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Anyone who knows me knows that I love talking jockeys. I’ve waxed philosophical about the brilliance of Bailey, the rail skimming trips of Borel and how underrated Johnny V and Mike Smith are on the turf. The negative to all of this is that it gives readers the false
impression that I handicap jockeys more than trainers when the truth is quite the opposite.
If there are any football fans out there, I would equate the jockey to the best cornerback, the trainer to the quarterback and the horse to everyone else. This means that the horse is the most important, but the trainer is a close second and the jockey is just the icing on the cake. In fact, I believe that horses that get a true trainer upgrade off a claim are some of the best horses to play next time out.
Of course, all of this is just a bunch of talk without some data to back it up right? So, I decided that the best way to illustrate this point would be with some stats. I took all jockeys and trainers with a rating of 80 or higher and called them “good”. I took all
jockeys and trainers with a rating below 80 and called them “bad”. I then compiled the results from several of the tracks that I play over a six-month span and came up with the following:
Now, I didn’t segment the data based on turf, dirt, sprint and route and I know these things will affect the results. However, the point that I am trying to make is that you should always be more of a student of trainers than jockeys. You should use the trainer’s
data on Thoroughbred Analytics to glean insights on which surfaces, distances and tracks each trainer prefers. I am a big proponent of beefing up our trainer analytics because I believe that much in handicapping trainers.
When preparing a horse for a race, there is so much to do and so much to get wrong or right. When riding a horse, you basically need to know how to save ground and what position to put your horse in. Are there jockeys who struggle to figure this all out? absolutely, but the percentage in most jockey colonies is probably around 5%. The amount of trainers who don’t know how to get a horse ready to run is probably around 20%.
A good experiment is to look at horses that have gone through jockey changes and horses that have gone through trainer changes and observe which horses changed more. I have seen horses get claimed by a top trainer and move up two or three classes. I have never seen horses move up two or three classes off of a jockey change-even if it was to Jerry Bailey!
So, does all of this mean that you stop handicapping jockeys? No. It just means that you if you spend two hours in the jockey analytics section of the site, you should have spent 4 hours in the trainer section. You should look at how trainers do off of three-month layoffs,
sixth month layoffs, twelve-month layoffs. You should see what their preferred distances are, their record when moving from a Lasix state to a non-Lasix state. I remember when Drosselmeyer was entered in the Belmont Stakes. I knew that Bill Mott had a huge respect for the classics and didn’t enter a horse just for the hell of it. I didn’t like Drosselmeyer, but decided to put him in a few exactas in the hopes that he would come running late and pick up a paycheck. Of course, he wound up winning which leads to my biggest reason to study trainers- they know their horses. Jockeys may be notoriously bad handicappers, but trainers are impeccably good handicappers. If you see a trainer showing confidence, give the horse a second look.
In the next few weeks, I will talk about some more angles and try to point out examples of how studying trainers has paid off in the past. If you have any comments or care to disagree that handicapping trainers is worth the effort, by all means send a comment through TA Support. Last week we received a great comment about Boom Towner and how Diane Nelson may be underrated if anything.
The thing that I love most about Boom Towner is that if you’re a New York racing
fan you know him, if you’re from anywhere else you probably think his story is made up. He started his career at Rockingham Racetrack, the type of track where jockeys and trainers drive used pickups to get to work and a losing streak means having to decide between putting gas in your truck or food on your table. He quickly proved that he was too fast for the local horses and was on his way to Aqueduct to race on the NYRA circuit.
My grandmother, who used to take me to the track, always gave me one piece of
advice “do not bet on anything Diane Nelson rides, she has stonehands!” I had no idea what my grandmother was talking about, but I tried my best to follow her advice. I don’t remember much, but I do remember seeing Boom Towner make his Aqueduct debut and passing up on him because Nelson was riding. As Boom Towner quickly mowed the field down, I realized that I had made a mistake and that maybe my grandmother wasn’t right about everything. Of course, since I was seven, I still needed her to place the actual bets for me, so I would have to wait to cash in on this mystery horse from Rockingham. Two more races went by and nothing changed, Boom Towner won without me cashing in. My
grandmother could see that I was upset and not even delicious Aqueduct racetrack pizza could make me happy- I was missing out.
I believe he wound up running a few weeks later and I was determined to place a win bet on him. By this time he wasn’t a secret and his odds were much lower. I was disappointed that I hadn’t got on the bandwagon sooner, but rules were rules and betting Diane Nelson was against the rules. I finally got to put a win bet on him but he had already won three times in a row, could he make it four? I don’t remember the details of the race, but I remember seeing him cross the wire first with Diane Nelson sitting in the irons like a statue and old men in the stands applauding.
