03/04/2014 2:46PM

Andrew Beyer: Racing industry keeps horseplayers off balance

Coady Photography
The distance from the starting gate to the starting pole that activates the teletimer can be as much as 250 feet.

Leaders of the racing industry regularly fret about the difficulty of attracting new fans. One of the sport’s problems, they say, is its long learning curve compared to other forms of gambling. A chimpanzee can readily learn to pull the handle of a slot machine, but a newcomer to racing can labor for months to learn the basics.

But instead of trying to simplify handicapping, the industry has gone in the opposite direction, making some basic factors – such as the class and distances of races – even more complex, to the point of incomprehensibility.

When I take neophytes to the track, I always give them a pre-race tutorial. I used to begin by explaining the different types of races. The majority of horses run in claiming races for a price that represents their value. Better horses run in allowance events that have eligibility conditions such as non-winners of two races lifetime, non-winners of three, etc. I’d point to the section of Daily Racing Form past performances that express this information –“Clm5000” or “AlwN2”– and in a couple of minutes the newcomers had learned one of the key aspects of the sport.

They couldn’t do so anymore. As racing secretaries around the country try to cope with a shortage of horses, they have created hybrid conditions to make more horses eligible for a given race. They invented the optional claiming race, which might be open to both $20,000 claimers and allowance horses who are non-winners of two races lifetime. To attract additional horses, they add more clauses that turn hybrids into multi-headed mutants. These were the conditions for a race at Santa Anita on Feb. 14:

“For 4-year-olds and upward which have never won $10,000 three times other than Maiden, Claiming, Starter or State Bred, or which have never won four races, or which have not won $35,000 other than closed, claiming or starter at a mile or over since August 1, 2013, or optional claiming price of $80,000.”

Such conditions confound even experienced handicappers trying to judge whether one race is stronger than another. They have exasperated the people at Equibase and Daily Racing Form who must compress information into the small space of the past performances reserved for the class of the race. “We don’t want to turn the PPs into hieroglyphics,” said DRF’s Rich Wroble. But when the conditions of a race at Gulfstream Park read “OC10k/SAL6k-N,” they look like hieroglyphics to most of us.

If race conditions once looked like a simple factor, so did distance. My tutorial for newcomers took less than a minute and explained that the furlong – one-eighth of a mile – is the unit of measurement in horse races and that the most common distances range from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. What could be complicated?

Well, in the U.S., horses have been traditionally given a short running start to the point where the race officially begins. They might speed 40 or 50 feet till the leader hits the beam of light that activates the timing system. The untimed segment from gate to starting point is called the run-up.
Many tracks cannot run certain traditional distances (such as one mile) because they start too close to the first turn, creating a disadvantage for horses in outside posts and a hazard for jockeys.

Instead of running races at one mile, Tampa Bay Downs cards them at one mile and 40 yards (with a 24-foot run-up – a total of one mile and 144 feet.) However, most tracks don’t employ such truth in labeling. Santa Anita runs races that it labels “one mile” and gives the field a 172-foot run-up to the start. Try to explain to a beginner how a one-mile race can be longer than a mile and 40 yards.

Such complexities have multiplied as turf racing proliferates in the U.S. Gulfstream has run more than 40 races this winter at the odd distance of 7 1/2 furlongs. “Horsemen are begging for them,” track president Tim Ritvo said, “because they want to run a shorter distance [than a mile].” Because these races start close to the turn, Gulfstream employs run-ups as much as 250 feet, making 7 1/2 furlongs almost as long as a mile. (Nobody ever confused horsemen with rocket scientists.)

These long run-ups subvert handicapping. Most bettors look closely at horses’ past times in the first quarter mile to determine if one runner possesses an advantage in early speed. But with a 250-foot run-up, timing doesn’t begin until the field has already run four or five seconds, so that published fractional times are useless. Gulfstream may change the run-ups from race to race, so that the starting gate causes less wear and tear on the turf course, making race-to-race comparisons meaningless, too.

There is a way to deal with these issues: time races from the instant the gate opens. The Trakus timing system, employed at Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Aqueduct, and other major tracks, can time races wherever a gate is positioned. “With modern technology, breaking a beam of light isn’t necessary,” said Pat Cummings, Trakus’ director of racing information.

Trakus could provide final times for, say, races at a mile and 250 feet, with fractional times clocked from the start. Yet Cummings anticipates traditionalists’ resistance to such a change, because horses clocked from a standing start record slow first-quarter times –a quarter mile in 24 seconds, for example – compared to the running starts that produce first quarters in 22 seconds. Horsemen love speed, and breeders sell speed, so they might not like the looks of slow quarter miles.

