In Review: The Oceanside Stakes

The public is a great pre-race handicapper. It is very skilled at taking the available data (i.e. past performances, visual impressions, word of mouth) and whittling it down to accurate estimation of the probability of winning. Their top choice — the post time favorite — wins more than any other horse. In fact, their probability estimates tend to be spot on down the line — with 2-1’s winning more than 3-1’s and so on. Overall, the crowd says with good confidence that “this is the best horse.”

This obviously doesn’t mean that the public’s choice always wins (the favorite only does that about 1/3 of the time). Randomness, variance, unknowns, and all the things that happen during a race take care of that. But it does mean that the public routinely finds the horse with the best chance of winning. Often, but not always, the public sides with the horse that has ran the fastest speed figure, particularly when done at today’s distance, surface, and class level. That is why situations such as the one that happened during the Oceanside Stakes yesterday during Del Mar are so fascinating.

Screenshot 2015-07-17 17.57.57

In the Oceanside Stakes — a restricted stakes for 3YO turf milers held traditionally on Del Mar Opening Day — the curiosity wasn’t that second choice Soul Driver won over front running turf-debuter Forest Blue. Instead, it was that the public made Papacoolpapacool the heavy 6/5 favorite over Soul Driver at 5/2.

Let’s look at the PP’s:

Screenshot 2015-07-17 16.09.14

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A quick glance shows the speed advantage of Soul Driver, who had run significantly faster than Papacoolpapacool and had done so more recently at today’s distance, surface, and class level. Soul Driver had run a 94 Beyer Speed Figure (BSF) in his last effort, but Papacoolpapacool had only run an 85 BSF in his most recent race and a career best 87 BSF. The public, which can be typically counted on to support such a speed advantage at the windows, did not in this case.

So why did the public not support the horse with the fastest speed in the Oceanside?

While there may have been some slight trepidation in the public’s eyes that Soul Driver would repeat the figure, the odds-setting seems much more about the overrating of Papacoolpapacool. Ultimately, the betting crowd for the Oceanside chose to heavily weight other factors at the expense of speed. The crowd was influenced by his prior stakes success, even though the speed figures were lower. Papacoolpapacool had earned a solid reputation in Southern California prior to today’s race, with some well-earned success on the track throughout the winter and spring. He had won 3 consecutive races and 2 consecutive stakes. In the first stakes win, he beat Soul Driver (prior to Soul Driver’s improvement) head-to-head. In the second stakes, he was dominant, winning by 4 1/4 lengths.  The public was also heavily persuaded by his performance in the G3 Penn Mile. He then shipped east for the Penn Mile, an increasingly attractive destination for top-notch 3YO turfers. He finished a closing 7th and only ran a BSF of 85, but ran with 1 1/4 lengths of winner Force the Pass, who went on to win the Grade I Belmont Derby. Despite the comparatively average BSF for the Penn Mile, he gained a tremendous amount of buzz out of this race, due, in part, to Force the Pass’ huge step forward to win at Belmont. He also had a visually-impressive finish in the Penn Mile. The hype growing behind Papacoolpapacool may have been further reinforced in the public’s eyes when Gary Stevens, who had ridden both, chose Papacoolpapacool. Finally, the public is often over-influenced by positive trainer stats. Papacoolpapacool is trained by arguably the hottest trainer in California in Phil D’Amato, with high ROI stats for almost every relevant category.

All of these factors combined to lead the public to heavily support Papacoolpapacool. It typically takes a good deal of intangible, or secondary, factors to move the crowd away from the horse with a significant speed figure advantage and the Oceanside Stakes was no exception.



Thaler and Ziemba on Efficient Betting Markets & Favorite/Longshot Bias

I’ve read it before (around 2005), but not since being exposed to Thaler’s other excellent work in behavioral economics a few years back. Ziemba (Dr. Z) is, of course, a legend for his work on arbitrage in place and show pools. I’ve always believed that betting markets are mostly efficient (especially regarding public information), but that certain public cognitive bias can be exploited to find long-term value. This article explores this area.

