The Debate Between Figures and Flesh-and-Blood

The Debate Between Figures and Flesh-and-Blood

by Steve Collison

How much do you know about horses as they pertain to handicapping? I'm not talking about as they appear in the Daily Racing Form or on a computer screen but as individual animals with different strengths and weaknesses which directly influence your perceptions of racing. If you mention a new pace handicapping software program, the average handicapper becomes interested. Mention something about confirmation and gait affecting a horse's chances of getting a distance and suddenly the porch lights begin to flicker. It's not an exaggeration to state that 95 percent of everyone reading this article knows nothing at all about horses. Since this game is based entirely on horses, this begs another question: Doesn't that seem slightly odd?

Considering the amount of time, commitment, and financial resources most fans put into handicapping, it would seem natural that they would also want to learn something about horses, yet there's a mental block concerning this. While the average fan feels comfortable reading and computing, they feel strangely inadequate talking about flesh-and-blood horses. This inadequacy has been reinforced by the professors and Harvard grads in Thoroughbred handicapping who have made careers of asserting that the horse itself is irrelevant to the handicapping process. For them, it may be irrelevant, but how many of you are swimming in the excesses of their success?

If you're a serious handicapper who truly wants to win in the future, do yourself a favor before dismissing this article by considering the following: Over this past 20 years, Thoroughbred racing has been inundated with mathematical solutions professing to solve the handicapping puzzle. Despite these sophisticated advances, favorites are still winning at a rate of roughly 33 percent, basically the same rate as 70 years ago. Since the betting public is exposed to most of this advanced handicapping information, (including Beyer Speed Figures since 1992) shouldn't the winning percentage of public favorites be edging upward?

The truth is that a numerical approach to handicapping Thoroughbreds only works up to a point. The horses have their own agenda when running and this agenda coincides only periodically with what we believe to be fact. This causes many distortions which math can't explain. If you believe that the numbers will someday overcome nature, then I've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in.

To illustrate this point, take the age old issue of class. (My God, now the man's going to talk about class?!) Due to the intense focus on figures of various degrees, the concept of class has become almost obsolete. Yet, the people who ridicule the notion of Thoroughbred class are the least qualified to do so. The notion of horses possessing something not mathematically precise blurs their focus, so it's dismissed. We'll let the reader decide for themselves if horses possess class. Consider the following quotes:

"When a class horse meets one without class, the latter will stop within a few hundred yards like a car putting on the brakes."

"Speed represents the absolute truths in racing and class is irrelevant."

The first quote is by Preston Burch, a Hall of Fame trainer who spent his life around horses and whose very existence depended upon understanding them. You'll probably recognize the second as originating from Andy Beyer, a man who may have never touched a horse in his long career as a handicapper and racing writer. Of these two, who do you think is more qualified to talk about horses?

While this is not intended to be an article on class, the point needs to be made: Class--defined as a horse's inherent ability or need to exert its domination over others--does exist in varying degrees and plays itself out on the track everyday. Ask 100 horsemen, the men and women who have spent their lives around horses, about the notion of class. To them, the existence of class is a foregone conclusion. Actually, this wouldn't even be an issue if those who believe they know so much watched a group of fillies in a pasture for a single. Placed together in the morning, by dinner, one horse would have established herself as the unquestioned leader with the rest falling in line accordingly. The same one would always bring up the rear.

This equine mindset naturally carries over to the track and influences races, and to believe it doesn't borders on the absurd. Take Thunder Gulch as an example. This tough little horse has class, not due to breeding, but because he thinks he has every right to be in front and will kill to get there. While he continually confounds speed boys who point to his figure and talk about mediocrity, what they don't understand for some reason is that Thunder Gulch is running against the other horses, not the clock. In the Belmont, if Star Standard had run faster, so would Thunder Gulch--up to a point. There comes a time when two or more class (or dominant) horses are racing when speed does indeed become the determining factor and a horse reaches his ability limit. I don't believe we've seen that from Thunder Gulch yet. Coincidentally, this is also how the issue of herd leadership is often decided in the wild.

The running of the 1995 Belmont Stakes is only the tip of the iceberg but with this brief example, you can easily understand how the interpretation of past performance data is distorted over and over again by a lack of horse knowledge.

To overcome this problem, you must accept the fact equine behavioral patterns play an important role in your handicapping. I do this by building profiles on the horses at my track which include notes on their everyday physical appearance but also covers other factors which are much easier to detect.

For instance, take something like a horse bumping another during a race. Bumping is a form of intimidation for horses, similar to a human slapping another in the face. How would you react to that? A horse like Thunder Gulch reacts by running faster, while others wilt. Those who wilt have no class. They've been intimidated out of running and the more you watch them, the more they'll prove that to be the case. They'll be the type of runner who may have superior figures yet often fails as the favorite for no explainable reason.

Additionally, a horse who's been soundly bumped often returns muscle sore. Many horses who have a bad trip in the Kentucky Derby are touted by experts as live plays in the Preakness, and run poorly because they're sore from that very trip. Badger Land and Talking Man are two notable examples.

Another facet of my horse profile reflects where a horse has been forced to race. While most fans believe that a wide trip is detrimental, some horses refuse to run inside. They'll hang or put themselves in neutral and there's absolutely nothing the jockey can do about it, and the race remains a mystery on paper. But the mystery is solved if you note where a horse runs his best races and figure that into your calculations. Suddenly a horse's past performances begin to take on a different perspective and what you felt was so confusing becomes crystal clear. The opposite is also true. Some horses will only run when there's another horse outside them. Go figure.

The examples of individual horses distorting how you view racing are infinite. The old class horse Port Conway Lane refused to run in traffic and if his jockey found himself there, the horse would pull himself up and that would be that. But allow him to run by himself (not on the lead) or with one other horse, and he accounted for over 50 victories. So his profile would obviously include throwing out any race where he got caught up in the pack.

If this is beginning to sound confusing, it isn't. It is simply an aspect of handicapping that most readers are not familiar with. Understanding horses as flesh and blood beings is actually much easier than grasping many handicapping books on the market right now. Even if you don't want to build your own detailed profiles, that won't stop you from learning something about horse behavior patterns. Remember this: In the years to come, the mathematical sphere of handicapping is going to become more and more crowded. The other sphere, where the horses run, is wide open to anyone who decides to understand them.


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