Worthwhile And Worthless Handicapping Aspects

julie-kroneChoosing which information found in the past performance records of horses is worthwhile and which is not can make or break a handicapper. In my experience the following aspects are worthy of considering:

  • Quirin Speed Points: determining which horse/horses is/are the speed of the race is the logical first step to handicapping a race, and Quirin Speed Points are the easiest, most reliable way to accomplish this task.
  • Running styles and race shapes: After determining which horse is the speed of the race, determining how the race will unfold is the best place to start. To do that, you need to assess how each horse entered into a race is likely to run against the competition it faces today.

The following aspects are borderline worthless:

  • Speed Numbers: I once believed in speed numbers, but wisdom comes with age, and I now wonder how anyone can believe a manipulated number is somehow more accurate than the actual time of a race is beyond my grasp.
  • Track Variants: Impossible to determine with any degree of accuracy.
  • Beyer Speed Figures: The worst hoax ever perpetuated upon the race-going public.
  • Par times: The dynamics of every race are different, and profiles based on average times for a given distance are highly flawed. They have no bearing on what will happen in the race under scrutiny.
  • Class: An elusive element. Worrying about which horse is the “class” in a race is daunting, time consuming, and mostly a waist of time.
  • Post Position: The post position a horse will break from has little, if any, influence on the outcome of the race.
  • Jockey: A competent trainer will employ a competent jockey. Issue closed.
  • Weight: Probably the most overemphasized factor in horse racing.
  • Track Condition: Another factor that gets far more attention than it deserves.Horse_50x50
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Overemphasized Factors In Horse Racing

Forego_1There are numerous factors that affect the outcome of a horse race, many of which have far more emphasis placed upon them than they deserve. Handicappers have been known to take into consideration track condition, surface, depth of track, distance raced off the rail, weight carried, wind speed and its direction, etc., none of which in my experience has a profound effect on the outcome of a race. Every horse entered in an event must contest the race under the same conditions, so how can one possibly determine that one horse has an advantage over the others based on any of those factors.

One of the most overemphasized factors in horse racing is weight. Most jockeys ride in what is commonly referred to as a “monkey crouch,” and have been doing so since the late 1800s. This makes it highly unlikely that an additional four or five pounds added to its saddle pads will have any effect on a horse that weighs 1,000 pounds or more. This was confirmed in a 1986 study published by Ruth N. Bolton and Randall G. Chapman in Management Science, Vol. 32, No. 8, August 1986. Titled, “Searching for Positive Returns at the Track: A Multinomial Logit Model for Handicapping Horse Races” They wrote, “Weight does not seem to be an important determinant of finishing position, given the presence of other variables in the model.”

Another factor that gets far more attention than it deserves is track condition. How can we ever really know how much effect the track surface had on the outcome of a race? If you examine the past performance records for a horse that has had 18 career starts, the last 10 of which were all on fast tracks, but the horse shows six off-track races, three of which he won and three of which he was out of the money, how can you possibly know why he won those three races? Did he win those three races because of the track surface? Or, did he win them because of the match up of horses, and he would have won them even if the races had been contested on a fast tracks?

Too many handicappers have been conditioned to incorporate unproven factors into their handicapping without any evidence that the factors have any relative merit. Please! Do not be one of them. Think before you blindly follow horse racing myths.Horse_50x50

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The Jockey: Think About It

Joel Rosario on Orb

Joel Rosario riding Orb in the 2013 Kentucky Derby.

Horses do not run races by themselves. If they did, we would not have to listen to the repeated complaints about how poorly Jockey A rode Horse B in the previous race. Now, granted, some jockeys are better than others at guiding their charge through traffic, but does a horse have an added advantage when it is ridden by a well-known jockey such as Joel Rosario rather than lesser-known but equally competent jockey such as Alex Jimenez?

The job of a jockey is to guide a horse from the starting gate to the finish line, and they are paid on a per mount basis with fees varying from state to state. In addition, jockeys receive a percentage of the purse if they finish first, second or third. The most successful jockeys (i.e., those with the best agents) can earn over $1 million dollars per year while the least successful are lucky if they make minimum wage.