After re-reading it again, it’s still a very worthwhile read, and a solid introduction to the field. It’s chock full of rigorous examination of much of the “folklore” (the authors’ word) of the racetrack. It’s especially useful for conclusions regarding the public’s typically sharp handicapping, finding that “the racetrack betting market is surprisingly efficient,” which cuts at most of the common claims of the mainstream handicapping literature. It does however find inefficiencies (at least at the time), especially with the well-documented “Favorite/Longshot Bias,” which generally finds pricing errors at the very top (for example, 3/5 or less) and very bottom of the odds (for example, 20/1+). In my favorite part, the authors lay out the potential reasons for the bias:

Screenshot 2014-10-02 11.44.11

Indeed, just like with other decisions, bettors are motivated by a mix of both rational and irrational motivations. I especially like the serious consideration given to the process of betting and particularly, the added utility derived, especially from longshot betting. The short time horizons of most bettors also tend to influence irrational behavior, which also explains the increased severity of the favorite/longshot bias toward the end of racing cards. The goal of the sharper bettor is to find and exploit the irrational crowd decisions, while maintaining their own rationality.

Click here for full article

Image: Rachel Kramer, 2012.

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.

All Day Racing Talks, Episode #1: Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing

In the first episode, I discuss Ainslie’s classic text (published 1968, revised 1988) with an eye towards its relevance for the contemporary handicapper. I sift through the still-relevant material to find important detailed insights into trainer intent, betting personality, darkening form, incentives, spotting improving condition in running lines, legitimate favorites, reliable geldings, tote-board watching (e.g. “the hold steady”), the unpredictability of the game, and more.

51 minutes.




Making a few changes to the payment system to make it easier. This episode (and several new ones) will be available soon!

Image: Johndoe40, “Hollywood Park.” Copyright 2008.

All Day Racing Talks: A Premium Audio Series

I am please to announce the debut of All Day Racing Talks, a premium audio series on the great works of handicapping.

Like in my college courses, I strive to make the material interesting, relevant, and, importantly, clear. I routinely received excellent evaluations from students for my classes, and I am always thrilled to discuss my favorite subjects, the art and science of handicapping and horse racing.

For the first series, I will be talking about a particular author’s work in each episode. Importantly, there is no expectation that you have read the authors or books that I’m discussing. I try to save you time and provide you with insight by teaching the relevant parts of the books, with special attention to contrarian strategies that still pay well today. Much like in my college classroom, I also add further insight throughout the talks. And, much like an advanced course, the talks work together as a whole, exploring key themes in handicapping.

Additionally, for those who have already read the classics, these talks can also be refreshers of a book’s content and author’s approach. I routinely go back to these works yearly — especially when I fall into bad patterns — and these should easily serve this purpose.

If you’ve enjoyed my work at All Day Racing — and especially the Podcast — then I encourage you to explore these talks. The first premium talk is on Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Handicapping and is available for purchase here. Future talks in this series will cover:

  • Andrew Beyer, Picking WinnersThe Winning Horseplayer
  • James Quinn, The Handicapper’s Condition Book & The Complete Handicapper
  • Tom Brohamer, Modern Pace Handicapping
  • Barry Meadow, Money Secrets at the Racetrack
  • Mark Cramer, Value Handicapping & Thoroughbred Cycles
  • Steven Crist, Exotic Betting

And many more!

Image: Ilmicrofono Oggiono, “professional-retro-microphone–dj-headphones.”  Copyright 2014. 

Handicapping Question: Angles — 3 Good & 1 Bad

[As part of the mission of this site to further smart discussion about handicapping, I’ll be asking experienced handicappers to share their wisdom. This week, I asked Gregory Edwards for three handicapping angles that work and for one handicapping angle that doesn’t work. As usual, he really understands the class nuances of smaller tracks.  SA]

Three Handicapping Angles that Work:

  1. A claiming horse winning relatively easily (1 length plus.) while setting a speed figure in range with today’s move up in class. What’s easily? Best way to tell is to be flexible and watch the race!  This is most frequently encountered at smaller circuits where knowing claiming brackets is a must. Often overlooked as being outmatched, this type of horse will be frequently be in good form and move up within his/her claiming bracket effectively and at a price. An example would be a move from 7500N2L to 7500N3L.
  2. The second place finisher first out in maiden special weight running for a leading barn and well-bred. This horse tends to go off at short price, but can be a great horse to use as a “key” vertically and horizontally. Conversely, horses in cold or average barns are great bet against when they go off with heavy favoritism. When these types pop up, its time to find a price elsewhere.
  3. My last one requires a very fine eye, but when this occurs it cashes handsomely. The angle is a high-priced claiming horse entered in N2X allowance company. The caveat? The race must be devoid of any impressive maiden 3-year-old or 4-year-old winners. The claiming horses are frequently left bare on the board, but have been racing against top claimers on the grounds. This angle is especially amplified in the first quarter of the year when these races are composed of stalled 4 year olds.

