Rich Halvey’s “The Condition Sign”

[Rich Halvey (@rich_halvey) has been around this game for a long-time — over forty years. This experience really comes through in his writing about racing. Definitely check out his blog for consistent sharp insight. Long before the era of blogs, he authored “The Condition Sign,” one of the few books written about form and, specifically, “how to identify a unique and uncommon longshot form cycle.” Indeed, form can be notoriously difficult to discern on paper, but often offers tremendous value on horses. He discusses the main arguments of the book here. Enjoy! SA.]

The Condition Sign (now sadly out of print) identified horses that show sudden, dramatic, and positive changes in running style sufficient to conclude they are ready to run their best race. Why it happens – maybe the horse fully recovered from a slight injury, maybe a change in feed or medication, maybe he finally got his horseshoes fitting properly – is not as important as accurately recognizing the pattern.

Here is an abbreviated version of The Condition Sign.

  • All horses go through form cycles. Cheaper horses will gain and lose their form very quickly while classier animals will retain their form for longer periods. So, for the most part we are looking forcondition sign horses in cheaper claiming and maiden events where it is easier to spot improving and declining form cycles.
  • The condition sign play is strongest when combined with other factors, including requiring horses to come back within 30 days of their qualifying effort and having the horse return at its best distance (or within a half furlong of it). Because cheap horses do not hold their form as long, recency is critical. In fact, a relatively quick return for these horses is a positive signal.
  • condition sign horse can be excused for one race after running the qualifying race if it is entered at the wrong surface, wrong distance, wrong class, or wrong track condition. This is known as deferred condition.
  • The condition sign is most applicable to early speed types. Speed horses almost always show early foot, but the less in condition they are the sooner they back up, and vice versa – the closer they are to peak form, the longer they hold their speed. This is not to say you can’t have a closing condition sign horse. The same concept holds true – a horse that suddenly closes after not being able to pass anything may also be exhibiting the condition sign.
  • Look for horses that have had success beating horses of equal or greater value in the past. Exercise caution though when looking at class droppers. Horses dropping from a slightly higher class to a more appropriate one may still be backed. But just as the double class jump is a positive move, the double class drop with a horse that seems ready to win is more likely a red flag. The most reliable plays are horses returning at the same class as their condition race.
  • While the finish time is always an important factor, with condition sign horses fast intermediate times are far more important. When betting a speed horse, you need to feel confident it can run a fast fraction and not fold in the stretch. Horses that show early speed in slow fractions in poor fields may not be the condition sign horses we are looking for. Look for horses with superior interior speed.
  • The best races are always going to be where you have an improving condition sign horse being underbet against animals that are either deteriorating or unlikely to improve.

Let’s look at the 6th race at Belmont Park on June 10, 2011. The race was a six furlong affair on the inner turf for state bred maidens. The field, to say the least, was poor. In a nine horse field there were two first-time starters, one horse with five starts and no other horse with less than 10 starts. The crowd volleyed favoritism between the number three, Lucy Stragmore by virtue of having finished third twice and fourth three times in her five starts, the last of which was in a seven furlong race on the yielding turf, and the six horse, Juliann’s Approval, a 14-start maiden that finished second last out in that same seven furlong turf event.

Why it happens . . . is not as important as accurately recognizing the pattern.

Also coming out of that race was the seven, Persky’s Heart. While I have often opined that any maiden with more than 10 starts is a risky proposition, the one exception to that guideline is a maiden that reverses bad form because of some obvious change – a move to a lesser circuit, change in surface, change in distance or change in running style. In her opening six starts on the inner dirt at Aqueduct, Persky’s Heart never finished closer than 12½ lengths. The trainer then put her on the Belmont turf and she showed something she hadn’t showed before – speed and interest in running. This is the sort of dramatic change we are looking for, and it appeared to be a result of moving to the turf. The race on April 30 was obviously not her best distance, but for six furlongs she held the lead in a respectable time for state-bred maidens. Two weeks later she was back on the turf at six furlongs and ran a perfect condition race – early speed and heart in the stretch. She returned eight days later and although the distance was a furlong more and the track yielding (she had previously shown a distaste for the moist going), she was deserving of a condition sign play. The combination of negative factors kept her out of the money (at 44-1) but still made her a prime bet as a deferredcondition sign IF she returned quickly and at the right distance. Look at that race on May 22 closely. She broke on top from the 11 post, held her speed to the six furlong marker, and only lost two lengths in the stretch. Surely this horse was primed for her best effort next out. Sure enough, 19 days later she appeared in the aforementioned state-bred maiden, going off at a juicy 26-1 (the lowest odds of her career) and returning $55.50 to win, triggering an $839 exacta with one of the first time starters, and heading a $5,562 trifecta. You don’t need many of these races every year to stay healthy.

Let’s look at the condition sign angles applicable to the June 10 race:

  • The race for was cheap state-bred maidens, horses that cycle in and out of form.
  • Persky’s Heart had a sudden, dramatic form reversal.
  • Returned in 19 days.
  • Was racing at her best distance, six furlongs.
  • Was totally deferred condition.
  • Was an early speed type in turf sprints.
  • Whereas on the dirt she was faint-hearted, she held her speed well in the stretch in the turf sprints.
  • Was in the exact right class.
  • Had excellent interior times for the class.
  • Was underbet against clearly overbet favorites that were unlikely to improve.

Image: Keith Allison, “Laurel MD Horse Racing.” Copyright 2007.