09/13/2006 11:00PM

Why trainers win more today

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NEW YORK - A widely accepted "fact" of contemporary racing is that the winning percentages of its top trainers have increased dramatically and suspiciously over the last generation. Today's most successful trainers are supposedly winning races at unnatural and unholy rates, unattainable by even the Hall of Fame horsemen of previous eras, thus proving that the game must not be on the level.

This premise, repeated as gospel by frustrated handicappers and horsemen alike, simply does not hold up to scrutiny. A comparison of the sport's most successful trainers in 1985 and 2005 indeed shows a dramatic change in the training game, but not the sinister one so often alleged.

In 1985, the top 10 trainers in the country by earnings won a combined 1,065 races from 5,994 starts, a win rate of 17.77 percent. The top 10 trainers by victories that year won a combined 1,856 races from 10,299 starts, an 18.02 percent win rate. In 2005, the top 10 in purses won 2,021 races from 9,167 starts, a 22.05 percent win rate. The top 10 in winners were a combined 2,587 for 10,836, a 23.87 percent win rate.

(Incidentally, only two trainers who were in the top 10 in either purses or victories in 1985 were still on those lists two decades later. Bobby Frankel ranked fifth on the money list in 1985 and second in 2005. Though widely perceived as someone who wins far more often than he used to, Frankel's winning percentage has increased only marginally, from 19.73 percent in 1985 to 22.03 percent in 2005. The other is Bill Mott, sixth on the earnings list both years, with a 22.16-percent win rate in 1985 and a 21.87-percent win rate in 2005.)

So in 1985, the best trainers were winning at an 18-percent clip, and 20 years later they were winning at about a 23-percent rate. This is a statistically meaningful increase, but one additional win for every 20 starters is hardly a revolutionary change. Moreover, there are additional factors at work that may well account for the entire difference.

The first is a reduction in field size, which officially has shrunk from 9.03 starters per race in 1985 to 8.17 in 2005, meaning that if everything else were equal, a trainer could be expected to win 12.24 percent of the time rather than 11.07, an increase of over 10 percent.

So on average field size alone, yesteryear's 18-percent trainer is today's 20-percent trainer. Unofficially, there are no statistics to back this up, but there is reason to suspect that median (as opposed to average) field size has shrunk even more severely. When we talk about eight starters per race nowadays, that may well be the average of a five-horse field, a seven-horse field, and a 12-horse maiden statebred field, while it seems there were many more actual eight- and nine-horse races 20 years ago. One reason that is probably true is that the average starts per year has also gone down, from 8.28 in 1985 to 6.45 in 2005.

Consider, too, that today's leading trainers run at many more tracks than their 1985 equivalents did. Today's claiming powerhouses, such as Steve Asmussen, Scott Lake, and Cole Norman, each started horses at more than 20 tracks in 2005, whereas 1985's claiming-win leaders mostly dominated a single oval or circuit. It is, of course, easier to find winning spots when you're choosing from six cards of racing a day rather than one.

Finally, while difficult to quantify, it is certain that today's top stakes trainers have their choice of more and better horses than their 1985 equivalents did. In 1985, Charlie Whittingham won at a 14.66-percent clip and Woody Stephens won at a 20.23-percent clip, figures that are cited to prove that today's 25-percent trainers must be using rocket fuel to exceed such immortals. Stephens and Whittingham, however, raced most of their principal owners' homebreds and had many stalls occupied by horses they knew would never amount to much. Today, a Todd Pletcher gets the cream of dozens of owners' homebreds and sales purchases and has few hopeless cases in his shedrow.

What a comparison between the top trainers of 1985 and 2005 illustrates most dramatically is a consolidation and concentration of power. In 1985, there were 75,687 races and only 19 trainers who won 100 or more of them. Those 19 trainers won a total of 2,871 races, or 3.7 percent of the national total. In 2005, we were down to only 52,257 races - a 31 percent reduction - but there were 35 different trainers with 100 or more victories. They combined to win 5,739 races, or 10.9 percent of the total.

That's the real difference between then and now: In 1985, trainers who won 100 or more races a year won just one of every 26 races run in this country. In 2005, such trainers won one out of every nine.