06/12/2013 12:11PM

Talking Track Bias


Talking about track biases is a lot like debating what the best color is (it’s green, by the way). You can have an opinion, even an informed one, but that doesn’t mean an opposing opinion isn’t just as valid.

That is because reading track biases is as subjective as the process of handicapping itself. And we all know how subjective handicapping is because, after all, we are all betting against each other. But you have to have handicapped the races if you have any hope of getting an accurate reading of a track bias. You have to know if horses are holding on much deeper into races than you thought they had a right to if everything was equal, or that horses aren’t making the late moves you figured they should have, before you go ahead and proclaim a certain track is favoring speed. And even then, it’s still all so subjective, because the horseplayer standing over there has different standards than you do, and so he has reached a different conclusion.

The thing of it is, many handicappers of more recent vintage might not know how profound a real track bias can be because they might not have really experienced one. I remember many, many days in my youth at Suffolk Downs when the rail would be absolute gold. This would happen mainly in the winter when the inside path would be frozen, and the rest of the track would be a quagmire. If a horse had enough speed to get right to the rail, he won. Period. Every other handicapping factor – and I mean every one – went right out the window. They meant nothing. The only thing that mattered was getting to the rail as fast as you could.

That was a real track bias, and biases of all sorts would certainly crop up at tracks other than Suffolk. Although it stretches the definition of a bias, there was a time when Pompano Park, the harness track in Florida, ran a quarter horse meet in the summer (and yes, I was a visitor). A few times a night, they would run a distance race of 660 or 770 yards, which meant that these quarter horses would have to go around the far turn almost right after breaking from the gate. We all know that quarter horses run as fast as they can from the start, so you can envision how comical it became watching the 5, 6, 7, and 8 horses bolt on the turn in these distance races, every single time. If you knew what to do with the 1, 2, 3, and 4 in these races, you couldn’t help but win. You had to swallow a lot of $12 trifectas, but it was a money tree.

But that was a different era, and thanks mainly to dramatic improvements in track composition and especially track maintenance, really profound track biases occur far more infrequently than they used to. And now, tracks on a given day that might play merely kind toward speed horses and not be an automatic “kiss of death” to closers, are labeled “speed-biased” tracks. It’s a nomenclature thing, and sometimes I am guilty of falling into the trap, too. Still, I think this loose application of the word “bias” has devalued the term, and has confused a lot of people.

I relate all of this so that you know where I’m coming from when I say how surprised I am that so many people think there was a speed bias on the main track at Belmont Park last Saturday, Belmont Stakes Day.

There were nine dirt races Saturday at Belmont. The first five were run when the track was still muddy and sealed, the last four on a harrowed track that went from good to fast. There were four front running winners in those nine races, two while the track was muddy and sealed, the other two when the track was harrowed and good.

Right there, a less than 50% success rate by front runners, would make me highly skeptical of any speed bias, and even more so when two of those front-running winners, Power Broker and Fast Bullet, were heavily favored and expected to win.

If I had to venture a guess, I would think the speed-bias-at-Belmont thing sprung from what happened in the third and fourth races, the back-to-back New York bred maiden races (why there had to be four New York bred races on the Belmont Stakes card escapes me, especially since there was a 10 race New York bred card at Belmont the Saturday before). Ah Gaga upset the third on the engine, and Can’t Catch MeNow chased and caught pacesetter El Genio in the fourth. But the third race was an extremely weak race, one not to draw any conclusions from. And if there was such a speed bias, why didn’t El Genio, the ultimate wise-guy horse with blinkers and Lasix on, hold off the implausible, if not impossible, Can’t Catch MeNow?

Dehere of the Cat came from eighth to win the opener. Integrity came from third to win the second race while the favored early front-runner, Odea, finished last of nine. Forty Tales, who was 10th at the first call, and Declan’s Warrior, who was 10th in the second call, ran one-two in the Woody Stephens, while favored front-runner Let Em Shine faded to fourth. And yes, I know Let Em Shine set a fast pace. But he was no stranger to fast fractions in California, and a true speed bias would have carried him regardless of the pace he set. And Palace Malice came from fifth to win the Belmont as the horses who were running one-two early, Frac Daddy and Freedom Child, finished 14th and 13th, virtually eased.

Was the main track at Belmont on Belmont Stakes Day somewhat kind to speed horses? Maybe. Only maybe. Was it speed-biased? No. In my opinion, of course.