Bettors may detect a pattern here. Incomprehensible eligibility conditions abound because racing secretaries want them. Absurd distances with long run-ups exist because horsemen want them. Distances change because track superintendents want to protect their grass. Races may never be clocked in a rational fashion because horsemen don’t want slower-looking times. Does the sport ever do anything because the betting public wants it?
© 2014 The Washington Post

Matt Romo More than 1 year ago
thanks for the heads up, thanks to formulator you can include run up in the pp's to give an idea if you accommodate for it, and of course trakus. eh, it's a tough sport anyway and this is just another notch to overcome. excellent point on the added adversity for newcomers. haha i have a hard enough time figuring out allowance races anyway still and i'm at it a couple years. haha, mr. beyer has single handily done more for my handicapping than I could account for, well possibly could in my bank account.
Mike Carney More than 1 year ago
Great article Andy. One thing that has always baffled me is why don't tracks, for different races, use a more than one finish line location or have it be mobile? As far as I know, Keeneland is the only strip that has more than one finish line. If tracks would adopt this, it would greatly even the chances of the runners as well as give bettors more solid information with which to wager. I recall that at Hollywood, mile turf races actually started on a turn! Posts 6-12 were disadvantaged by lengths. Belmont has odd starting spots too, in some cases, as do other tracks. Its so simple to change, and why it isn't boggles the mind. Now for your classic races (for which most major tracks were designed for), nothing needs to be moved. Common sense needs a reprise, here. The "run-ups" are terrible also. Mainly because the vast majority of the betting public isn't aware of it. A sprinter stretching out or some other type horse or runner is advantaged or disadvantaged. I know breeders like the "22.1" times, etc. They have to put it together that if the racing bodies don't put a clear, simpler, understandable product out there for the public...they'll be breeding for plow and pleasure horses.
Matt Romo More than 1 year ago
this is a great point. and you wouldn't need a ton of finish lines, only a few really would work. that would cover race from 5f-7, 7f-1 1/8m, and 1 1/4
Mr. Miami More than 1 year ago
You want to talk about a pathetic track?...never mind industry. A disabled girl was raped at Aqueduct a month back. She was abducted and found naked in a bathroom stall screaming. Nobody reported this but ny Daily news. Go to Google and search the NY Daily News article about the stolen Breeders cup classic trophy and it is a link within that same article that brings you to the most disgusting article. Bravo Nyra on the coverup.
Mr. Miami More than 1 year ago
I would post it, but DRF holds for moderation and then removes it.
Mr. Miami More than 1 year ago
Beyer speed figures contribute to the unbalance.
Phillip Rodgers More than 1 year ago
The whole industry will be a joke within 20 years sadly. The small fields, trainer controlled tracks, and ridiculous out of nowhere winners are what turns people off in this sport. While Im pretty sure Andy is the only one who really care about a run up unless it affects positioning before the first turn, I know the racing secretaries are doing their best to facilitate races to all levels of horses but you have to draw the line somewhere, a 5k claimer needing NW3 in year vs blah blah company vs blah blah distance vs blah blah something needs to be put out to pasture. Shrink the game, pool the money, fill the fields, the sport should be managed and promoted just like every other professional sport. Quit allowing individual tracks to do their own thing, if some crap track has to be supplemented to stay open then it jus needs to go away. While I understand that's harsh for many involved, will Rodgers downs and ellis park are not contributing to the growth of this sport. The sport should be ran as a business, treated as a business, and policed as a business. But it wont happen it makes too much sense.
Ian GW More than 1 year ago
I care bout the run up.In fact, I've been saying how important it is to state publicly. A great example was at Gulfstream a few weeks ago when the 14 drew in of the AE. The 7.5 turf had run up 10 feet. But you don't get that info for the multi bets. Obviously the 14 had to send and wired. If the run-up was say 150 ft, maybe the 14 don't send and saves ground. It is crucial in attempting to figure out the early pace.
Robert More than 1 year ago
if you are using formulator you an get the run up distances for all the major tracks. So as a bettor if you want it you can find it and use it.
Bill Kaup More than 1 year ago
A good example of different run-up distances and how they affect first quarter and final times is one difference between Pimlico vs. Del Park. The latter has a much longer run-up than Pimlico and it is reflected in the first quarter and final times.
mikey More than 1 year ago
THE REAL PROBLEM IN THOROUGHBRED RACING IS THAT WE DO NOT BREED THOROUGHBREDS ANYMORE.....nobody knows these HORSES because the great prestigious races have dissappeared from the headlines!! NO PUBLICITY, NO MARKETING, NO FANS......nothing but sprinters and milers.....and now the MET MILE, the shortest and less known of the great handicap triple is the stallion maker.....seriously.
Bill Kaup More than 1 year ago
Excellent! If we can just have racing secretaries write comprehensible race conditions it would help a lot. Your points are well taken. Thank you.
CascadeCin More than 1 year ago
Track takeout that goes back into the track and purse money doesn't bother me as much as the high percentage that goes to state governments as if it is some kind of sin tax. Combined with tax treatment of gambling income to losses and now the unfair way in which the Obamacare penalty is determined only on winnings in addition to making otherwise eligible people ineligible for subsidies, the portion of a horse player's overall $$ going to government is obscenely unfair. The inflated penalties will be applied to all in the household as well, making it harder and harder to justify continuing to play to the spouse. The industry could help by lobbying congress now to change definition of household income, among other things.
mikey More than 1 year ago
How about if you bet the only p6 ticket for 2 dollars.You hit it and get the whole pool.The pool will be 1.50$$.Great game and we keep playing it.
John Hergert More than 1 year ago
i don't care what business you're in, if you treat your customer as a sucker, and combat declining revenue by raising prices, you are doomed to fail. I've seen it firsthand with the decline and closure of Aksarben in Omaha Ne. The rest of the industry should take note or be prepared for the same fate