03/10/2014 4:23PM

Andrew Beyer: Run-up distances add nothing but distortion


When Band of Joy was entered at Gulfstream Park last week, most bettors understood that his stamina was a crucial issue in handicapping the race. The horse’s best performances had come in five-furlong sprints on the grass, and now he would be trying to run a much more challenging distance, 7 1/2 furlongs.

Bettors thought he could do it and made him the 2-1 favorite. Band of Joy dueled around the track with Padilla and wrested command 10 strides from the finish line. But Padilla – a colt with more proven staying power – battled back in the final yards to win by a half-length. It might have seemed a reasonable post-mortem to say that 7 1/2 furlongs was a bit too far for Band of Joy.

Yet the distance of the race was not 7 1/2 furlongs; few handicappers or people in the racing community had any idea what the true distance was. In recent weeks the official Equibase charts have said that there was a 250-foot run-up for many 7 1/2-furlong races – meaning that the field covers 250 feet before the timing of the race begins. But the 250-foot figure happens to be the maximum number that the Equibase data system can accommodate. (Presumably, the programmers thought that a longer run-up was unimaginable.) For the Band of Joy race, the footnotes to the chart added this clarification: “The run-up for this race was 375 feet.”

In other words, the field traveled 375 feet – more than one-sixteenth of a mile – before it reached the official starting point of the race. The total distance of the event was actually one mile and 45 feet, a significant difference for a horse who might be hard-pressed to go 7 1/2 furlongs effectively. Band of Joy probably would have won the race but for the extra 375 feet. Though bettors were unaware of the crucial facts about the distance, they were surely affected. More than $1.6 million was wagered on the race, including $488,930 in the Rainbow 6 pool.

Last week, I wrote a column about difficulties facing modern-day handicappers – including long run-ups – and was surprised that the esoteric subject touched a nerve in so many horseplayers. Many were unaware of the existence of run-ups. (Equibase, the keeper of the sport’s data, didn’t start collecting run-up information until 2008.) Many didn’t know that tracks employ long run-ups so they can card races at distances that would otherwise be unfeasible – such as the 7 1/2-furlong turf races that start very close to Gulfstream’s first turn. And they didn’t know where to get information.

The length of the run-up appears after the fact in the fine print of the Equibase result charts and in Daily Racing Form’s Formulator past performances. But it is not listed in the program or past performance heading, so a handicapper can’t be sure before a race what the true distance is.

Racetracks have a rationale for changing the length of run-ups and employing some extreme ones. Gulfstream cards many 7 1/2-furlong races because horsemen like them. When Band of Joy was entered at the distance, owner Paul Pompa said, “Five furlongs to 7 1/2 furlongs was enough of an incremental move-up.” A mile seemed too far. Because 7 1/2-furlong races are run so often, Gulfstream moves the starting gate to different locations so that it doesn’t inflict too much damage to the grass course. Chuck Streva, Equibase’s conscientious chart-caller, has examined the different gaps through which the gate moves onto the turf, and he knows that one of them constitutes a 375-foot run-up.

“I’m totally confident of the number we put in the chart,” he said, adding, “These races aren’t even close to 7 1/2 furlongs.”

The whole system is preposterous. Because of run-ups, Thoroughbred racing is the only sport that can’t produce accurate timing of its own events.

It’s as if the Olympics started clocking a 1,500-meter race after the field had run half a lap. And it’s the only sport in which the participants cannot be sure of the distance at which they’ll be competing. Pompa and trainer Todd Pletcher had no idea that Band of Joy was running a mile and 45 feet instead of the distance they had planned on. It’s as if Usain Bolt stepped onto the track for a 100-meter championship and learned that he’d be running 115 meters today.

Tim Ritvo, president of Gulfstream Park, has come to recognize the absurdities produced by his track’s run-ups.

“Two hundred feet is definitely too far,” he said, and promised to make some changes in the 7 1/2-furlong races. But this isn’t a Gulfstream issue; it’s an industry issue. Del Mar runs a mile on dirt with a 200-foot run-up. Monmouth Park shows Equibase’s maximum 250-foot run-up for many turf races. In a perfect world, Thoroughbred racing would do what every other sport does: Run races at exact distances and time them from the start.

© 2014 The Washington Post

Al Barile 6 months ago
Interesting because I always wondered how the gate crew positioned the gate for all the different distances that repeat day after day.  I thought maybe there was a sleeve in the ground that they lined up and slipped a few down pins in so they could reproduce the same consistent gate position in order to get track records correct and have races consistently set up as apple to apple comparisons .  Now, I am thoroughly confused as to what the final times really mean any more. How do speed figures factor in the differences at repetitive distance on different days.  I'm confused.
Brian Hanratty More than 1 year ago
Andy Beyer, In creating your Beyer numbers do you take into consideration the RU Distance? I was not able to determine this from your books and also asked fellow handicappers and they did not know either. Please advise as this variable if not taken into consideration, as noted in you article, could significantly affect the validity of your numbers if there is a significant variance in RU
Richard More than 1 year ago
Been attending races for over 50 years and never heard of runups until today!!!!!!!!!!!!!
PTWoodman More than 1 year ago
Have had some success with deducting the first call time from the total time of the race for this reason (first 1/4 mile of the race). I believe that position at the first call with respect to distance and class, assists in early pace projection quite nicely (horse herd tendencies being what they are). Lengths behind after the conclusion of the second increment particularly in sprints reveals much about "Pace Handling Ability". Good time to interject the point about the industry mishandling of horse lengths, DRF included. As Charles Carroll documented so well in "Handicapping Speed", horses measure 8 Feet not 10. My own research confirms this. Additionally, race callers routinely "round-down" race times in 5ths during the running of races. DRF unfortunately continues the disservice with "Formulator" filtering. For instance, 110.99 becomes 110 4/5, seriously undermining any attempts at accuracy. Furthermore, as has been confirmed by a representative I spoke with at DRF, lengths are under all circumstances calculated at .17 seconds per length (6 lengths per second) regardless of rates of speed at a given interval. Einstein is rolling in his grave. I personally calculate in lengths, much easier to comprehend, and easier to weigh betting decisions. Hint - 82.5 (8 foot) lengths to the furlong, 165 in a quarter, and most decent grass horses finish fastest in the last portion of the race. PTWoodman
Ian Lawrence More than 1 year ago
Gee not a word in the DRF about the PETA allegations
peter jaworski More than 1 year ago
The number of works listed as "handy" seems to have decreased the last few years. Also would like to know someone like Mike Welsches opinion on the use of breeze vs.handily in Cal.works compared to everywhere else.
CHESTER GILLIS More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I blame Gulfstream. They want to be a "destination" track, but they do ridiculous things like this that make them look like a factory. How did this beautiful and historic course become such a joke? An industrial factory with no beauty is all Gulfstream is, under Stronach,
AZ Wildcat More than 1 year ago
I have cataloged all of the Gulfstream turf races from December 1 to today on a spreadsheet. It is available for download on Dan Illman's blog. It is pretty eye-opening to look at the variance in first quarter and final times caused by the run-ups. It is an Excel file. Worth a look.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You are nuts if you bet GP not for me They have turned handicapping into roulette>