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Digging beneath the surface
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If handicapping were as simple as picking the richest horse in every race, perhaps determining the best sires in North America would be as simple as ranking their progeny earnings in a given year.
Of course, neither exercise is that easy.
Leading sire lists fail to reflect the middle - the typical horse by a sire. They are skewed by the success of the sire's top one or two horses, who inflate the progeny earnings by their success in lucrative stakes races, such as the Breeders' Cup races or Triple Crown events.
This applies especially to freshman sire lists, which rank the progeny earnings of sires whose first crop of runners are competing as 2-year-olds and can be thrown even more out of balance by the achievements of one top-quality horse.
Perhaps no list is as complex as the leading synthetic sires, which if based on progeny earnings will be heavily biased toward sires who stand in regions with several synthetic tracks, namely, California and Canada.
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A prime example of this bias is Bold Executive, who last year was the third-leading sire in North America by progeny earnings. Bold Executive stood in Ontario where many of his offspring raced at Woodbine Race Course, which has Polytrack, a type of synthetic surface, as well as slot-boosted purses. His runners racked up the dough because they had the opportunity, sometimes even in restricted company.
Unusual Heat's progeny earnings on synthetic tracks were similarly padded because he stands in California. Most of his runners raced in California, which offers incentives for racing California-breds and where racing at the major tracks - Santa Anita, Hollywood, Del Mar, and Golden Gate - are conducted exclusively on all-weather surfaces.
Good luck finding a New York-based sire near the top of the synthetic sire list. For all we know, one of them might be spectacular at siring synthetic runners, but more than likely, we'll never find out. The incentives for owners and breeders are to run New York-breds in New York, a state that has no synthetic racing and probably never will.
So what is a horseplayer, owner, or breeder seeking synthetic knowledge to do? Simply ignore such a list?
Well, at least the ones based on final progeny earnings. It makes more sense to sort the list by other, more important factors.
That was my pet project earlier this month. And although there is no perfect statistical measurement for evaluating sires, I believe I've come up with a short list of stallions who are better at consistently siring the most successful synthetic performers than those who top the progeny earnings list for synthetic runners.
GETTING THE MATH OUT OF THE WAY
Knowing the biases that skew progeny earnings, I established a couple of rules.
First, I demanded a sizable sample of runners, looking at the 500 leading sires by progeny earnings from both 2008 and 2009 and eliminating those who didn't have 20 synthetic starters in a given year.
The goal was to find the sires whose numbers were less likely to be swayed by one or two star horses. This reduction created a workable list of 185 for 2008 and 188 sires for 2009.
Admittedly, such a restriction risks the exclusion of some potentially good synthetic sires who simply had few starters. But in the interest of having a solid number of runners, ensuring a certain level of dependability, I felt this restriction was needed.
Secondly, I struck from the final standings any sire based in California and Canada, knowing such sires would be more apt to have inflated numbers. The goal was to compare apples with apples.
I went back to those sires separately, comparing them next with their counterparts from those regions.
Then I let the computer do the math and rank the sires for each year based on three categories: median Beyer Speed Figure on synthetic tracks, median synthetic earnings per starter, and a trimmed average of earnings - the average earnings among a sire's synthetic starters, not counting the top-earning runner.
Eliminating a star horse arguably penalizes a stud for siring a great horse - for example, Street Cry, who sired Zenyatta. But my goal was to find how typical horses by a sire perform, the ones horseplayers would most likely analyze before betting.
Finally, I added the rankings of each sire in the three categories, then ordered the sums from lowest to highest to determine a 2008 ranking and a 2009 ranking. I averaged the two rankings to come up with a final synthetic rating. The lower the rating, the better.
If a horse didn't have at least 20 synthetic starters in both 2008 and 2009, they didn't make my final list. This included freshman sires of 2009 who had only one crop of runners.
AND NOW THE RESULTS . . .
Leading the way in my rankings was Candy Ride, followed by Giant's Causeway and Tiznow, who were tied for second. Rounding out the top five were Smart Strike and, surprisingly, Yankee Gentleman, who stands for $4,000 in Louisiana after leaving Kentucky.
Sky Mesa, Red Bullet, Street Cry, Put It Back, and Indian Charlie completed the top 10.
|Benoit & Associates|
15px;">Candy Ride came out on top in Byron King's ranking of synthetic sires.
The success of Giant's Causeway and Tiznow, long regarded as synthetic sires, was expected. But considering Candy Ride's first crop of runners were 3-year-olds last year, the results of his offspring on the synthetic were noteworthy.
Remember, median Beyers accounted for a third of the rankings. Candy Ride had only 2-year-olds in 2008, and 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds in 2009.
It should go almost without saying that young horses, particularly 2-year-olds, don't run nearly as quickly as older horses.
Besides Yankee Gentleman, the synthetic success of progeny by Red Bullet and Put It Back was also startling, given that they weren't bred to the kind of top mares that Smart Strike and Giant's Causeway were bred to.
Among the commercial sires who didn't fare well in my synthetic ratings was Songandaprayer. His runners, known for their speed, didn't do much running on all-weather tracks and rated poorly. So, too, did runners by Forestry, Yonaguska, Proud Citizen, Include, and Honour and Glory.
HERE'S WHY THEY'RE UNDERRATED
So what accounted for the differences between my ratings and the progeny earnings? Why did relatively unheralded sires Yankee Gentleman and Put It Back rate so highly on my criteria but not on the synthetic progeny earnings list, where they ranked 53rd and 157th in 2009?
