06/12/2013 1:11PM

Talking Track Bias

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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.

. More than 1 year ago
The track favored the better late runners. Maiden races should not be factored in when determining bias. In maiden races it's simply being in top form and learning NOT to stop running at the end
Robynrokn More than 1 year ago
The only real bias there, and it was consistent for at least the last two weeks was to keep your horse off the rail going down the stretch. Go watch where all the winning closers came from, at least 5 to 6 lanes out. Watch how many horses two lanes in were getting caught.
akhiym james More than 1 year ago
Before Keeneland switched to poly the inside speed used to dominate. It wasn't biased every single race but inside speed won most of the races. Loved when it wa like that but now that they have the poly it's unpredictable
riconap More than 1 year ago
Mr. Watchmaker fails to mention days when speed wins almost every race and other days where a front runner can't but the winners circle. this holds true for Turf Courses as well and in both cases certain racetracks are conformed and constituted in such a way as to favor a particular type of runner. This game can use a general Track Maintenance edict that attempts to maintain "fair surfaces" as much as possible. One of the reasons this wonderful sport has not caught on as well with later generations is the repetitive sight of wire to wire winners. Nobody can get entertained and kept in suspense when the race is over before they turn for home..
Edward More than 1 year ago
There are the same amount of wire to wire finishers today as there were in 1930. Where do you get your stats? ALL HORSE RACES HAVE A SPEED BIAS(it is a race after all) It is much better to be a stalker/front runner then have to come from off the pace.
Tom Maloney More than 1 year ago
One day at the races is far, far too small a sample size to make any sweeping conclusions about anything at all.
gowanusbaseball More than 1 year ago
Well there was also Moreno holding on after quitting on the lead in most of his prior starts. But I agree with you that there was no real "bias."
zerosumzen More than 1 year ago
Yes, there was a bias. Orb's trainer said as much when he compared the surfaces between Churchill and Belmont. One was like a springboard, the other was looser and sandier. In other words, one had a nice bounce to it, and the other was absorbent. Which of these two would require more energy to get ahead on? He was very specific, but bias is not a widely understood topic, so his comment may not ring a bell. I learned about it not by talking to handicappers, but by talking to trainers who have forgotten more than I will ever know. Bias is such a big and important topic that it may be worth writing a book about. Right off the bat most people confuse rail bias with speed bias. A hot rail is caused by track maintenance moving dirt away from the rail in anticipation of bad weather (because they can't grade a muddy track, and the rain, due to the slope of the track, will gradually move dirt from the outside to the inside). The thinner surface at the rail makes it fast. Usually people call this a speed bias, because the horses upfront have the inside path, but a closer can win on it just as easily. (see 'Borail + bad weather' at Churchill..) The point of a bias is that it can save a horse energy, so if there is a rail bias, he benefits if he runs most of the race in that inside path; speed, stalk, or close. He doesn't have to finish there. The energy that was preserved will serve him well in the stretch run. When stalkers or closers aren't making up (much) ground in the stretch, it's seen as a speed bias, but that can have different reasons. A deeper surface in the stretch benefits the horses upfront, for instance. So the slower stretch translates as a speed bias. Going back to the Belmont, Orb wasn't making up much ground in the stretch run. And his trainer explained why (as published right here on DRF). Another thing is that during the day the bias will often change, as the sun and wind dry out the track, or track maintenance steps in with a game changing move... So it has to be closely monitored through the day. Needless to say, once a bias changes it can be costly to bet based even on recent perception. (A good name for the book? 'Scratching the surface'.)
Tom More than 1 year ago
Perhaps the best explanation of bias I've read.
Wayne Crimi More than 1 year ago
Please don't write that book. You are giving away valuable insights.
Edward More than 1 year ago
There is more money to be won now a days betting against guys like you who see a bias from race to race. Go ahead and write thast book or bbetter yet, for the next three months post on this article every Saturday a track where you "detect" a bias and let us know what bets you are making and we will put your anecdotal theory to the ROI test. Good luck with that.
