Quality is something having a high level of value or excellence. What is considered quality differs from person to person. Some may argue that the steaks at their local dive bar are of higher quality than those served at Ruth Chris Steakhouse, but what is important is that they have set parameters to define what they believe is quality.
A quality start in baseball is defined as any start in which the starting pitcher pitches at least six innings and allows three earned runs of less. Sportswriter John Lowe coined this term back in 1985 while writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer as a measure of quantifying whether a starting pitcher was able to both prevent runs and get outs. When a starting pitcher wins a game in a non-quality start, it is referred to as a cheap win; and when he gets the loss in a quality start, it is called a tough loss. While not without controversy about how to quantify this metric, it can be applied to one’s everyday handicapping.
So how do I quantify a quality start in horse racing? Well, I use three basic designations for each running line as illustrated in the table below:
A quality start (QS) is a race in which the horse won or was beaten by four lengths or less, regardless of finishing position. If the horse won the race on the lead, I look for the horse to have been leading by no more than two lengths at the first and second calls. If the lead was any larger than two lengths, the horse was not challenged and the race was not competitive.
In the same category is a quality start with factors (QS*). This gives the horse credit for turning in a quality effort despite challenging circumstances — circumstances that would otherwise be grounds for an excusable (poor) performance (see below).
Excusable performances (EX) can be for any number of reasons.
- “-atyp” – The horse may have faced atypical fractions in its last start. For example, if the horse has run sprint races and faced half-mile calls of 46.0 seconds and, then, is in a race with a half-mile of 44.1 seconds, it is an atypical race.
- “-cls” – The horse was outclassed last time, which resulted in a poor performance. An example of this would be a $25,000 claiming horse asked to run in a Grade 3 stakes race. While the animal may contend or be the rabbit, it is not the right class level for the horse.
- “-dist” – The horse was running at the wrong distance in that race. If the horse is running in a sprint today, any route or two-turn races would be excusable.
- “-off” – If the running line shows the race run over an “off” track, either a non-fast race on the main track or a non-firm race over the turf, the horse has an excuse.
- “-surf” – Any race in which the horse was running over a different surface than today’s race is a viable excuse.
- “-trt” – Any races in which the horse was subjected to a troubled trip is excusable if the trouble affected the horse’s performance.
Non-quality starts (X) are races that do not meet the criteria set out for the quality starts. There are two additional areas to look for besides just a non-qualifying race.
- “- cw” – A cheap win is when a horse wins in a non-competitive race. This is often the case when a one-dimensional front runner has a huge pace advantage and is not challenged at all.
- “- uc” – The horse’s past performances may show a running line that meets the quality start criteria, yet the difference in class between that race and today’s race is great. If the horse shows no other races where they have been competitive at today’s class and conditions in their past performances, you can dismiss the quality start against inferior opposition.
Let’s select a couple of horses and analyze their past performances to identify quality starts. On July 4, 2016, Postino’s Idol was entered in the fourth race at Monmouth Park. This race was for $16,000 maiden claimers going one mile and a sixteenth over the turf.
Looking at each race in Postino’s Idol’s past performances, we can see that she has turned in three quality starts in a row.
On July 4, 2016, Bustin Out was entered in the fifth race at Monmouth Park. This race was an allowance optional claiming race for horses that have not won two races other than maiden, claiming, starter or state-bred at six furlongs over the main track.
Bustin Out has managed six straight quality starts off of an excusable performance, which proves that the two cheap wins she earned were not indicative of her true potential.
However you choose to quantify a quality start, it is an important factor to incorporate into your normal handicapping routine. Uncovering quality starts is more powerful than just using the win percentage to gauge how the horse will run under today’s conditions. Identifying quality starts will help in the assessment of race strength when tracking key races as well as pace line selection when figuring the probable pace scenarios.