Horse racing industry repels prospective fans with self-serving handicapping data


In a photo provided by Gulfstream Park, Onlyforyou ridden by Javier Castellano captures the Davona Dale horse race at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 22. (Adam Coglianese/AP)
Andrew Beyer
Columnist March 4

Leaders of the racing industry regularly fret about the difficulty of attracting new fans. One of the sport’s problems, they say, is its long learning curve compared to other forms of gambling. A chimpanzee can readily learn to pull the handle of a slot machine, but a newcomer to racing can labor for months to learn the basics.

But instead of trying to simplify handicapping, the industry has gone in the opposite direction, making some basic factors — such as the class and distances of races — even more complex, to the point of incomprehensibility.

Andrew Beyer has been The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist since 1978 and is considered one of the leading experts on the subject. View Archive

When I take neophytes to the track, I always give them a pre-race tutorial. I used to begin by explaining the different types of races. The majority of horses run in claiming races for a price that represents their value. Better horses run in allowance events that have eligibility conditions such as non-winners of two races lifetime, non-winners of three, etc. I’d point to the section of the Daily Racing Form past performances that express this information — “Clm5000” or “AlwN2” — and in a couple of minutes the newcomers had learned one of the key aspects of the sport.

They couldn’t do so any more. As racing secretaries around the country try to cope with a shortage of horses, they have created hybrid conditions to make more horses eligible for a given race. They invented the optional claiming race, which might be open to both $20,000 claimers and allowance horses who are non-winners of two races lifetime. To attract more additional horses, they add more clauses that turn hybrids into multi-headed mutants. These were the conditions for a race at Santa Anita on Feb. 14:

“For 4-year-olds and upward which have never won $10,000 three times other than Maiden, Claiming, Starter or State Bred, or which have never won four races, or which have not won $35,000 other than closed, claiming or starter at a mile or over since August 1, 2013, or optional claiming price of $80,000.”

Such conditions confound even experienced handicappers trying to judge whether one race is stronger than another. They have exasperated the people at Equibase and the Daily Racing Form who must compress information into the small space of the past performances reserved for the class of the race. “We don’t want to turn the [past performances] into hieroglyphics,” said DRF’s Rich Wroble. But when the conditions of a race at Gulfstream Park read “OC10k/SAL6k-N,” they look like hieroglyphics to most of us.

If race conditions once looked like a simple factor, so did distance. My tutorial for newcomers took less than a minute and explained that the furlong — one-eighth of a mile — is the unit of measurement in horse races and that the most common distances range from six furlongs to 11 / 8 miles. What could be complicated?

Well, in the United States, horses have been traditionally given a short running start to the point where the race officially begins. They might speed 40 or 50 feet till the leader hits the beam of light that activates the timing system. The untimed segment from gate to starting point is called the run-up.

Many tracks cannot run certain traditional distances (such as one mile) because they start too close to the first turn, creating a disadvantage for horses in outside posts and a hazard for jockeys. Instead of running races at one mile, Tampa Bay Downs cards them at one mile and 40 yards (with a 24-foot run-up — a total of one mile and 144 feet.) However, most tracks don’t employ such truth in labeling. Santa Anita runs races that it labels “one mile” and gives the field a 172-foot run-up to the start. Try to explain to a beginner how a one-mile race can be longer than a mile and 40 yards.

Such complexities have multiplied as turf racing proliferates here. Gulfstream has run more than 40 races this winter at the odd distance of 71 / 2 furlongs.

“Horsemen are begging for them,” track president Tim Ritvo said, “because they want to run a shorter distance” than a mile.

Because these races start close to the turn, Gulfstream employs run-ups as long as 250 feet, making 71 / 2 furlongs almost as long as a mile. (Nobody ever confused horsemen with rocket scientists.)

These long run-ups subvert handicapping. Most bettors look closely at horses’ past times in the first quarter mile to determine if one runner possesses an advantage in early speed. But with a 250-foot run-up, timing doesn’t begin until the field already has run four or five seconds, making published fractional times useless. Gulfstream may change the run-ups from race to race, so that the starting gate causes less wear and tear on the turf course, making race-to-race comparisons meaningless, too.

There is a way to deal with these issues: time races from the instant the gate opens. The Trakus timing system, employed at Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Aqueduct and other major tracks, can time races wherever a gate is positioned.

“With modern technology, breaking a beam of light isn’t necessary,” said Pat Cummings, Trakus’s director of racing information.

Trakus could provide final times for, say, races at a mile and 250 feet, with fractional times clocked from the start. Yet Cummings anticipates traditionalists’ resistance to such a change, because horses clocked from a standing start record slow first-quarter times — a quarter mile in 24 seconds, for example — compared to the running starts that produce first quarters in 22 seconds. Horsemen love speed, and breeders sell speed, so they might not like the looks of slow quarter-miles.

Bettors may detect a pattern here. Incomprehensible eligibility conditions abound because racing secretaries want them. Absurd distances with long run-ups exist because horsemen want them. Distances change because track superintendents want to protect their grass. Races may never be clocked in a rational fashion because horsemen don’t want slower-looking times. Does the sport ever do anything because the betting public wants it?

For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.

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