On Context: Interpreting the PP’s

I fell in love with racing for many reasons, but none greater than a love of the data, specifically the past performances. As a kid, I’d always read the box scores in the sports section with breakfast. I’d recreate last night’s games (or the late games from the previous night) in my head over my frosted flakes. I love taking the data and trying to understand not only what’s on the surface, but what fascinating stories are hidden below the data.

With horse racing, the data tells several stories. In particular, the past performances telling the histories of the horses. There’s tons of data available — typically, the running lines of the last 10 races with speed figures and a race/class level description. Some more advanced past performances add pace, pedigree, and trainer statistics.

Interpreting the past performances entails understanding a horse’s history to predict what that horse will likely do today. Indeed, that’s the essence of handicapping. In interpreting the PP’s, there are many different stories. The first story is simply what happened in a race. It recounts the basic facts of what happened. An example of this is the running line, which tells how far behind/ahead a horse was at certain points in a race. A similar story is also told by speed and pace figures, which add context for track condition/speed. This permits taking a race and comparing it to other races.

Interpreting the past performances entails understanding a horse’s history to predict what that horse will likely do today. Indeed, that’s the essence of handicapping.

But another story is also told by the past performances, and one that requires more than surface analysis to see. This story is crafted by looking deeper into the circumstances surrounding a particular race and understanding why that race may or may not be predictive for today’s race. Importantly, in doing so, this type of analysis raises more questions than answers, but ultimately brings about a relatively accurate assessment of the riskiness of a contender. In particular, relevant data from other contexts, such as trainer intent or class shifts, often informs understanding the previous races and the reasoning behind today’s entry.

Because they are difficult to see, these second stories — the contextual ones that require analysis — are the ones that offer opportunities for profit at the racetrack. In short, context matters, especially when betting against the public.

Image: Lauren Turner, Uttoxeter Races_026. Copyright 2011.