By Ray Wallin
Have you ever watched a race and wondered: “Who would have ever thought that this horse could have run like that today… his past performances showed nothing?”
I hear something along these lines at the track fairly often (typically with an expletive inserted between every other word), especially after maiden races or races with younger horses that only show a handful of running lines in their past performances. Most of these horses are improving and you can spot the obvious contenders that the betting public will hone in on — top speed, top jockeys, best connections, etc.
But which animals should you really be looking out for and giving a second thought to? Answer: Horses that are running under the specific conditions of today’s race for the first time in their careers and have excusable prior performances.
- Gender – Is the horse a filly that ran against the boys last out? Not every horse is Rachel Alexandra or Zenyatta. Most younger fillies don’t develop as fast as colts do and find themselves lagging behind a bit early in their careers, so returning to a field for fillies only would likely feature a slightly slower and more comfortable pace, which will offer this horse a better shot.
- Class – Was the horse totally outclassed in its previous races? Was the animal entered in an allowance race in its debut or did an overzealous owner think that a jump up to a graded stakes in its last race (or two) seemed like a good idea? Returning to a more suitable class generally offers the horse a better chance to contend.
- Distance – Does today mark the first time the horse is stretching out to a route (a mile or greater) or is the horse turning back for the first time today (sprinting around one turn after running in routes around two turns)?
- Surface – Is today the horse’s first try over the dirt after running on either turf or all-weather previously (or vice versa)? Not all horses perform well over all three surfaces, so look for those horses trying today’s surface (dirt, turf, all-weather) for the first time.
- Footing – The horse may have run a race at or within a furlong of today’s distance, but have they only seen off-track conditions over the main track (good, sloppy, muddy) or non-firm turf conditions (good, yielding, soft)? Much like the surface point above, not all horses do well on off-tracks. Look for today’s footing to be different than in previous efforts.
- Troubled Trip(s) – Even if previous races have been run at the same general distance and over the same track surface and footing as today, the horse may have encountered trouble and not been able to run to his/her potential. I know many horseplayers are guilty of not paying attention to the comments that you will find at the far right of the running lines in the past performances. Typical comment notes that indicate a troubled trip include “clipped heels,” “steadied,” “pinched start,” “checked,” “bumped start,” “jock lost irons,” “jock lost whip,” etc. Another giveaway is if you see that, beneath the comment, there is a note stating that the horse was moved up due to a disqualification. This may indicate that the horse was a victim of some trouble on the track, despite no negative comments.
- Post Position – This ties into the troubled trip point above, but is a little less obvious since there is normally not a specific comment for this point. For example, in a mile race at Monmouth Park, the outer posts are like a death sentence. Starting that wide for a horse with early speed is suicide, especially if there are some early speed horses in the inner posts. If today is another route, you can give the horse a pass if it is moving to a more inward post and if it showed any life at all in that previous excusable race — either by showing some early speed, racing evenly while going wide (normally mentioned in the comments), or showing some zip late in the race by improving its position at the latter calls.
To show you how this kind of handicapping is done, let’s take a look at the fifth race at Fair Grounds — a one-mile maiden special weight turf affair for three-year-old fillies — that took place on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016:
Comments: Ran her last two races over the main track in races originally scheduled for the turf with both running lines indicating trouble. Pedigree, jockey, and trainer are all competent on the turf as well. STRONG CONTENDER.
Comments: Two sprints over the dirt and she’s managed to beat one horse. Poor turf trainer as well. PASS.
Comments: Three starts — first was sprint over the dirt and she showed some life; next, was a muddy sprint that was meant for the turf and she was flat; last out was a turf sprint and she showed some good pace. Trainer is competent over the turf and the horse has a turf pedigree, stretches out here (sprint to route) and has shown ability on turf. STRONG CONTENDER.
Comments: Last out was a mile over the turf in a maiden claimer. She steps back up today to a maiden special weight race in her first try off of the claim. Likely outclassed here, but may consider in a trifecta or superfecta. MINOR CONTENDER.
Comments: Debut race over the turf showed nothing and she managed to beat just two horses in her last two races combined. PASS.
Comments: Two races, two turf routes, good improvement in last for a strong barn, but appears to need a slower pace (half-mile calls in last two races were :51-2/5 and :50-2/5). MINOR CONTENDER.
Comments: Debut was taken off the turf and she showed some early speed before quitting after being bumped at the break (troubled trip) and going wide. However, neither her jockey nor her trainer look to be that strong over the turf or at this meet. PASS.
Comments: Debut was taken off the turf and she ran just off the pace to finish second despite going wide. Very strong jockey and trainer here. STRONG CONTENDER.
Comments: First-time starter. Trainer only hits six percent in debut turf races, pedigree suggests she should like the turf, but willing to let this one get a race in before considering. PASS.
Comments: Debut race taken off the turf and she finished third behind Always Right as the betting favorite after a troubled trip (blocked). Pedigree, trainer, and jockey all look solid for turf races. STRONG CONTENDER.
Comments: First-time starter for a barn that is winning at a one percent clip with first-time starters. PASS.
Comments: She’s had four lifetime starts — two turf routes with early speed (though she set a really slow pace last out); two back was the other turf route and she was flat. Outside post hurts. PASS.
Strong Contenders: 1, 3, 8, 10
Minor Contenders: 4, 6
Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “You can have results or excuses. Not both.” I contend that you can have both: excusing races as outlined above will lead to results! Not every horse trying something new will win, but you certainly should give them a second look since their current form may appear superficially poor give prior circumstances. Coupling this approach with your regular handicapping will help to find some solid longshots and add value to your exotics in these races.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ray Wallin is a licensed civil engineer and part-time handicapper who has had a presence on the Web since 2000 for various sports and horse racing websites and through his personal blog. Introduced to the sport over the course of a misspent teenage summer at Monmouth Park by his Uncle Dutch, a professional gambler, he quickly fell in love with racing and has been handicapping for over 25 years.
Ray’s background in engineering, along with his meticulous nature and fascination with numbers, parlay into his ability to analyze data; keep records; notice emerging trends; and find new handicapping angles and figures. While specializing in thoroughbred racing, Ray also handicaps harness racing, Quarter Horse racing, baseball, football, hockey, and has been rumored to have calculated the speed and pace ratings on two squirrels running through his backyard.
Ray likes focusing on pace and angle plays while finding the middle ground between the art and science of handicapping. When he is not crunching numbers, Ray enjoys spending time with his family, cheering on his alma mater (Rutgers University), fishing, and playing golf.
Ray’s blog, which focuses on his quest to make it to the NHC Finals while trying to improve his handicapping abilities can be found at www.jerseycapper.blogspot.com Ray can also be found on Twitter (@rayw76) and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.