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Handicapping Horse Races

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"Show me the man who can class horses correctly and I will show you the man who can win all the money he wants, and he only needs a dollar to start"

Pittsburgh Phil

 

Time has shown it to be one of the greatest truths ever uttered about horse racing.  Class, that intangible thing that defies definition, controls almost positively the running of thoroughbreds..!  Class enables one horse to beat another no matter what the physical odds imposed may be, what the conditions or what the distance.  You may say it is that which enables a pit bull terrier to whip a big dog of another breed.  Hard to define, but everybody sees it, when it's there.

MAXIMS AND METHODS OF PITTSBURGH PHIL

Whatever is Asked

The ability to defeat rival competitors under any circumstances, to overcome setback or disadvantage; poor start, pace duel, wide trip, shuffled, bumped, forced to steady, a wall of horses, whatever; any horse that holds a meaningful Class advantage - true Thoroughbred Class, will do whatever is asked.

The Elements of Class

While every thoroughbred horse race presents a unique set of challenges to the entries, the winning horse will combine the three elements of class more effectively than its competitors; demonstrating the required mix of speed, determination and stamina to "outclass" the field and prevail on this day.

We approach the difficult task of discerning Thoroughbred Class by understanding first, that it's the most important Primary Handicapping Factor, since by nature true Class will possess inherent talent to overcome Speed or Pace advantage, a troubled trip, or whatever.

Secondly, that a thoroughbred's "True Class Today" (the mix of speed, determination and stamina the horse will demonstrate today) will be a combined function of its Breeding, Speed, ability to sustain a Pace and Current Form; as influenced by the Secondary and Unknown Handicapping Factors.

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Thoroughbred Class in Action:

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The Ancestral Lineage of a Thoroughbred

Thoroughbred Lineage

Thoroughbred race horses inherit mental and physical characteristics from their Sire (father of a race horse) and Dam (mother), each passing on to their offspring the genetic code provenant from the two ancestral lines.

Therefore in the breeding is where the destiny of a race horse is written, the impact of lineage upon both ability and Class is ever present; the pedigree will define whether a race horse ends up in the claiming ranks or moves up through the conditions and makes it to stakes level competition.

When examining pedigree for the purpose of handicapping a thoroughbred horse race (as opposed to breeding purposes), it's important to appreciate the impact breeding will have in various types of races, over different surfaces, at varying distances.

The genetic factor will be more influential in certain races and less so in others but may be decisive in turf races, maiden special weight, Grade 1 and Grade 2 races; also in races restricted to statebreds, races with two year olds and where certain horses are trying a new surface or stretching out in distance for the first time.

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The Attribute of Speed in a Thoroughbred

Thoroughbred Speed

Speed is one of the three elements of Class and that makes the two inseparable.  Speed can be a decisive factor in dirt sprints and uncontested Speed can be a decisive factor at any distance over any surface.  Mind you, Speed is one component of Class, the other two being stamina and will.

After all, they're thoroughbreds so we know they can run fast, but for how long?  Handicappers want to know which horses can run fast (speed) while demonstrating an ability to sustain the pace required to subdue the competition (stamina).

Moreover the best horses, those able to effectively calibrate the three elements of Class will be the exemplars with the ability to run fast (speed), sustain the pace (stamina), and respond when challenged by another competitor of equal ability, by exhibiting the required degree of perseverance in the stretch and the stronger will to prevail (determination).

To make things more interesting, since Pace is nothing more than sustained speed, Speed shares an interdependency with Pace as well.

Thus in order to effectively evaluate the Speed factor in a thoroughbred horse race, the distinction must be made between Early Speed as measured to the first call, and adjusted final time for the distance as measured by the speed figure; while remaining cognizant of the influence Early Speed exerts over the final time.

In further analysis, since Early Speed is measured at the first call which occurs at two furlongs in sprints, and since pretty much any thoroughbred horse can go all out for such short distance; then what's important is not how fast a horse can run to the first call but rather, is the horse likely to secure a lead by the first call?

Since this has more to do with running style than actual Speed, a vast array of new questions arise carrying the handicapper straight into analysis of the Pace factor - hence the interdependency.

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The Pace Factor in a Horse Race

Pace Analysis
"Pace Makes the Race"
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Howard "Doc" Sartin
Pace can be a decisive factor anytime a contender controls at least two segments of a race.  Further, Early Speed as measured to the first call is not the same as Early Pace which is measured at the second call; in sprints, the former occurs at two furlongs and the later occurs at four furlongs.  They are two segments of a race, the first fraction and the second fraction; with the third segment being, the final fraction.
 

