The Folly of Trend Handicapping

When Swale romped home in the 1984 Kentucky Derby and I collected a nice exacta coupling the winner with Coax Me Chad, I had Ed Fountaine and American Turf Monthly to thank for it. Mr. Fountaine, you see, had published a selection method in the May edition of ATM that awarded points based on traits exhibited by previous winners of America’s premier race for sophomores and I along with other readers had reaped the benefits of his research. To my teenaged mind, the process made sense. After all, what could be more meaningful than using historical trends as a basis of selection?

Well, as I later learned (the hard way), trends are not truths. Just because a coin has landed on heads eight consecutive times does not mean it is more likely to do so on future tosses. In fact, Mr. Fountaine’s own rating system was constantly morphing to match the ever-changing landscape of racing. Points once awarded for placing in the Flamingo Stakes were subsequently awarded to steeds prepping in the Arkansas Derby (after Sunny’s Halo took that route to roses). Other factors took on greater or lesser significance based on the previous year’s results as well.

Unfortunately, this “Handicapping for Dummies” approach to race selection hasn’t been confined to the writings of Ed Fountaine. If you’ve ever read any of Leon Rasmussen’s work, you’re probably familiar with the “Dual Qualifier” method, which can typically be found lurking in the pages of the Daily Racing Form shortly before the running of every Kentucky Derby. It urges it’s proponents to concentrate solely on those horses that possess an acceptable pedigree and were juvenile champions in another country (thanks again to Sunny’s Halo) or were weighted within 10 pounds of the American champion on the Experimental Free Handicap of the previous year.

Not surprisingly, the Breeders’ Cup has hardly been immune from the trend followers either. Every year, it seems, there is more and more published material about what it takes to win each of the 11 championship races. Just like all the Derby methods, however, the criteria are constantly changing. Early in Cup history, it was thought that horses exiting the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe were at a distinct disadvantage on American soil (for a variety of reasons). It was also considered sheer folly to wager on foreign runners trying the dirt for the first time. And remember when the ideal Sprint candidate was one who had routed in top company previously (a la Precisionist)? Of course, each new rule is ultimately followed by an exception… and another new rule.

The truth is, there is no magical formula for any single race. Prep races are made more or less significant based solely on the level of competition they attract, not by the purse they offer, the history they claim, or even the grade they hold. After all, both the True Bend Handicap and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint are Grade I affairs, but no one confuses the former with the latter. Furthermore, I remember some renewals of the historic Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in the mid-80’s that were simply horrendous!

Ideally, preparation for any race should be tailored to the horse in question. Medaglia d’Oro typically ran best after layoffs, so despite the fact that only two Classic winners won after being away from the races for more than seven weeks, trainer Bobby Frankel twice tried the son of El Prado off of longer breaks. The fact that Medaglia d’Oro didn’t win either of those attempts probably had less to do with the time away than with the simple truth that Medaglia d’ Oro was just not at his best going 10 furlongs.

The Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup races, or the Cheltenham Festival are all unique races pitting thoroughbred against thoroughbred. Just like any other race or series of races, the best horse may or may not win, but the result is certainly not preordained based on who raced in what prep or who has which descendant of so-and-so on his/her dam side. Each race must be handicapped in light of the strengths and weaknesses of the competitors entered.

Remember, the basics of handicapping are the same whether you’re analyzing a graded stakes race or a conditioned claimer. Whatever techniques you’ve employed successfully in the past shouldn’t be abandoned just because a gray gelding has never won from the number two post position on overcast odd-numbered days.

Learn to separate fact from fiction and you’ll avoid being separated from your cash.

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