Updated on 09/15/2011 12:36PM

Time to debunk the bounce


NEW YORK - Do horses bounce? Is boing-boing-boing the dominant sound of Thoroughbred racing, with races regularly being decided by who's bouncing today? Or is it the sound that believers of this theory make as they bounce off the walls of their rubber rooms?

As Joe Cardello noted in these pages last week, the once arcane concept of the bounce is seeping into trainerspeak and handicapping debates at an alarming rate. If the horse you saddled or bet on ran a terrific race last time and was off the board today, it's becoming increasingly common to shake your head and say that well, obviously, he bounced.

The idea of the bounce was popularized by Len Ragozin's The Sheets and his disciple-turned-competitor Jerry Brown's similar Thoro-Graph product. By arranging a horse's speed figures on a piece of graph paper, these handicapping theorists noted a recurring pattern of horses following up career-best efforts with dramatically poorer performances.

After seeing this happen thousands of times at every level of the game, they advanced the idea that there was a cause-and-effect relationship. They came to believe that the effort required to achieve that career-best figure had to take a physical toll on the horse that would show up in a much slower performance next time out.

Variations of this notion followed and advanced bounce theories evolved, seeming to borrow from both higher mathematics and the black arts. A big bounce would supposedly be followed by a new career-best race. A horse who "paired up" career-best races in succession was sure to run poorly in the third race but was then eligible to run a "new top" the time after that. Then there was the dreaded "0-2-X" phenomenon in which a career top, followed by only a nearly-as-good race, was sure to result in an off-the-board performance and possibly a lengthy absence from the races.

Ragozin and Brown are heavyweight thinkers who have made important contributions to the game, but they must feel a bit like Dr. Frankenstein as they hear trainers and bettors invoke the bounce theory every time a horse runs a race that was not as good as his last one. If bounces exist at all, they happen far less often than they are being credited for these days.

A quick look at the Beyer Speed Figures in any edition of Daily Racing Form confirms that horses rarely follow a dramatically faster-than-usual performance with another one just as good. To say that this is the result of bouncing, however, ignores common sense. The unusual performance usually is the initial big-figure race, not the subsequent inferior one, which is a return to normalcy. The question is not whether a physical reaction caused a regression from Race A to Race B, but what produced the improved effort in Race A.

When a horse runs an unusually big speed figure, two equally important things have happened: He has run a fast final time relative to the speed of the racetrack that day, and the race has been run in a way that allowed him to do so. A front-runner on the dirt may have gotten an easy lead through soft fractions, leaving him with plenty in reserve to pour it on down the stretch. A closer may have gotten clear sailing and a blistering pace that came back to him. A particularly hard, soft, wet, or dry surface may have been especially to a big-figure winner's liking.

In any of those cases, a lesser performance next time out probably does not mean that the big race prompted a negative physical reaction. It just means that this same set of ideal conditions did not recur, which is going to be the case the vast majority of the time. There was no bouncing, just an absence of the unusual scenario that allowed the horse to run the first high figure. Suppose a front-runner gets a big figure with a lone-speed, soft-paced, wire-to-wire victory, then next time out gets into a five-way speed duel and staggers home last. Anyone who says this proves that the horse bounced sky-high off his big number really needs to start watching the races.

True bouncing probably does occur in relatively rare instances where a big-figure race was genuinely a taxing one, and is more likely to occur when a horse returns on short rest or has been racing frequently and is starting to tail off.

Next to a winner, there's nothing that horsemen and horseplayers like better than an it's-not-my-fault excuse for a loser, and the bounce is joining the cuppy track and the boneheaded ride as a favorite. Just like those old saws, this one is getting dull through overuse.