Some will tell you that, all things being equal, a better jockey can make the difference between a winning horse and a losing one. Having witnessed upwards of 80,000 races over the past 50-plus years, I have found no statistical evidence to support that claim. What I have found is better-known jockeys have better agents, and thus better connections, when it comes to securing mounts on the best horses in the country, which is why Joel Rosario is currently ranked number two on the jockey standings list while Alex Jimenez is ranked 427 despite his having a winning percentage that is five points higher than that of Rosario.

The important thing to remember is jockeys do not win races by themselves. Giving extra credence to horse A just because its jockey has a greater public profile than that of the jockey riding horse B makes no sense as the jockey will certainly not make the horse run faster than the horse is capable of running. If a trainer is looking for a winning effort from the horse he has entered in today’s race, you can bet he has secured the services of a competent jockey.Horse_50x50

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Post Position: Think About It

horse-racing-draw-biasHorses that start from a post position near the inside rail have a shorter distance to travel than horses which start from the outside post positions. That is a given. However, they are also susceptible to being cut off by quicker horses as those horses head to the rail, and of being boxed-in at a later stage in the race.

It seems like a wash to me, but there are those who will point to statistics and tell you that currently at Arlington Park horses that have started from post one in sprint races have had a two percentage point advantage over horses that have started from post three. What these amateur statisticians often fail to ask themselves when they find a minor anomaly such as this is: What caused the anomaly? Does the perceived two percentage point edge in sprints exist because the horses that have thus far started from post one have traveled a shorter distance? Or, could it be that in the 302 sprints run thus far, better horses have started from post one more often than from post three?

I tend to believe it is the latter reason and to back up my belief I will present statistics from the recently completed Saratoga meet where there were 167 sprint races conducted. Unlike Arlington Park, horses that started from post one were at an eight percentage point disadvantage compared to horses that started from post four. Does that mean you should have spent more time focusing on horses that started from post four than you did on those horses that started from post one? Of course not.

Handicapping is all about finding the right horse, and if a horse is fit and ready to run the post position it will break from will have little, if any, influence on the outcome of the race. The post position a horse breaks from will not make the horse run any faster than it is capable of running.Horse_50x50

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Finding The Class In Stakes Races

Prioress_StakesThe best horses in the country compete in stakes races. Last year there were 681 unrestricted stakes races with a purse of at least $75,000, with the largest purse, $5 million, offered in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Over 450 of these stakes races were assigned graded status by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.

A detailed explanation of the American graded stakes process can be found here, but, quickly stated, graded races have no restrictions other than age or sex. The grade assigned a race is controlled by the American Graded Stakes Committee which is charged with insuring that all races listed in each of the three graded categories are the same class level regardless of which racetrack the event takes place at.

“The Committee meets annually to evaluate and affirm the relative quality of these races, and issues its collective opinion in the form of ranked Grades: Grade I, Grade II, and Grade III, with Grade I being the highest.”

Non-graded stakes races will often have restrictions that must be met in order to compete. Such restrictions may include, but not be limited to, being bred in a particular state or having raced previously at the track presenting the race.

A novice handicapper might jump to the conclusion that a winner of graded stakes races holds some sort of edge over horses that have never won a graded stakes event, but such is not always the case. As an example, one only need to look at the $300,000 Prioress Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on July 27, 2013. Multiple graded stakes winner Kauai Katie, the 2/5 favorite, “failed to fire,” and non-graded stakes winner Lighthouse Bay, off at odds of 21/1, came home on top.

Another example is Strapping Groom, a horse which was claimed for $35,000 in May 2013. The animal “stepped up in class” to win the 34th running of the Grade I, $500,000 Forego Stakes for sprinters 3-years-old and up on August 31, 2013 at Saratoga Race Course, beating Grade I winner and 3/5 favorite Justin Phillip by 3 1/2 lengths.

Hopefully, after reading this series of posts, you have come to the same conclusion I have: finding the “class of the race” does not ensure you have found the winner of an upcoming event.Horse_50x50

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