Horse racing’s runaway run-ups are moving the starting line


Gala Award, with jockey John Velazquez, captures the Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park (Lauren King/AP)
Andrew Beyer
Columnist March 10

When Band of Joy was entered at Gulfstream Park last week, most bettors understood that his stamina was a crucial issue in handicapping the race. The horse’s best performances had come in five-furlong sprints on the grass, and now he would be trying to run a much more challenging distance, 71 / 2 furlongs.

Bettors thought he could do it, and made him the 2-to-1 favorite. Band of Joy dueled around the track with Padilla and wrested command 10 strides from the finish line. But Padilla — a colt with more proved staying power — battled back in the final yards to win by a half-length. It might have seemed a reasonable postmortem to say that 71 / 2 furlongs was a bit too far for Band of Joy.

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

Yet the distance of the race was not 71 / 2 furlongs; few handicappers or people in the racing community had any idea what the true distance was. In recent weeks, the official Equibase charts have said there was a 250-foot run-up for many 71 / 2-furlong races — meaning that the field covered 250 feet before the timing of the race begins. But the 250-foot figure happens to be the maximum number that the Equibase data system can accommodate. (Presumably the programmers thought a longer run-up was unimaginable.) For Band of Joy’s race, the footnotes to the chart added this clarification: “The run-up for this race was 375 feet.”

In other words, the field traveled 375 feet — more than one-sixteenth of a mile — before it reached the official starting point of the race. The total distance of the event was actually one mile and 45 feet, a significant difference for a horse who might be hard-pressed to go 71 / 2 furlongs effectively. Band of Joy probably would have won the race but for the extra 375 feet. Though bettors were unaware of the crucial facts about the distance, they were surely affected. More than $1.6 million was wagered on the race, including $488,930 in the Rainbow Six pool.

Last week I wrote a column about difficulties facing modern-day handicappers — including long run-ups — and was surprised the esoteric subject touched a nerve in so many horseplayers. Many were unaware of the existence of run-ups. (Equibase, the keeper of the sport’s data, didn’t start collecting run-up information until 2008.) Many didn’t know that tracks employ long run-ups so they can card races at distances that would otherwise be unfeasible — such as the 71 / 2-furlong turf races that start very close to Gulfstream’s first turn. And they didn’t know where to get information. The length of the run-up appears after the fact in the fine print of the Equibase result charts or in a dropdown menu headed “Analysis and Stats” in Daily Racing Form’s Formulator software. But it is not listed in the program or past performances, so a handicapper can’t be sure before a race what the true distance is.

Racetracks have a rationale for changing the length of run-ups and employing some extreme ones. Gulfstream cards many 71 / 2-furlong races because horsemen like them. When Band of Joy was entered at the distance, owner Paul Pompa said “Five furlongs to 71 / 2 furlongs was enough of an incremental move-up.” A mile seemed too far.

Because 71 / 2-furlong races are run so often, Gulfstream moves the starting gate to different locations so that it doesn’t inflict too much damage to the grass course. Chuck Streva, Equibase’s conscientious chart-caller, has examined the difference gaps through which the gate moves onto the turf, and he knows that one of them constitutes a 375-foot run-up.

“I’m totally confident of the number we put in the chart,” he said, adding, “These races aren’t even close to 71 / 2 furlongs.”

The whole system is preposterous. Because of run-ups, thoroughbred racing is the only sport that can’t produce accurate timing of its own events. It’s as if the Olympics started clocking a 1,500-meter race after the field had run half a lap. And it’s the only sport in which the participants cannot be sure of the distance at which they’ll be competing. Pompa and trainer Todd Pletcher had no idea that Band of Joy was running a mile and 45 feet instead of the distance they had planned on. It’s as if Usain Bolt stepped onto the track for a 100-meter championship and learned that he’d be running 115 meters today.

Tim Ritvo, president of Gulfstream Park, has come to recognize the absurdities produced by his track’s run-ups. “Two hundred feet is definitely too far,” he said, and promised to make some changes in the 71 / 2-furlong races.

But this isn’t a Gulfstream issue; it’s an industry issue. Del Mar runs a mile on dirt with a 200-foot run-up. Monmouth Park shows Equibase’s maximum 250-foot run-up for many turf races. In a perfect world, thoroughbred racing would do what every other sport does: run races at exact distances and time them from the start.

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

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