“The front end looks bad tonight. They are closing. The front end is solid tonight. They are going wire to wire.”
I think we hear the same stuff said every day a race is held, at the same time. In handicapping we often look for things that are not there. I think this is natural. With high rakes and being a tough game to beat, we are programmed to think of the mysterious – we need reasons to explain the game (and losing) to keep us sane.
In thoroughbred racing, with poly surfaces, wet turf, and sandy dirt tracks, weather and track grooming can make a difference. Wind can make a difference. Track drainage can too. All you have to do is look at the “At a Glance” page at Bris to see what statistics different tracks yield. Charles Town Race Course one month might have 60% wire to wire winners in sprints less than 6f, while Turfway Park the same month, with the same weather might have 10% wire to wire winners. In thoroughbred racing, bias is alive and well, and a huge part of the handicapping puzzle.
In harness I am here to share my opinion on track bias. It might surprise you, or it might not. To me it is simple: 99% of the time there is no track bias in modern harness racing.
Harness tracks tend to be stone-dust, very hard and very tight. When it rains the track gets scraped and the surface remains hard and tight. It is never a bog. Also, harness is a speed game. Whether you are at Western Fair on a bull ring, the Meadowlands, or Cal Expo, a speed horse wins a lot of the races. Statistics show this – on most tracks you need to be close to the pace to win with any regularity. When you want to win a harness race, and you have the best horse, go to the top and stay out of traffic. End of story.
Wind and rain and blowing snow or rain can have an affect, and I would have to say this is the only time it is worthwhile to look for a bias. If the wind is blowing 30 mph right into the horses face the one on the lead or horses near it have an advantage. To recognize this we do what we usually do: Look for patterns. If a chalk wins the first wire to wire, and the two hole horse came second, off a 58 half, so what? That is what should happen. If the horse’s who are 1,2,3,4 at the half, finish 1,2,3,4, after a solid pace and there is a bomb or two in that mix, well then it is something to look at. When looking for a bias of any sort, or anything in handicapping we must look for anomalies.
One of the factors to keep in mind with a bias, or perceived bias is the jockey’s or driver’s will believe what the bias is and drive or ride accordingly. Sometimes the trainer instructions are to drive a horse a certain way. We see this at Santa Anita lately. Front end speed, especially in sprints is awful. Now instead of 44 halfs in some sprints we are seeing the jocks strangle mounts and go 46. The human element changes the bias.
In harness this happened on Hambletonian Day. I remember watching the coverage and saw people spoke about a closing bias. Drivers said it, trainers said it. I almost fell out of my chair. What races were these people watching? By the middle of the card drivers were scared to go to the front. In the Hambletonian itself, Donato Hanover got a 58.2 half! 58.2! People we not only scared to tackle him, they were scared of this “bias”.
Tell me, how was there a closing bias on Hambo day? Where was this “tiring track”? Where did they come up with this fantasy? If we hear it said often we tend to believe things. What a colossal error! As handicappers we must be contrarian.
Here are the first few races on Hambo Day at the M last year:
Race 1 Claimer
Half went in 53. Par time for that half is around 54, so that should mean on a fair track closers are favoured. The front end came second, the horse that was second at the top of the lane won.
Race 2 Claimer
Half was 54, about par. The horse that took the lead just past the half, won. Horse that was pocketed came second.
Race 3 Low Condition Race
Half was 54.3. Pocket horse won. Horse on the lead came fifth by 2. He was used hard in a 26 and change second quarter though.
Race 4 Conditioned Race
Half was 54.1; about par. The closer won by a head. The horse who was second was the leader who was parked to the half in a bad trip and just missed. A little easier trip to the lead and he probably would have won.
Race 5 Low Conditioned Race
Half was a scorching 53.3. Par was about 1 second slower. First over horse won. The horse on the lead came 8th by 22. He must have bled or been sick. He would have stopped with a minute half.
After these few races, with fast halfs where all the winners came from not far out of it, or were on the lead or in the pocket, the track bias talk started. It was a joke. Overall on the card, horses that were 1,2,3 at the half did well. It was a fair track. And the track was smoking fast to boot. The fastest race mile paced in all of 2007 was set on Hambo Day – 147.2. Guess what? The horse won from the pocket in a mind-boggling 52 half, where the front could have easily crumpled, or certainly should have if there was a closing bias. So much for the tiring track eh?
Most of the times a bias is just that – it is pure fantasy. We must only look at those few times we see a weird track to explain something changing. Look for the inexplicable, and make sure your thought is validated by other races first. It does not happen often. We must learn to stop looking for something that is not there. It will make us better handicappers.