If you ask me details about any of the major stakes races or the horses who won that year, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, but I remember Boom Towner pricking his ears back and running his foes down. With all of the medications, poor diets and poor bloodlines horses don’t start as much as they used to and that worries me. The racing industry needs kids to fall in love with the sport, and kids don’t fall in love with the Bernardinis of the world; they fall in love with the Boom Towners.
In 1990 a man named Carl Nafzger captured everyone’s heart when his little horse
Unbridled stormed to the front of the pack to win the Kentucky Derby. He helped
a little old lady get capture the holy grail of racing and cemented his place
as a legend. Nafzger bucked the trend of big name trainers having overinflated
barns-he kept things small. In his heyday, Carl Nafzger averaged approximately
700 starts every 12 months. To put this in perspective, Steve Asmussen has had
1,507 starts over the last twelve months.
In a day and age where horses run only once every six weeks, each horse in a
trainer’s barn is good for about 8.5 starts a year. If you keep eighty horses
in your barn, you should make 700 starts per year. Though it depends on the individual, most trainers can usually provide hands-on attention to about fifty horses, after
that they must hire assistants to do the bulk of the monitoring and day-to-day decision-making.
So, what’s the problem with this?
The problem is that the head trainer has the requisite knowledge to keep the horses that he sees in peak condition, but only if he sees them face-to-face. If a horse seems
slightly off, it is up to the assistant trainer to say something, but what
assistant trainer has the gall to go up to a living legend and say “should we
really be breezing this horse 6 furlongs today?” When you’re an assistant
trainer and your paycheck depends on diplomacy, there is little incentive to
exercise sound judgment. So, we get horses who breeze 6 furlongs when they
should have just walked the shedrow. We get horses who don’t need a certain
medication being prescribed it anyway. We have horses who are stabled on track
when they’re demeanor suggests that they should be stabled in much more quaint
surroundings. Basically, we automate one of the few jobs that can never be
automated- the thoroughbred racehorse trainer.
To illustrate this point, lets compare two great trainers with completely different approaches- Steve Asmussen and Chad Brown. From the period of November 16th to November 29th, Asmussen has started horses at seven different tracks. Over
the same period of time, Chad Brown has started horses at two different tracks.
Last weekend, Asmussen saddled 32 horses at 5 different tracks, but saddled is
used loosely here, becauses unless Asmussen has developed the ability to
teleport there is no way he could have saddled all of those horses himself,
however it is very plausible that Brown saddled all but two of his horses that
weekend since he raced only at Aqueduct save for the two horses he raced at
It is also important to note that though Steve Asmussen has a very good record
keeping horses safe and sound, Chad Brown’s record is impeccable. According to
the NY State governments report on injuries and fatalities, Brown has only had
four breakdowns in the state of New York over the last four years while
Asmussen has also had four. At first glance this seems okay until you realize
that Brown has a much larger presence in the empire state than does Asmussen.
Over the past two years, Brown has made 666 starts in the empire state compared
to 413 for Asmussen. The numbers show that although Asmussen is doing a good
job of keeping his horses sound, Chad Brown is doing a phenomenal job.
Though I know most owners will not read this, for the few that will, I challenge you
to ask a big name trainer like Asmussen or Pletcher when was the last time he
saw one of his claiming horses breeze in person, then ask Chad Brown the same
question; the answer will tell you all you need to know.
Last week I decided to eliminate most of the Thoroughbred Analytics proprietary metrics and focus solely on Speed and Lengths Gained. The experiment showed mixed results, but upon further analysis gave me reason to believe that I’m on to something.
I was under the belief that if the pace scenario seemed like it was going to be fast weigh the lengths gained metric more, if the pace scenario seemed like it was going to be slow weigh the speed metric more-this was absolutely wrong, but speed and lengths gained are crucial.
I handicapped 4 races at Hollywood Park’s all-weather track, 4 races at Aqueduct (3 turf, 1 dirt) and then on my own time 4 races at Gulfstream (2 turf, 2 dirt) The speed and lengths gained metric when combined offered me absolutely no help on the dirt- I failed miserably in all three races, it was embarrassing. Of course, just like how science stumbled upon penicillin and Viagra, I stumbled upon a new handicapping technique.
I bombed on all three dirt races and had mixed results on the all weather surface, but then there was turf. In 5 turf races the winner was accurately predicted 4 out of five times when weighing speed, post-position and lengths gained while weighing lengths gained the most. In four of the five races, the winner scored the highest or second highest in lengths gained!
What makes this all the more interesting is that the races that were studied all unfolded very differently with very different pace scenarios, but 4 out of five times the winner of the lengths gained metric was there at the end. It was also interesting to note that neither speed nor lengths gained seemed to predict dirt races very well, I found that traditional handicapping would’ve served me better.
So, what does this all mean?
It seems like my speed/lengths gained theory isn’t working well on dirt so there is no reason to pursue it further, but I want to see if the success I had on turf was a fluke or not. The problem is all the turf races were at a mile and a sixteenth, so it may be the turf or it may be the distance, who knows?
This weekend I am going to handicap only turf races at two different tracks at two different at a multitude of distances. If I am on to something, and that’s a big if, then this may be the biggest handicapping discovery of the decade. So, here’s the gameplan: I am going to use speed, and lengths gained while incorporating post positions as well. I’ll weigh lengths gained slightly more than speed regardless of the pace scenario. I would also like to incorporate horses passed as this may help as well. It seems that all of these turf races can be boiled down to a sprint from the three-eighths pole to the wire in spite of the preconceived notions of dirt handicapping more simplistic than turf handicapping.
I am going to recap each race on the blog next week. I’ll reveal the picks beforehand just so everyone knows that they are legit. I’ll reveal the formula I used to come up with them in detail in next weeks blog. Wish me luck!
Picks for Churchill Downs on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013
A lot of times statistical data just confirms hunches that you already had. Well one hunch I have is that a horse race comes down to basically two metrics: speed and lengths gained; but which one is more important than the other depends on how the race unfolds. There are many ways to categorize a race, but in the interest of time and my own sanity I’ll break it down like this: races built for speed-horses, races for stalkers, races for deep stalkers and races for closers. All four of these races come down to speed and lengths gained, but the importance of these two metrics in relation to one another is what differs from race to race.
Speed: A race that caters to speed-horses could be one where the lone speed will dictate the race, or it could be one where the speed-bias on the track is so unbelievably bad that no matter how fast they go early on in the race, the speed will carry. The scenario under which the speed-horse dominates doesn’t matter, all that matters is if you think this race will play kindly to speed, you should factor each horse’s speed rating more than their lengths gained rating. I’m currently using a 70:30 ratio of speed to lengths gained. I will tell you how well it works next week in part two of this blog.
Stalker: Races that play well to stalkers are races where the speed is getting pushed just enough to the point where he’s getting tired but a speed-duel hasn’t developed. Usually if I see three horses that want but don’t need the lead, I think to myself this is a stalkers race. Of course, the fractional times are irrelevant because what is fast for one group of horses will be slow for another group. I’m currently using a 60:40 ratio for this type of race.
The next two styles are self-explanatory at this point so I’ll just say that the deep stalker ratio is 50:50 speed to lengths gained and the deep closer is 40:60 speed to lengths gained.
Of course, there are pitfalls to all of this. The biggest one is that I am not including jockeys and trainers. The reason for this is the Breeder’s Cup. Jockeys run hot and cold and there is no metric that can account for this. Mike was worth a 160 on both days of the Breeder’s Cup, but who could’ve predicted he was capable of that? It’s more or less the same with trainers, Baffert is a future hall of famer but there is something with him and the BC Classic that defies logic therefore cannot be accounted for. As always, use your discretion when it comes to jockeys and trainers. If it seems like a jockey is on a hot streak, take that into consideration.
As most people on the backstretch will tell you, a horses workout time is less relevant compared to how they did the workout. Also, as the speed of the track changes from day to day the results are distorted even more. For example, Paynter took to the track and turned in 5 furlongs in 1:00 and three, then two days later Declaration of War turns in 5 furlongs in 1:01. So, who had the better workout? The answer is whoever got more out of it, which is not always easy to discern from just going by the times.
Why I’m excited to test this out:
At risk of sounding biased, the speed rating and lengths gained rating are the two most accurate measures of a horse’s performance I have ever seen. Do I think that there will ever be a day when you can just turn off your brain, look at raw numbers and correctly predict a horse race? Absolutely not, however these two numbers are as close as one will ever get because they are accurate measurements of the two factors that make a horse successful. Just like how a boxing match is composed of a million different factors but is mainly hitting and blocking, a horse race is composed of a million different factors but is mainly speed and gaining lengths on your opponents. The horse that can do these two things successfully is the winner.
So, here’s what I am going to do.
I’m going to handicap two cards at two different tracks using this system. I have decided to pick two tracks on opposite ends of the country so as to not be regionally biased. I will handicap Hollywood Park on Saturday and Aqueduct on Sunday. In the interest of transparency, I will post my selections by Saturday morning. I will not handicap every single race simply because that is not my handicapping style. I will handicap four races from each track and you can follow along with my picks from home if you like.
If you’re up for some friendly trash talk you can find me on Twitter @TAnalytic
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