By Ray Wallin
Are you part of the 95% of people reading this article that do not know that today is World Statistics Day?
I made that up, but it sounded good, didn’t it?
Mark Twain once quipped “There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” You can get the first two from politicians and our good friend Rail Guy. The last one you can get anywhere. You can watch the news and hear about the percentage of kids in a school system that are underperforming and the recent trends for employment and the stock market.
At my day job I live and die by numbers, probabilities, and percentages. I need to assess metrics to assess risk on projects, which is like handicapping. I need to make the best decision for my company and clients based upon the information at hand. I have to be right more times than I am wrong and understand that even if I make the right decision, I may get the undesired outcome.
My introduction to using percentages in my handicapping came when I spent my teenage summers on the Grandstand apron of Monmouth Park with my late Uncle Dutch. He had a black and white marble composition pad that he never let go of. While he liked to keep trip notes in his pad, he also tracked jockey and trainer statistics. He knew which trainers did well with specific owners or jockeys. He knew who could win with a shipper or a horse stepping up in class. This notebook was his edge over the betting public.
Fast forward to today and most of those statistics are already in your past performances. Jockey and trainer combinations are listed along with statistics relevant to the trainer for the horse and the conditions of today’s race. You can find win percentages by class, class moves, length of layoff, and an endless number of other factors. Even the track handicappers spew numbers during their analysis of a race, commenting that “Smith hits 30% with first of the claim horses and 25% with beaten favorites.”
While these statistics are helpful in showing a trainer’s strengths and weaknesses, should we take them with a grain of salt?
You should. There are several reasons you should question the validity of the statistics that you didn’t compile yourself.
You are looking at a race at Monmouth Park. You notice a horse that is shipping in from Penn National for what appears to be a high percentage trainer. He is winning at least 25% of his starts in every category listed. This seems like the perfect spot for his horse today, doesn’t it?
Are these percentages representative of how this trainer fares at only Monmouth Park of all the tracks he races at? Does he perform better at his home track of Penn National and tank it at every other track?
It pays to know if the results are based on their cumulative efforts or meet specific.
Our friend Rail Guy loves to talk our ear off in the paddock. Every race he thinks he is doing everyone a favor by spouting off the stats out of the past performances. “Ya know da trainer of da five hoss hits 50% second off da layoff, dat is pretty much a sure thing.”
While people’s ears will perk up when they hear a trainer move that hits half the time and their eyes will be drawn to it in the past performance, you need to see how many horses that was based upon. If it is 50% of 20 horses starting second off the layoff, you should probably consider that it isn’t luck. This trainer is placing horses in the right spot after coming off the shelf. If the trainer shows four starters, it could as easily be 0% or 100%.
Before you fixate on the high percentage plays, take note of how many horses make up that statistic.
Coupled with the question of sample size is the quality of horse the trainer is turning out. A trainer may have an abysmal record with maiden special weight horses since a certain owner may demand that his beloved horse, Seatriscuit, is going to be the greatest horse to ever hit the track and is scared to lose him in a maiden claimer. The trainer may know better but honors the wishes of the person who is paying the bills.
It would be great to know how the trainer performs against the morning line. If the trainer is hitting 50% of his winners from horses that are 3-1 (25% probability of winning) then he is over performing. If he is hitting 50% with horses that are 1-5 (83% chance of winning) then he is under performing.
Knowing how a trainer performs for certain owners is helpful as well, if there is a large enough sample of horses to compare to.
These are the kind of stats that some savvy handicappers keep on a meet specific basis that will never appear in the past performances or in most trainer percentage products on the market.
Back to our good friend Rail Guy as he looks at a field of 2-year-old first time starters at Saratoga on the simulcast monitor. After reading through the trainer’s percentages, he notes that the sire Twobuckteeth hits with 20% of his first time runners. That may sound impressive, but again consider that Twobuckteeth’s stud fee is $1,500 and his progeny may have done their best debuts at Finger Lakes or Emerald Downs. Some were routes, others were sprints, and do you know what surfaces they won on?
Not exactly the venue where you want to back the gelded son of that old cart horse.
Looking at jockeys is no different. I remember the days when David Cora would ride on the New Jersey circuit. He would have a ton of mounts, but you could count his winners on one hand and not use all your fingers. When he moved his tack to Penn National in the early 2000’s he started to win at a 20% clip. That luck did not translate back to when he would show up in New Jersey again.
Like trainers, consider the sample sizes and spots where sires and jockeys are being placed.
As handicappers we have to base a lot of our wagering decisions on the numbers that are before us in print before we ever see the horse in the flesh. Knowing when to question the stats and figures and how to take them with a grain of salt will prevent you from making rash decisions on data that is not always completely relevant to the circumstances of the race today. By being smart about how you perceive this information you will make great strides in your quest to make your living by playing the races.
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.