Pace study will also shed light on how interaction among front runners competing for the early lead is likely to affect the shape and outcome of the race, enabling handicappers to safely eliminate horses that do not meet the early pace requirements of a race, as well as, those that will not be in position to finish well based on running style.

Early Pace is best evaluated through the prism of the quality of the overall effort, in terms of finish position, margin of victory or defeat, lengths gained or lost in the stretch, and final time for the distance as adjusted by track variant (the speed figure).

Therefore, what's important is not how fast a horse can run to the second call but rather, handicappers want to know its comfort zone; how fast a horse can run to the second call, while turning in a winning effort.

Since more often than not, the faster a horse runs during the early stages of a race (the more energy expended); and the slower it will be running in the late stages (lacking energy for the stretch run); thus when challenged by another contender, a horse that is forced to run outside of its comfort zone during the early stages, will likely be fading in the stretch.

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The Racing Condition and Current Form of a Thoroughbred

 

"Horses are the same as human beings where condition is the test of superiority.  Winners repeat frequently while the defeated are apt to be defeated almost continuously.  Condition has more to do with a horse winning or losing a race than the weight it carries.  A horse in poor condition cannot beat one of his own class.  A high class horse could not win a race with a feather on his back if he is not in condition.  It is as well to play horses that are in winning form.  A horse in winning condition generally repeats or runs into the money.  Different tracks cause decided changes in form frequently.  Study horses' whims and fancies for certain tracks and you will see a good lay; but a high class horse will do his best on any track."

Pittsburgh Phil

Winning Form

No matter any existing advantage whether Class or otherwise, a horse which is not in top Current Form today, will be vulnerable of losing to another horse; if the other horse will be running at peak form.

Here we point to one of the greatest "Class" horses ever, and possibly the greatest we will ever see in our lifetimes, Zenyatta, the queen; who did everything EVER asked of her with a dance and a smile - true Thoroughbred Class.

There is no possible way Blame could have beaten Zenyatta, unless as was the case, he had been pointing towards the race, was cranked to the utmost, perfectly timed to reach the peak of his form cycle in that Breeder's Cup race.

However, aside from the fact that Blame benefitted from having the best rider in the universe Garret Gomez aboard, who pulled all the right strings at all the right moments, emerging in the right place at the right time to put away the Baffert entry coming home in hand; it was a brilliant ride, with Blame basically holding on for dear life those final 50 yds.

Moreover, if you watch the QUEEN at the start, we know she often started at the rear of the pack, but usually not that far back; and it seemed like she may have been a step off on this day as noticed by Trevor's keen eye.

It is therefore imperative for handicappers to be informed regarding the Current Form of each horse in a race.  What is the trainer's intent? Has the horse been pointed to this race? Is this race a tune up?  The best horse does not always win every race, in fact, it will not win if not sound, unfit, out of form or if it is simply not the trainer's intention to win today.

The algorithm which calculates Current Form is based upon our own proprietary method, which has not ever been published anywhere.  Among other things, this algorithm looks at a horse's workout tab and finish position in its last five races.

Moreover, the algorithm has been programmed to assign greater value to a good workout which occured since last race, as opposed to earlier on the tab; and, assigns greater value to a horse that was in the lead or within striking position at the stretch call in its last race, with extra credit if the horse won the race or managed to close ground on the leader.

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Thoroughbred Form in Action:

As BLAME enters the race in razor sharp form, barely holds on to beat the classier ZENYATTA, the great queen.

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The Anatomy of a Thoroughbred Horse Race

Level of Competition

Since every competent handicapping process must begin here, it will be imperative for horse players to be able differentiate among the various types of races, racing levels, conditions and restrictions; as well as the complexities involved with why a horse has been entered in a specific race.

The handicapper's task is precisely to determine how the Primary, Secondary and Unknown Handicapping Factors will inter-relate under the varying conditions of each race on the card; which will either be a Maiden Claiming, Maiden Special Weight, Claiming, Optional Claiming, Starter, Allowance, Stakes or Graded Stakes race.

Moreover, within the above mentioned race-type classifications, there will be specific conditions for each race; sex, age, surface, distance and impost (weight to be carried by each entry), and in certain races there will be further eligibility conditions as set forth by the racing secretary (e.g. n1x, n2x, n3x, n1y, n1$, etc.).

