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Updated on 09/17/2011 11:54PM
The way it was
On May 2, 1906, midway through President Teddy Roosevelt's second term and two weeks after the Great San Francisco Earthquake, the Kentucky Derby was run for the 32nd time at Churchill Downs. The $6,000 race on a Wednesday afternoon drew little national attention, and the victorious Sir Huon, a son of Falsetto named for a character in a German opera, made no lasting mark in the annals of American racing.
It was, however, a landmark Derby in the history of analyzing and handicapping Thoroughbred racehorses: That 32nd Derby, run a century and two days ago, was the first for which printed past performances appeared in Daily Racing Form.
The entire Derby PP's, a combined 27 running lines for the seven entrants, could have been pasted onto a 3x5 index card, and the information would seem somewhere between primitive and cryptic to today's horseplayers. Still, it was the basic framework for equine past performances that has now officially endured for 100 years, and the forerunner of the more robust data that will fuel much of the $100 million wagered this Saturday on the 132nd Derby. (Nearly a year earlier, the first instance of past performances in the Chicago edition of Daily Racing Form appeared on June 27, 1905 - for races at Coney Island.)
A look at the Form's Derby past performances since , in 25-year intervals, reveals a long, slow evolution into the version that will appear in Friday's and Saturday's editions.
Sir Huon had raced 12 times before the 1906 Derby, but his past performances consisted only of his last three starts - a 5 1/2-furlong prep at Brooklyn and two sprints at Coney Island. It is not clear from his PP's what kind of races they were or precisely when they were run: Instead of a date and race number, the 1906 running lines begin with a five-digit number, referring readers to a result chart available in previous editions of the paper or in a monthly chart book published by the Form.
After that, the sequence of the running line is similar to the contemporary version, with familiar elements including the track, distance, track condition, winner's time, and weight. This is followed by five points of call during the race. Margins of lengths ahead or behind are given only for only the stretch and finish calls. The jockey's name then appears, followed by the three-horse company line of the race's top finishers - although without the later additions of lengths between finishers and weights.
There also are obvious differences in the way information was reported in different regions of the country. Sir Huon and Velours, a 40-1 shot who would finish last in the 1906 Derby, had done their recent racing in New York, and the elements in their lines are arranged differently from their opponents who had been racing at Lexington, Memphis, and Nashville. This regionalization continued until the 1990's, when the Form merged three separate databases into one, which is now populated and maintained by the industry-owned Equibase company.
Among the notable 1906 omissions from what contemporary players expect to see are the trainer's name and today's jockey, much less any attempt to quantify the quality of a race or describe the horse's effort. Nevertheless, the betting public managed to smoke out Sir Huon and bet him down to 11-10, and he triumphed by two lengths over the filly Lady Navarre, the second choice at 9-5. As for fifth-place finisher Debar, he may hold the distinction of having the first if not last Derby past-performance mistake: The son of Algol was listed in the PP's as a 4-year-old.
Leap forward to PP's much like today's
Twenty-five years later, the purse for , won by Greentree Stable's Twenty Grand, had jumped from $6,000 to $58,725, and more significant changes had come to the past performances than would be seen for another 60 years.
The chart code had been replaced with a date and race number, and races were classified with an abbreviated condition distinguishing stakes, allowance, or handicap races. The trainer and the dam's sire were now listed, as were odds, post position, and field size for each previous start. Workouts and cumulative racing records had arrived as well, but not where today's horseplayer would look for them. A single "Last work" appeared above the running lines, while current and previous years' records and earnings appeared below each horse's lines.
Two- and three-letter abbreviations for racetracks had replaced the fully spelled-out track names of 1906. Players of the era presumably knew that "Hav" stood for Havana, Cuba, home of the best winter racing, and not for Havre de Grace (HdG).
