05/23/2007 11:00PM

Should you trust Trakus or the timer?


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - You do not have to be a fan of video "chicklets," those little moving squares with numbers, or virtual races to appreciate a radio-frequency system like Trakus. If nothing else, the system provides a measuring stick for handicapping.

Trakus, for those unfamiliar with it, is the data-tracking system in place at Woodbine and Keeneland that determines the location of each horse throughout every race run there. With a tracking device the size of a credit card inserted in the saddle towel of every horse, it uses wireless communication to monitor the positions and times of the competitors.

The system is then able to present on a tote board or television monitor the placement of those horses to aid in the viewing of a race.

But Trakus brings something more to the table, keeping track of data such as margins, times for every runner, and ground loss.

Granted, we already have most of that information available, with internal margins provided by Equibase chart callers and times generated by timing beams located throughout a racetrack.

But as horseplayers watching the races from Churchill Downs last week found out, errors can happen. Last week alone at Churchill Downs, when a substitute operator was working for the timing company, American Teletimer, there were five instances of races missing two or more fractional times and a photo-finish malfunction.

That is inexcusable.

Time is such a fundamental part of handicapping - the basis for speed figures, for example - that more tracks and timing companies should put time and effort into monitoring it and improving the accuracy of times.

I like the idea of having Trakus, or a system like it, and that its times can be checked against those posted by the timer. The Trakus system keeps the timer in check, and vice versa.

Perhaps a bird triggered the timing beams prematurely with the timer, or maybe the Trakus system malfunctioned.

Without assigning blame, it is noteworthy that this spring at Keeneland - where American Teletimer, not Trakus, is used for its official times - there were at least two cases of official times differing greatly from times generated by Trakus. Trakus times from Keeneland are listed on the Keeneland website at ww2.keeneland.com/racing/Lists/Trakus/allitemsalt.aspx.

The time of one of those two races gets a test in a rather unscientific manner in Saturday's Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs. Among the 12-horse field are five entrants exiting the April 27 Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland, a race that Trakus timed as being run in 2:27.12, 3.28 seconds faster than the official timer at Keeneland did.

One of those two times - 2:27.12 for Trakus, 2:30.40 officially - is seemingly incorrect. It is up to horseplayers to determine which one they trust.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the Trakus and official times were similar this meet, usually within a fifth of a second or so. That was obviously not the case with the Elkhorn.

Louisville: Always First tempting play

The occasional discrepancies of times at Keeneland do provide some favorable betting opportunities for those that keep track of the information.

If you trust the faster Trakus time of the Elkhorn, you can feel good about knowing that those exiting that race might be slightly better prices than if the faster time were listed in the past performances, not the slower official clocking.

Handicapping logic would point to the Trakus time being the more believable of the two. Two days earlier, in the only other 1 1/2-mile turf race of the meet, Safari Queen won the Bewitch Stakes for fillies and mares by officially covering the distance in 2:28.75. Trakus timed that winner in 2:28.94.

Given the Elkhorn was run over a good course, not a firm one like the one Safari Queen raced over in the Bewitch, I suppose it is possible the slow-paced Elkhorn could have been run in 2:30.40, the time officially posted. But the Trakus time of 2:27.12 seems more reasonable considering these were male horses, and that it was a very good field.

Feeling that the faster Trakus time from the Elkhorn is probably accurate, I cannot help but like the horses exiting that race in the Louisville Handicap. My choice among the five Elkhorn runners in the race is the late-running Always First, who crossed the wire second in the Elkhorn, beaten a neck by Ascertain.

Besides his obviously good performance, Always First ran wider than the four other horses that exit that race. Utilizing Trakus data, he raced 28 feet wider than third-place Drilling for Oil, for example.

Another late-runner, Cloudy's Knight, is my second selection and one that figures to be a good price. He seems likely to improve upon his fifth-place finish in the Elkhorn, which marked his first race at a marathon distance since September 2005.

Hanshin: Purim exits fast key race

Following a similar Trakus data angle, Purim is my play in the Grade 3, $100,000 Hanshin Handicap at Arlington on Saturday.

Although entered on Polytrack in the Hanshin, his last race came on turf at Keeneland, a close third in the Grade 2 Maker's Mark Mile. That race, like the Elkhorn, received a much faster Trakus time than official time.

Trakus timed Kip Deville narrowly winning that race over Showing Up in 1:33.38, compared with an official time of 1:35.51.

Based on the subsequent efforts of the horses exiting the Maker's Mark, my inclination is to believe the faster time. Purim will be the first of the top four finishers to return, but two of other four runners have scored graded stakes victories in their next start.

Fifth-place Sky Conqueror took the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at odds of 8-1 on Derby Day at Churchill Downs. And sixth-place Remarkable News scored in the spill-marred Grade 2 Dixie at Pimlico last week at 5-1 odds.

How Purim adapts to the switch to Polytrack for the Hanshin is anyone's guess, but as a versatile horse who has won graded stakes on turf and dirt, he acts like the type that should take to the synthetic surface.