06/20/2013 3:10PM

Byron King: Two common handicapping angles can be misleading


Ask a group of horseplayers to name two factors deemed least important in handicapping a race, and there would be a wide variety of answers – everything ranging from connections to class, speed figures, and pace.

As for me, I’d say track bias and ground loss. I find them about as significant as noting wind speed and direction, which is to say, I don’t find them significant at all.

Here’s why.

First, track bias. I do believe track biases can exist, but believe a study of track bias should be made over a wide sample of races, not based on an individual day, or even worse, a few races.

Anything can happen over a short sample. You can flip a coin five times and get heads every time, but that doesn’t prove the coin is rigged. It’s just chance.

Yet walk through the grandstand and listen to bettors after five races (or fewer), and you’ll hear “speed is dying,” or on polar-opposite days, “all you have to do is make the lead to win.”

In actuality, the winners of these races might simply have been best, or maybe, that the results were influenced by luck, just like the coin flip. Perhaps front-runners did well because the pace was to their benefit, or because they were favored to win.

Or if closers won, perhaps they did so because there were heated battles up front, or because the leaders had a history of puking in the stretch.

Ask any statistician: The smaller the sample size, the greater the margin for error. It’s true of political polls, and it’s true of track-bias analysis.

Ed Feng, a Stanford Ph.D. who runs the number-crunching sports website www.thepowerrank.com, detailed these sentiments in a column last year, titled “One thing everyone ought to know about sports analytics.” In this Google-worthy piece, Feng illustrated with computer-generated numbers how an “average” coach with hypothetical 50 percent chance of winning his NFL games, could in one sample random computer-generated trial, end up winning 31 of 50 games, or 62 percent.

But by continuing this trial over 200 games, this average coach’s win total dropped to 103 victories, a 53 percent win mark far more in line with what should have been expected.

Because horses, even favorites, have far less than a 50 percent chance of winning, there are even wilder swings to be expected in horse racing.

All that noted, I do believe in long-term track bias – those that are backed up by weeks of data, most notably one that has been long proven over time – that front-runners at nearly every dirt track in America are at an advantage.

But try to analyze track bias every day or every few races, and you are going to get unpredictable swings by chance, just as the stock market might go up or down from day to day depending on news that one often can’t predict.

As for ground loss in evaluating a horse’s trip, I believe by strictly looking at that number, whether it is noting a horse was three wide, or lost 20 feet via Trakus, is an oversimplication of a horse’s trip and too often ignores all the other things that happen in a horse race.

I didn’t flunk geometry. I know that if you have two equal runners racing a lap on a high school track, and one races in lane one, and the other in lane two, that the inside runner is going to win.

But horse racing is not that simple. It’s full of trade-offs. A horse tucked on the inside, but racing behind the pace, may have his move delayed by what unfolds with the horses in front of him, not to mention the fact that he may get discouraged from dirt being kicked back in his face.

Meanwhile, that horse stalking in the three path could enjoy a sustained clear run that the ground-saving horse did not, offsetting the ground loss he experienced.

Yet if a horseplayer looks at data from Trakus, or from speed-figures companies that factor in ground loss, the rail-riding horse won’t look as good on numbers as that clear-running horse that raced in the three path.

My opinion is simply this. There are good and bad trips with inside-running horses, just as there are with those that race on the outside. And the key is to watch these races individually and form a conclusion, and not merely rely on the number.

One caveat: I do believe ground loss to be of much more importance on turf because of the contrast of how these races are run relative to dirt races. Inside-rallying turf horses don’t have to deal with dirt kickback on the grass, obviously, and beyond that, turf races, more so than dirt races, tend to often come down to late tests of acceleration. So if a horse can save ground and quicken over a short distance, an inside trip under those conditions is beneficial.