The number of lines that appeared for each horse was erratic and followed no apparent scheme. Twenty Grand had made 10 career starts but had only eight running lines, while 10 of runner-up Sweep All's 11 lines appeared. Twenty Grand, part of a three-horse Greentree entry, won by four lengths and paid precisely $3.76 to win - breakage to the nearest 20-cent increment did not begin at Churchill Downs for another three years.
was worth $167,550 and won by Needles - the first Florida-bred to secure the race - but horses' birthplaces were still not noted in their past performances. At least Needles's breeder, W.E. Leach, was listed under his pedigree, and the breeder's name was one of several additions since the days of Twenty Grand. The most significant addition was margins to all four points of call rather than just the final two call points, and designating whether a horse was favored in a race by putting an asterisk after his odds - odds that were still listed in the bookmaker style of "2-3" instead of "60" or "70" as they are today.
Horses' current-year and previous-year earnings had by now migrated to their familiar spot in the upper right above their running lines, and the 1956 past performances listed the three most recent workouts for each horse.
Also, the 1956 running lines added a "speed rating" for each horse's race, a mechanically derived comparison of each horse's running time to the track record. Needles, for example, had earned a speed rating of 101 for winning an "AlwS" at G.P. - the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, where he broke the track record by one-fifth of a second.
More new figures, and a look at the future
Another quarter-century later, Pleasant Colony won , which was now worth $413,450. The past performances had taken on their current look through changes in typography such as replacing fractions with superscripts - Pleasant Colony's winning time in the Wood Memorial was listed as 1:493 instead of 1:49 3/5. Also, horses' birthplaces had now been added after the breeder's name, so Kentuckians could flinch after seeing that a Virginia-bred had won the 107th Derby.
There had been only two other changes to the data, but they were important ones. First, stakes races were now listed by names such as "SA Dby" rather than as generic "Stks" or "AlwS." An even bigger improvement was the addition of two fractional times before the final time of each race in the past-performance lines - quarter-mile and half-mile split times for sprints and half-mile and six-furlong fractions for route races.
The Form's past performances were static for the next decade, then began to expand and change in the 1990's with the addition of new information, much of it first introduced in its short-lived rival The Racing Times. This material included Beyer Speed Figures; each horse's sales price at public auction; his sire's sire and published stud fee; the month of foaling; horses' career records; trainers' current-meet and current-year statistics; a career box breaking down each horse's record by surface, track, and distance; a third fractional time and fifth point of call; the grades of stakes races; equipment and medication information; six rather than four workouts; and layoff lines indicating absences from racing.
Subsequent additions above and below the past-performance lines have included Trainer Stats, a breakdown of each trainer's record over the current and previous calendar year in situations applicable to today's race, and Tomlinson Ratings, a pedigree-based assessment of each horse's distance and surface potential. In the company lines, boldface or italic highlights indicate common opponents and next-out winners.
Another key change in the last decade has been the delivery mechanism for past performances. Roughly 10 percent of Derby bettors this year will be getting their information via home computer rather than through a printed newspaper or track program. Some customers simply print out a version nearly identical to the hard-copy product, but a growing number use software programs to manipulate and customize their running lines or access databases for added research. Users of Daily Racing Form's Formulator program, for example, can click on the date of a race and access the full result chart - a high-tech throwback to the five-digit chart code at the beginning of Sir Huon's 1906 running lines.
What might the past performances look like for the 157th Derby in 2031? While most horseplayers' wish lists for information have been satisfied over the last 15 years, new technologies may provide as-yet-unimagined new data. After several false starts, the industry appears closer to implementing automated collection of data via radio transmitters attached to horses' saddlecloths. This could provide not only far more accurate margins at various points of call - which have always been rough visual estimates by chart-callers - but also precise measurements of stride, ground loss, and acceleration.
While additional information has made handicapping the Derby a more complex and perhaps entertaining exercise, it should be noted that it has not particularly improved the public's success at divining the winner. Favorites won 12 of the 25 Derbies from 1906 through 1930; 9 of the 25 from 1931 through 1955; 11 of the 25 from 1956 through 1980; and only 2 of the 25 since then.