10/19/2014 11:18AM

Watchmaker: Time to start thinking about Breeders' Cup track bias


Breeders’ Cup pre-entries will be taken tomorrow (Monday) and will be announced Wednesday. And then, the serious Breeders’ Cup handicapping begins.

But how can you handicap the Breeders’ Cup if you don’t know how the main track at Santa Anita will be playing?

This topic immediately makes me think of Bayern. No matter how you feel about Bayern (I think he’s immensely talented, but I also believe his big wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Haskell were aided by strong track biases), you probably would agree he is the speed of the speed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He’s just faster early than Moreno and Big Cazanova.

With that in mind, if Bayern catches the kind of track that was in force last year on Breeders’ Cup Friday, when there was a profound speed bias, then even those who originally were inclined to bet against him likely will be jumping on board. But if Bayern catches the main track that prevailed last year on Breeders’ Cup Saturday (much to Santa Anita management’s credit, they recognized the problem, worked on the track overnight, and produced a fair racing surface for Saturday), then there will be a long list of wise guys lining up to bet against Bayern.

It’s difficult to know two weeks out how the main track will play at Santa Anita on Breeders’ Cup weekend. With the inevitable fine-tuning that will take place to find the balance between fast times and safety, the character of the track might change. Here’s hoping it does, or else Bayern might be an overlay at anything over 8-5.

It goes without saying that the best way to assess a track bias is to handicap races thoroughly beforehand so that you have a good handle on when horses with certain running styles are outrunning expectations. But short of that, an analysis of recent result charts will do. And an analysis of the last five full cards run at Santa Anita as of this writing (Oct. 12 through Oct. 18) reveals that if you aren’t a part of the pace on the main track, you are in deep trouble.

For these purposes, I’ve always defined speed as horses that were running either first or second in the first call of the result charts or were within two lengths of the lead at the first call. Applying that definition to the most recent five full cards at Santa Anita, here’s what I came up with:
From Oct. 12 through Oct. 18, there were 22 main track sprints run. An incredible 20 of them, or 91 percent, were won by “speed.” Now, it should be noted that only three of those 20 speed winners were horses that led at every call, so the races weren’t exactly run in conveyor belt-like fashion. Still, over the years, I’ve found the average success rate for what I call speed to be in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 percent. So these results were stunning.

Over the same period at Santa Anita, there were eight main track routes run. Six of those eight routes, or 75 percent, were won by speed. I know this is a small sample, but it is interesting that four of those six speed winners were front-running winners.

For the record, I did a similar look at the Santa Anita main track last year, only it was one week before the Breeders’ Cup. I found that in sprints, speed won 76 percent of the time the last full week of racing and 80 percent of the time for the most recent incomplete week at the time I posted that blog entry. In routes, I found speed won 40 percent and then 83 percent of the time for those same corresponding periods.

In other words, there was evidence beforehand that we might run into the speed bias we encountered on Breeders’ Cup Friday last year. Given what we now know about Santa Anita’s last five cards, it will be worthwhile to keep an eye on how the track there plays this week.

At the same time, you also have to hope that lessons were learned last year and that everyone understands the importance of having even surfaces for the Breeders’ Cup. Although true track biases can be the horseplayer’s best friend, we all want our championship-making races decided on fair tracks, on which no one is compromised only because they have a certain running style.