zerosumzen More than 1 year ago
Just one piece of the puzzle, bud. People who are successful in this business do the hard work themselves instead of asking others to do it for them. That's how you get to ROI.
. More than 1 year ago
that was good.
Slew32A More than 1 year ago
Most of any horses that closed we're horse's with speed except I believe one race if my memory is correct.
kc m More than 1 year ago
"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" the most unlikely of all of the speed held on in the belmont until they passed a mile--frac daddy maintained incredible fractions on the lead (despite consistently having been the slowest 3 yo this year) until he faded between a mile and 1 1/4. if that isn't "holding on much deeper than they had a right to," then nothing is. and to say that because frac daddy ended up fading to 14th between a 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 proves that there was no bias is disingenuous. most horses these day can't get a mile and a quarter; that he only began to fade somewhere after 1 1/16th doesn't indicate speed wasn't holding, it indicates speed was holding pretty well. likewise, that oxbow was able to hang on for 12 furlong when never further back than 2 lengths is also pretty blatant "holding on much deeper than they had a right to." both his and frac daddy's odds prove what bettors though their chance of holding on. no other closer in the race made up any ground--not even revolutionary who was vying, through-out the betting, with orb, and was only afterwards declared to be an obviously sub-standard horse. the betting was expecting a closer, instead it got two horses who were never further back than 4 lengths, and a desperately brave sustained run that has been snarked, and sniped, and belittled. there is only one closer that could have sustained the run necessary to win that day coming from as far back as orb, and she is retired and has 2 kids now. btw, giving a horse's position in a race is meaningless when debating whether a track is biased--you have to provide their lengths back. there was only one race on dirt over a mile, beside the belmont. it was only 8.5 furlongs and was won from a forwardly placed horse. i only saw two horses make up significant ground that day, and both struggled mightily to do so--orb and forty tales. however, orb had the misfortune of trying to sustain his entire run for the a distance as long as forty tales's entire race. to be honest, it is really hard to take any of you pros seriously after you all voted a horse, who has only won 2 of 7 (and only one grade 1), plus 2 seconds, since january, as better than the horse who has won 4 of 6 (2 of which were grade 1s) plus a 3rd, finishing no worse than 4th since january--and who also happened to win the most prestigious race in america. if the 3 yo eclipse vote had been based on this, it would go down in history as the most shameful vote of all time, and would never happen if you all weren't evaluating orb, not on the merits, but based on a childish, emotional response to his not having had your dreams of a TC come true.
Michael Watchmaker More than 1 year ago
If you want to offer Frac Daddy holding on for a mile as somehow being evidence of a speed bias, go right ahead. I strongly disagree.
Edward More than 1 year ago
I'll take bets opposite you any day.
ARMAND More than 1 year ago
There was something a little different about Belmont on Saturday. I initially picked Golden Soul on top, but after watching three dirt races, you can see that front runners and stalkers were holding on all the way to the end. Closers weren't even plodding up for show money. I took the best front running style horse (Oxbow) and who I thought was the best stalker (Palace Malace), keyed them on exactas and trifectas..and that got me a $10 exacta and a $2 trifecta!
Edward More than 1 year ago
Except Palice Malice didn't "stalk" in this race so you got lucky and won despite your off-kilter analysis.
Anthony DiMartino More than 1 year ago
Hey very simple..the track went from muddy-fast. So all this nonsense is a waste of talk...If any of you have any serious intuition through your handicapping endeavors, you know a drying out track is completely difficult to gauge. Also i have found through my studies that a drying out track also results in the most shocking priced winners. That's my opinion. I also take handicapping serious and chose to layoff all dirt races on Belmont Stakes Day because of my observations on drying out surfaces in the past. Bank that knowledge and let that be good insight the next time you come across a track similar to Belmont Stakes Day. Thanks