In the case of Yankee Gentleman, he lacked a rich horse to boost his progeny earnings. Last year, his top earner was Supermodel, who earned $112,614 on synthetic tracks. The previous year, Yankee Bravo was his top earner, at $135,000 on synthetics.
|5||Yankee Gentleman||10||55||Smoke Glacken||84|
|7||Red Bullet||16||57||Out of Place||86|
|7||Street Cry||16||57||Touch Gold||86|
|9||Put It Back||17||59||Belong to Me||87|
|10||Indian Charlie||18||59||Harlan's Holiday||87|
|11||Chester House||22.5||59||Storm Cat||87|
|12||A.P. Indy||24||62||E Dubai||90|
|13||Lemon Drop Kid||27||62||Mr. Greeley||90|
|14||Distorted Humor||28||64||Successful Appeal||90.5|
|16||Northern Afleet||30||66||Cape Town||93|
|20||Medaglia d'Oro||42||70||Jump Start||98|
|22||Unbridled's Song||44.5||70||Silver Deputy||98|
|24||Tale of the Cat||50||74||Dixieland Band||100.5|
|25||Exchange Rate||51.5||74||Storm Boot||100.5|
|25||Not For Love||51.5||76||Langfuhr||102|
|27||Stormy Atlantic||52||77||Deputy Commander||103.5|
|28||Tiger Ridge||52.5||78||Running Stag||104.5|
|29||Maria's Mon||53.5||78||Victory Gallop||104.5|
|33||Fusaichi Pegasus||59.5||82||Holy Bull||108.5|
|33||War Chant||59.5||84||Chapel Royal||115|
|35||Yankee Victor||61.5||85||Runaway Groom||118|
|36||Milwaukee Brew||63.5||86||More Than Ready||120.5|
|38||Awesome Again||65.5||88||Yes It's True||126|
|39||Forest Wildcat||66||89||Van Nistelrooy||127.5|
|40||Came Home||66.5||90||Five Star Day||128.5|
|43||El Prado||73.5||93||Pleasant Tap||130.5|
|44||El Corredor||75||94||Doneraile Court||131|
|46||Grand Slam||75.5||96||Skip Away||136.5|
|46||Lion Heart||75.5||97||Evansville Slew||137|
|48||Elusive Quality||77||98||Hold That Tiger||139.5|
|100||Stephen Got Even||146|
Yankee Gentleman also lacked the earning potential that comes with having a lot of starters. He had only 49 synthetic starters last year; by contrast, Unusual Heat had 107 runners on synthetic tracks in California.
But the Yankee Gentleman horses that raced on synthetic tracks did well. In 2009, his runners had a median Beyer of 67 on synthetic surfaces, higher than the median Beyer that year for Indian Charlie (64) and Distorted Humor (66), stallions who stand in 2010 for $70,000 and $100,000.
Median Beyers might be the best measurement of consistent synthetic sire success, since they are not thrown out of proportion in the ways purses can be.
Yankee Gentleman had an even better year in 2008. That year, he topped the rankings in median synthetic earnings per runner, and the median Beyer of his synthetic starts was 68, a point higher than it was in 2009.
Put It Back's ranking of 157 in progeny earnings on synthetic surfaces last year was greatly influenced by his having only 26 runners on synthetic tracks in 2009. That followed a year in which he had 31 runners on synthetic tracks.
Put It Back stands in Florida, where there is strictly dirt racing. Most of his runners did not race on the synthetic. Those who did ran well, however. In 2008, the median Beyer of his offspring on the synthetic was 69, though it dipped to 62 in 2009.
His median synthetic earnings per runner on the surface last year was $9,300, higher than such high-profile sires as Smart Strike ($7,711) and Unbridled's Song ($5,000).
WHAT ABOUT CALIFORNIA AND CANADA?
Though I chose not to include California and Canadian sires in my list, it is worth noting which sires from those regions are best at producing all-weather runners.
Applying the same basis for evaluation but restricting it to California and Canadian sires, I found Unusual Heat and Tribal Rule are the leaders of the synthetic scene in California - ahead of such sires as Benchmark, Swiss Yodeler, Old Topper, and Bertrando, whose offspring typically prefer dirt.
Canadian sires Bold Executive, Bold n' Flashy, and Ascot Knight rated highest in my synthetic analysis.
A CAVEAT TO HANDICAPPERS
Playing the horses successfully requires more than good handicapping; a player must know when to wager. I believe the same will prove true when it comes to applying this data.
That offspring of Candy Ride consistently fare well on the synthetic doesn't mean a bettor should play them blindly every time they start. Once their form is established on the synthetic, their past performances are far more important than their pedigree.
Bear in mind, too, that horses by the same sires show a wide range of differences because their physical traits and ability are also influenced by their dams.
Handicappers are advised to weigh the sires of those dams for clues to a horse's ability to handle the synthetic. Some grass blood on the dam's side is often a positive signal, though dirt broodmare sires such as Seeking the Gold and A.P. Indy also have positive broodmare sire statistics with all-weather performers.
Keep a close eye on horses who are by proven synthetic sires and are trying the surface for the first or second time. In those situations, this statistical information will be best used at a meet such as Keeneland, which draws many horses coming from dirt or turf to race on its Polytrack surface; or perhaps even at the beginning of the Woodbine meet, which often features young horses who might be untested on the Polytrack after racing south in the winter and early spring.
In California, as well as at Turfway, the all-weather form of most of the runners is already established, unless we are dealing with a shipper or a young horse.
It is further worth noting that horseplayers should keep an eye out for horses by less productive synthetic sires and be willing to forgive a failure on an all-weather track. Such failures will often boost the price on them, and when back on their preferred surface, they may return to form. One notable example is Proud Spell, a daughter of Proud Citizen, a poor synthetic sire. In the spring of 2008, Proud Spell rebounded from a third in the Ashland on Keeneland's Polytrack, romping in the Kentucky Oaks on dirt at Churchill Downs.
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* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes