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Track Tracts

Off Track Predictors
by Gordon Pine

When you�re handicapping a race, what factors do you look at? Here�s the same old tune that I keep on singing: different factors are important in different situations. Well, of course that�s true, but then you have another question: how do you define the "different situations?" I once, in my spare time, created a "correlation matrix" which tested how differently a group of predictors worked in distinct situations, like male races vs. female races, claiming vs. non-claiming races, routes vs. sprints, 2YOs vs. 3YOs vs. 3+Up races, etc. I found that, given that the particular track being played is the most important distinction, the next most significant differentiation is track condition. It�s a more meaningful distinction than sprint vs. route or stakes race vs. claiming race. It makes a big difference what the track condition is in the race you�re handicapping because different predictors work under each track condition. Don�t treat an off track like a fast track, or even a sloppy track like a good track because they�re not the same.

"Track condition... [is] a more meaningful distinction than sprint vs. route or stakes race vs. claiming race."

Sloppy Tracks: When a surface is "sloppy," it generally means that it is covered with water in places, but the base is hard. Usually this happens early on during a rainstorm, when the track maintenance crew had some forewarning of the rain and was able to seal the surface beforehand. In a study I did of a group of handicapping predictors using more than two years of races, the predictor that most often outperformed its odds (had an A/E of 1.20 or more) on sloppy surfaces was trainer/jockey combination. A strong trainer/jockey combo seems to have an edge in the slop. Maybe the positive trainer intention that a good trainer/jockey combo implies is a plus in the slop because it means they have a game plan for these specific conditions.

Muddy Tracks: A "muddy" track is one in which the rain has soaked down into the base below the upper cushion � in other words, it�s a bog. They used to use the term "heavy" to describe the more extreme surfaces like this, but that label seems to be out of favor nowadays. The conventional wisdom is that early-speed horses have the advantage in the mud � they get out in front and discourage latecomers by kicking up a storm of mud in their faces. The predictor that most often outperformed on muddy surfaces was not really early speed, though. It was the ability to kick it in during the second fraction of the race. Not far behind was a predictor involving recent trainer win percentage: a trainer with a hot recent hand is a good bet in the mud. It could be that certain trainers thrive in the mud, and tend to win in streaks during a period of off tracks.

Good Tracks: The "good" classification usually depicts a track surface that is drying out after a rain, going from muddy to slow to good, and finally back to fast. It can also mean a track that is under a light rain and is no longer fast, but is not yet sloppy. It�s generally a transitional track condition. Finally, early speed comes into play: the predictors that most often outperformed their odds on good surfaces involved the ability to be in front at the first or second call of the race. On a good surface, it�s important to get out in front of the competition. Now, this was not the result I expected � I thought that good tracks would tend to be tiring and inhospitable to frontrunners. It could be that the amount of clingy mud being thrown up into the faces of non-frontrunners on good surfaces really does overwhelm all other considerations. These are the conditions where a jockey can go out with five-plus sets of goggles, pulling them off one after another as they get dirty, and still end up not being able to see past his nose in the stretch.

Wet-Fast Tracks: "Wet-Fast" can indicate a track with a light sprinkling of moisture on its surface, or a surface that has been firmly sealed by the track maintenance crew and has some moisture on top, but not enough to merit the "sloppy" tag. I had a smaller sample of tracks with the wet-fast condition, but the leading predictor was again, like sloppy tracks, the good trainer/jockey combinations.

All these conclusions are generalizations based on all available tracks. But as I've said before, each meet is its own little universe. These findings may be helpful, but it�s most important to know how your particular track�s off-surfaces affect the running of races. (Off-track breeding may also be important, but it was outside the scope of my study.) During a period of off-tracks, it�s important to keep an eye out for developing post position and track pace biases. Also look for trainers and trainer/jockey combos who seem to be streaking during the bad weather. On "good" surfaces, favor early speed, and on muddy surfaces, favor pressers who can apply pressure coming around the far turn. Bottom line: when faced with an off track, don�t just handicap as usual, because the horses won�t come in as usual. NC

Copyright �2001 NetCapper Inc. All rights reserved.

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