Hearty, winter-loving Canadians or not, most thoroughbred horseplayers from coast to coast consider themselves blessed that they don’t have to make rhyme nor reason out of races taking place in the middle of a blizzard, over hard frozen tracks or flooded racing surfaces. But this makes for an interesting challenge when racing returns from hibernation.

Spring racing, whether it’s at Hastings Park, Northlands, Assiniboia Downs or Woodbine, is defined by two realities – short races and fields populated by matchups between horses returning from layoffs and winter-raced runners from the United States. When it comes to picking winners there are obvious ways to deal with these two themes. Of course, the obvious approaches will lead to disappointing payoffs at the wagering windows. So, the trick is to find spring handicapping angles that go against the obvious grain.


The “Distance” box in the program or Daily Racing Form is as good a place as any to discover which horses are best in short sprints. How a runner compiled this record may be more helpful in determining its authenticity. A runner with three seconds and a third from five starts at five furlongs may be attractive, but a closer inspection of his past races may show a tendency to fall far back early and rally late for a share – just not the most significant share. While these types may eventually win at five furlongs, they’re far better gambles in exotics under higher-priced types that aren’t so tactically disadvantaged.

Many times, a horse may not have any experience at the short distance he or she’s being asked to try. Using the horse’s record, a handicapper has to project whether this runner’s abilities will translate into a shorter win. Call it systematic guesswork, and it’s where mistakes are made.

The classic error is the horse that’s tiring in the final furlong of a six-furlong race that is now trying five furlongs. These types are bet off the board all the time without any thought being given to the increased competition for the early lead and more rapid early pace at five furlongs.

A second mistake made that stems from shorter distances is an overwhelming appreciation for the race-fit horse from the United States. The public will accept the overwhelming form advantage this horse brings in exchange for distance concerns. Generally, the efforts that made this horse race-fit may have come at six or seven furlongs or even around two turns. If this runner isn’t blessed with natural speed, especially if it’s a severe route to sprint turn-back, he’ll find himself flat-footed in a five furlong race.

Win the pace battle, lose the war

A common pitfall is to treat each race as an all-out Quarter Horse dash from gate to wire and throw traditional pace handicapping out the window. Obviously early speed is an asset, and it will be bet accordingly. What winds up getting these horses defeated, all too frequently, is the fierce pace makeup featured in these short sprints. One dimensional early speed types fill these races, leading to opening furlong chaos. How often does the horse that wins the early battle lose the war to a capitalizing stalker or closer? But, projecting a pace meltdown in every race is also dangerous. Consider the races that appear to include no less than nine front-runners with ability to go :22-flat only to become decided by a horse that outbreaks the rest and never feels any pressure.

Pace handicapping requires a strong feel for what each horse in a race is likely to do. It’s extra quirky in the spring because form information is sketchy and jockeys are more aggressive than normal due to distance. Should it yield a 20-1 shot that passes other litmus tests, act accordingly.


With no recent races to promote sound form, workout analysis can provide a black and white sketch of a horse’s readiness. The caveat is that most horseplayers have a good sense of what constitutes a speedy workout. Those that don’t have no trouble looking for a bold black dot that denotes the fastest time of the morning. Everybody is dealt the same hand when it comes to workout information (unlike American jurisdictions where subjective analysis can be purchased from some individual clocker reports).

How to play this hand becomes the determining factor. The fastest workouts don’t result in automatic wins. So, instead of focusing on the sheer velocity of a workout, consider the frequency and spacing of such moves. A series of six workouts, taking place every five days and getting progressively faster, could be a major indicator of a horse ready to fire first time off the shelf.

One final caution about the absence of workouts: It’s not uncommon to see horses in the entries off a five-month layoff with just one workout, the minimum required under rules of racing. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve only worked once. For the most part, timed workouts take place in an organized manner at the racetrack. Training doesn’t begin and end at a racetrack. Any level of conditioning, from a wooded hack in the snow to a serious six-furlong drill, can also occur away from the racetrack, at training centres or large farms, and the astute record-keeping of its morning clockers. Getting to know which stables have access to these other locales is vital to reading between the workout lines and not missing out on a fit horse that just doesn’t look fit on paper.

Body language

Perhaps more than any other time in the racing schedule, the most important pieces of each race’s puzzle aren’t in the past performances or on the odds board. Instead, they’re happening in three dimensions from the time a horse walks over until a few seconds before the senior starter springs the latch on the gate. Watch each horse by using binoculars and strategic positioning inside the paddock before each race and venturing outside during post parade and warm up (not the simulcast feed). Look for all the normal tell-tale signs of readiness: good shine to the coat, alert eyes, on the tips of toes in post parade, overflowing with positive energy. The observation work isn’t over after the race. With the distance being too short for many of these runners, watch carefully what happens after the wire. Horses galloping out full of energy may be one’s worth playing in a week or two.

Speed figures and the lightly raced horse

An entire column could be written about the wagering public’s infatuation with Beyer Speed Figures. When the public takes speed figures at face value and is oblivious to context, an abundance of opportunities exists.

A strong angle in Spring stems from an appreciation of how, as horses develop, they become bigger, stronger and faster. A well-prepared, lightly-raced horse making his or her three-yearold debut at a Canadian meet in spring deserves special attention when running against three-year-olds that have benefited from a few American starts. Essentially, the cat is out of the bag with the horse that has three-year-old racing experience: he’s established a level of current ability in his three-year-old skin. The slate is clean with the returning sophomore, who showcases figures from his early racing days as a two-year-old.

It isn’t unreasonable to speculate with confidence on seven or eight lengths of improvement just by virtue of growing up and learning the ropes. Maximum profits are to be gained when these lightly-raced types have Beyer figures that are noticeably inferior to the horse returning with starts from the south.

The invaders

At all Canadian tracks, Northlands Park in Edmonton or Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg in particular, the amount of preparation time before the season begins can be tricky. Bad weather, a common occurrence in a Canadian winter, can play havoc with the preparation of a horse for the opening of a meeting. Training surfaces may not open until about a month before the start date leaving little time for steady training.

There, those horses coming in from places south such as Turf Paradise in Arizona, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Fair Grounds (New Orleans, LA .), Florida and other tracks a bit farther north such as Charles Town in West Virginia and Parx in Philadelphia, warrant a great deal of respect. It does not matter whether they were racing or simply in steady training, the chances that they did not miss any work due to poor weather would be slim.

Woodbine players in early 2011 will remember a visit by American trainer Wesley Ward who took full advantage of the short races, and the “short” horses, and won five races on the first day of the season alone.

Final thoughts

The key to success at any time of year is to establish a comfort zone and it may only be a small zone with such a high degree of uncertainty in the spring. Be open to all the valid information that’s out there, watch replays critically, look for early trends that are unique to 2012 and find form indicators that lead to results. There’s nothing more enjoyable about playing the horses than being able to play with confidence.