby and Preakness to be matched in the Belmont Stakes. Newcomers to the Triple Crown series don’t need to match Derby/Preakness figures to be considered contenders.

Running Styles and Race Shapes

  • Racehorses that can adapt to pace scenarios have an advantage over those that always run one way. Some horses are “need the lead” while others are stone-cold closers that have no early speed. Most, however, are more versatile. TimeformUS gives each horse a running style label based on past results. There is no guarantee that the horse will cooperate in future races. The following table displays the pace of the race, based on TimeformUS Pace Figures, and the running style of the winner for each Belmont Stakes since 2004:

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The results of the prior 12 Belmont Stakes do not favor any particular running style. Horses have won from all different positions early. Only once in these 12 years was the pace considered slow and that race was won by Rags to Riches from off the pace after a poor start.

The Belmont Stakes is a unique race, 12 furlongs on dirt, and as such it should not be surprising that traditional handicapping methods do not work very well. The most solid conclusion that can be drawn is that the pace will be average-to-fast; it has been slow only once in the last 12 runnings of the race. Pace analysis generally favors speed horses when the pace is slow and off-pace runners when the pace is fast. But those rules do not appear to apply to the Belmont. Likewise, speed figures earned in races at distances spanning nine to 10 furlongs rarely indicate what a horse can run at 12 furlongs, just as a six furlong speed figure doesn’t mean all that much at a mile. Our recommendation for the Belmont Stakes? Be creative. Consider pace analysis and speed figures, but emphasize breeding, trainers, and form cycles. Good luck!


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2 Responses to Belmont Stakes Race Dynamics: Does Traditional Figure Handicapping Hold Up?

  1. Ian Douglas says:

    I don’t remember the exact fractions but it’s difficult to believe that the pace in 2013 was average. They literally walked home. Conversely in the 2008 running when D’Tara went wire to wire the pace was fast? I’m going to have to have to check my notes.



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