One Handicapping Angle that’s False:

  1. Bet against maiden 3-year olds/4-year-olds facing winners for the first time. This angle is atrocious in my book. Any lightly raced maiden winner that wins impressively is a huge contender first out in n1x company. These races are often filled with horses stuck at level. A well-meant lightly raced horse can devour this level and often the next. Of course, pace scenarios must always be considered.

Image: Dennis Forgione, “Rounding the bend.” Copyright 2014.

Podcast #4: Ellis Starr

I had a great conversation with Ellis Starr, National Racing Analyst for Equibase. He can be found on Twitter @ubercapper. If you’re not following him, you should!

We talked about many things related to handicapping. Highlights include:

  • Being involved in the very early days of the internet
  • Art v. Science of Handicapping
  • Changes in the Game
  • Record-keeping
  • Value
  • Confidence v. Arrogance
  • Emotional side of the game
  • Run-outs
  • Trusting yourself
  • Lifetime learning
  • Random Events
  • Revisiting past races
  • Wagering as a science
  • Handicapping by elimination
  • Uncertainty
  • Bell Curve of decision theory
  • Representative races
  • Multi-race strategies

Click here for the podcast. 

Limiting Choices the Costco Way: A (brief) defense of finding races with slow horses

As much as I love having choices, I’m also quite a big fan of limiting choices. Ever shop at Costco, the warehouse giant?  People love shopping at Costco, which has been a very innovative retailer.  In stocking items in their warehouses, Costco will often limit the choices that a consumer has to make. While they do carry a huge overall selection of products, they often only have one or two choice of a certain type of product, say salad dressing or ketchup. Compare this selection with the local supermarket, where you might have one-hundred twenty different varieties of dressing and at least ten different types of Ketchup/Catsup. When presented with that many choices, it’s really hard to meaningfully differentiate between options (and why you often may choose something based solely on color/design or history.)  But, when there are less options, it actually leads to easier (and often better) decisions. It also can help with “buyer’s remorse,” or what we call “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve” in horse racing. Less choices can mean less opportunity for regret and more confidence in future decisions.

In contrast to the Costco approach, too much choice can lead to indecision and poor decisions as an individual tries to weigh too many pieces of information. This is a phenomenon that horseplayers are faced with daily. When faced with even a moderately large field, there is an overabundance of information and tons of theoretical possibilities of what could happen. While it may seem inviting to analyze every horse and map out a zillion possibilities, doing so for an entire field is neither productive nor particularly accurate. Often-times, there is no way to accurately answer these questions before a race and the limits of both cognition and prediction are too restrictive to yield useful results.

Not all full fields are created the same. 

In contrast, it is far easier to consider the possibilities of a reduced number of contenders. When you can find a full field that has several horses that have “no chance,”* this enables you to reduce the choices in a race. It’s like Costco took over your past performances, and the salad-dressing display has been reduced to a manageable amount. I find that this approach works well — and helps to prevent “decision fatigue”, especially when playing a long day. In addition, I’d much rather quickly toss a horse that doesn’t figure than convince myself of the importance of a non-vital factor. Of course, tossing horses that actually are contenders is foolhardy, and you need to develop a quick and careful eye at contender selection and, importantly, race selection. Just like Costco has to present you with reasonable salad dressing choices, it is essential to do the same with contenders.

Importantly, I’ve found that elimination approaches tend to be more successful at the lower-level of the claiming ranks, especially maidens. Not all full fields are created the same. You can also often find ample non-contenders in the starter allowance levels. In addition, also find many non-contenders in state-bred races, including at the star summer meets, in races that have big fields. At the same time, you need to be particular careful in tossing horses at the marquee summer meets, as well as on racing’s biggest days. Other than some Finger Lakes/California fair shippers, it is generally hard to outright cut many horses, even with tough standards of inclusion.  In these deep races, you can isolate the best/better horses on paper, but you still can’t absolutely “throw out” the others.

*means “some small chance.”

Image: Nicholas Eckhart, “Costco in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.” Copyright 2013.


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.