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.
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:
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.