In addition to establishing the racing conditions for every race, the racing secretary may impose restrictions in certain races based upon sex, age, lifetime wins, or some other criteria deemed relevant to racetrack operations (e.g. fillies, 2 year olds, 3 year old fillies, fillies and mares 4 years old and up, N2L - non winners of two lifetime races, etc.).

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Thoroughbred Horse Racing Over the Main Track and Sod

Racing Surface

From a handicapping standpoint, there is a fundamental difference between dirt and turf races.  Whereas over dirt, speed as an individual element of Class will often be decisive; winners of turf races will require more stamina and determination during the final fraction in order to prevail, thus as a handicapping factor, turf and dirt races must be approached with different methods.

Often, a quick scan of a horse's racing record can reveal its preferred racing surface.  From time to time, when horses are trying a new surface for the first time or just switching surfaces, then other factors can be informative.

In such cases, handicappers may find a horse's breeding to be of some importance.  For the most part, if the sire of a race horse was an accomplished turf runner; then it too, may have a propensity to win on turf.

Lastly, turf tends to be a kinder surface to the race horses, runners don't get so much dirt kicked in their face; and as opposed to the main track, the inner rail is frequently adjusted in order to preserve the racetrack surface.

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The Distance Factor in a Thoroughbred Horse Race

Racing Distance

Distance is extremely important in thoroughbred racing, certain distances can favor the conformation, temperament and running style of a race horse.  Therefore, there will be an exact distance or distances (win range) at which the great majority of thoroughbred horses will be capable of winning.

Knowledge of this fact will be important when evaluating the Pace of a race, the Current Form of its entries, and certain trainer moves; thus successful handicappers will pay meticulous attention to identifying a horse's win range and distance preferences.

Additionally, by understanding that the win range of most horses will be limited, horse players can avoid backing horses entered at unsuitable distances.  The racing record of a horse can often help to identify its preferred racing distance(s).

For any horse which has won a race or finished within 1-2 lengths of the winner at today's distance, the racing company, strength of the performance and recency of the effort can be good indicators of suitability to the distance.

In the absence of hard racing data, such as whenever sprinters are stretching out in distance or when routers are cutting back; a study of the Pace, Current Form, and of the distance preferences of its sire can shed light on a runner's potential to win at a given distance.

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Thoroughbred Horse Racing and the Weight to be Carried

Impost

According to logic, the weight to be carried by an entry should have a demonstrative effect upon the outcome of a race.  In fact, the old Jockey Club method of weights and scales, is still used by racetrack handicappers pretty much everywhere, to assign varied weights to the entries in a race; in order to equalize chances of winning and thus level the field of competition.

That said, in practical handicapping terms regarding impost, since the racetrack handicapper has already done the work; other than in two specific cases, it will mostly be inconsequential.

However, handicappers should raise an eye brow any time a horse receives an allowance of 7 to 10 lbs, as usually associated with an apprentice rider; and also whenever european horses racing in their first American race are getting in light at 126.

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Human Interaction with Thoroughbred Race Horses

Racing Connections

Racing connections are those people that own and work with a thoroughbred race horse; the owner(s), trainer, rider(s) and stable employees.  In terms of handicapping a horse race, the trainer and jockey will be most significant, but it's important to understand the numerous complexities arising from this human interaction with a race horse.

The trainer of a thoroughbred race horse will be an elemental component to its future development and running ability.  The trainer will observe the race horse entrusted to be under his care, provide an optimum diet; and develop an exercise routine with immediate and long term racing objectives in mind.

The job of the trainer is to prepare a race horse for competition and then to enter the horse in a race at a certain distance, within a certain class level; where it can win or be competitive.

Therefore since trainers usually have full control over which race a horse is entered in, they will often maneuver a horse up or down in Class for strategic reasons, in search of a group it can beat.

Sometimes the racing secretary does an awesome job in sending a group of equally matched competitors to the post.  In such races, riders will often "use up" their mounts jockeying for position; and in such races, time and time again, a clever rider will make all the difference in the world.

Mind you, no trainer or jockey can win, a horse will win the horse race; and any horse that is not sound or outclassed will not win today.

That said, there are certain clues to lookout for which can be indicators of a live horse ready to win.  The positive jockey switch, to a leading rider, especially when combined with a jump or drop in Class.  The leading rider whom all of a sudden shows up on a mount for an obscure barn.  The leading rider who has his choice of mounts in a race, especially when getting off a horse which he rode to victory in its last race, in favor of another.

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