06/29/2010 2:30PM

A question for the pace handicappers among you

Email   For the last month, I've been working on an upgrade to the Moss Pace Figures.  It is more of a statistical fine tuning than an overhaul.  But in trying to reconcile database numbers with common-sense handicapping, I again came up against a dilemma that might be of interest to pacefig junkies, whether you prefer my pace numbers or anyone else's.

   My usual warning prior to these kinds of blog entries:  this is not light reading for the casual horseplayer.  This is definitely "inside baseball" stuff, as they say.

    First, some background.  One of my goals in the creation of Moss Pace Figures was to give horseplayers "true" numbers that maintain integrity over all distances.  Most pace figure methods use time charts based on pars for each class and distance, so that if Monmouth $20,000 claiming races for older males at 6 furlongs average fractions of :22.2 and :45.1 and a final time of 1:10.3 (which is exactly what they do average, by the way), the pace line for those clockings could be, say, 88-88-88, signifying that the pace and final time are exactly in line with par.  A 93-92-85 pace line would indicate at a glance that the quarter-mile and half-mile pace was faster than par, and the final time slightly slower than par. There is much to be said for this simplicity.  But I don't do this.  My problem with this style of pace figures is that the accuracy begins to diminish when horses switch distances: a $20,000 claimer who runs at a par pace at 5 furlongs almost always has more speed than a $20,000 claimer who runs at a par pace at 1 mile, yet in the above methodology their pacefigs might be identical.  I'll admit Moss Pace Figures aren't as easy to compare against par -- but - and I hope this makes sense - when I'm trying to ascertain if a horse can make an uncontested early lead in a race, I prefer pacefigs that tell me with clarity that a 90 is a faster performance than an 85, regardless of pars and distances.

To get there, I have overloaded Daily Racing Form's system by collecting data from tens of thousands of races at dozens of racetracks at all distances, and based my figures on what the numbers told me.

     As I said, I'm preparing to update Moss Pace Figures soon to reflect new numbers. No one will ever accuse me of skimping on data. For example, I recently lumped into Excel spreadsheets 101,844 races from one-mile ovals at Beulah, Calder, Churchill, Emerald, Fair Grounds, Fairmount, Finger Lakes, Hawthorne, Hoosier, Lone Star, Louisiana Downs, Meadowlands, Monmouth, Mountaineer, Oaklawn, Philadelphia Park, Pimlico, Prairie Meadows, Remington, Retama, River Downs, Sam Houston, Suffolk, Sunland, Tampa Bay Downs, Thistledown, Turf Paradise - and even pre-synthetic races from Santa Anita, Del Mar, Turfway, Woodbine and Golden Gate, and pre-renovation races from Gulfstream.  That's quite a contrast from the old pre-computer days of Picking Winners, when Andy Beyer came up with his figures by holing up with a poster board, Flair pens and a bottle of Jack Daniels.  

    From that cross-section of major- and not-so-major racing, here's what the number crunching showed:  At 5 1-2 furlongs, races that averaged a final number of 88 on my number scale (slightly more truncated than the Beyer Speed Figure scale we're familiar with) had a paceline like this: 87-88-88.  At 6 furlongs, the national average paceline was 85-87-88.   At 6 1-2 furlongs, it was 82-86-88, and at 7 furlongs it was 79-83-88-88 with the six-furlong call included.

    Of course, it makes sense that as distances get longer, horses are ridden less energetically from the gate, if only slightly.  The data shows that, and thus my pace figures reflect it.

    But truly accurate pace figures also require one additional and important "tweak."  At the average one-mile track with a 990-foot stretch run, the first half-mile of a 6-furlong race is run around 76% of the stretch turn. At 7 furlongs, the first half-mile is run around only 29% of the turn.  Running around a turn slows a horse, but how much?  I have a formula I've used for 30 years, ever since I first read about this phenomenon in an old Gordon Jones handicapping book. I used that formula to adjust the above pacefigs, but I'd like to hear other opinions.

    This tweaking based on turn times also comes into play -- in a big way - when attempting to calculate pace figures for distance races.  The spreadsheet shows that at a two-turn 1 mile distance, the national average pacefig line for a race with a final figure of 87 is as follows:  67-76-83-88.  The average opening quarter-mile of 67 is a substantial decrease from the first-quarter average of 79 at 7 furlongs.  Again, one logical explanation is that jockeys ride less aggressively in two-turn races than one-turn races, but an additional and perhaps more substantial factor is this one: the opening quarter of a 1 mile race is around most of the clubhouse turn, and the first quarter of most sprints is run in a straight line with no turn involved.  To a slightly lesser extent, the half-mile fraction is similarly affected.  The first half-mile of a 1 mile race includes the entire clubhouse turn, while the opening half of a 6 furlong races covers only 76% of a turn.

Clearly, pace figure points need to be added to the first two calls in route races to bring them in line with sprints and give us an apples-to-apples comparison, but exactly how much does a turn at a one-mile track slow progress?

I have great respect for the intellect of horseplayers, and I'm certain there are mathematicians and computer programmers among you.  If you care to, please pass along your thoughts on this - they might even put more money in your pocket someday.