The Pre-Race Appearance Puzzle

Mike Maloney, interviewed in the USA Today not long ago, commented that there are about "10,000 factors" that go into handicapping a race. I think many of us can agree, that's not far off. It is all a part of this great puzzle of handicapping.

Steve Haskin adds some much-needed insight and clarity into the Preakness Stakes telecast where Donna Brothers and Gary Stevens commented on Shackleford's nasty pre-race appearance.
There is no denying that NBC analysts Donna Brothers and Gary Stevens both became concerned by the way Shackleford was sweating and acting up before the Preakness. So the horse wins, still dripping sweat crossing the finish line, and everyone is in an uproar for being misled by the experts.

Well, guess what? Brothers and Stevens are indeed experts and know how to look at a horse as well as anyone. They are getting paid to provide viewers with their observations and that’s all they did.
 Touche. These two "horse folk" added what they knew about horses, namely when they expend energy before a race, they can run worse than they look on paper. It does not mean they are going to lose, they will race worse, or finish 9th by 40, just that it is not an ideal situation before a race. It's one of many factors, and probably tantamount to saying that Shackleford's beyer in the Derby might have been a little light due to path bias, or his number in the Florida Derby might have been a little too high because of the speed bias.

For touche number two in the piece, Haskin mentions Sway Away's appearance (which was totally washed out) and we know how he ran.

At betfair, where sharps from all over watch horses loading and act accordingly, this situation is illustrated each race day. You might see a horse rear at the gate, become agitated, or wash out. What happens is exactly what should happen - the odds adjust. But there is never a move from even money to 3 or 4-1 for such things, it is simply a move from a 50% to 45% or 42% chance. If the horse is a notorious bad actor, sometimes the odds never move. Even Life At Ten only moved from about 4-1 to 5-1 when it looked (in hindsight) like she had zero shot to win.

Geoff Hutson in "Watching Racehorses" did a massive study on myriad factors with pre-race appearance. The result was as advertised - there was a small correlation in finish and appearance. If a horse had two strappers, had neck sweat, bucked, swished a tail, or many other adverse reactions, it did not mean the horse lost, it just meant he did not quite win as much as expected.

One of 10,000 factors.

Brothers and Stevens were simply relaying it to the viewing audience, which is after all, what they are paid to do.


The Dan Patch last night was won by Giddy Up Lucky, the 9-5 chalk. The competitive FFA field at Hoosier drew over $113,000 of wagering, up from last year. The USTA had a targeted superfecta pool last evening which helped.

Big Jim got the job done in the NJ Classic last evening. He dominated the competition en route to a 51 score. I am sold Big Jim is the best of this bunch (from what we've seen so far), but I am not sold he is a solid 48-type pacer quite yet.

The Eiltlopp is this morning! Now I just have to find somewhere to watch it.


Tinky said...

The basic point is correct: just because a horse makes a poor appearance, it doesn't mean that the horse cannot win.

However, there are many nuances which are rarely (if ever) mentioned by the talking heads – including those who purport to be "expert" at judging pre-race appearances.

One such nuance is that high-class horses are far more likely to run well in spite of poor appearances than ordinary runners. This is axiomatic to those who really know what they are looking at, and who gamble on their observations. Unfortunately, though, the likes of Gary Stevens and Donna Brothers have never gambled seriously, and their opinions are limited (at best) as a result.

I haven't read Hutson's book, but if his work can really be distilled to negative pre-race behavior being only marginally meaningful, then I'm afraid he has missed the boat.

Pull the Pocket said...

Hi Tinky,

Geoff's book is good because it uses quite a few data points with dozen of stand-alone factors. He gleans those factors from horse behavior in the academic world and tests them with racehorses. He does not say pre-race behavior is not meaningful, but there are stand alone factors where the ROI movements do not have a huge variance.

If you look at a number of factors grouped together in prerace appearance, those horses can show remarkably poor efforts (like we all know and act on), which he discusses (very often on his blog, linked above). But as with any handicapping factor, it is never a truism, it just reflects a negative or positive impact value, and corresponding difference in ROI.


Tinky said...


I see what you're saying, but the problem is that such a broad approach fails to move the conversation forward. By which I mean that the same could be said of any variable.

So, for example, it is also true that betting blindly on horses with the fastest speed-figures will produce a negative ROI.

The trick, with regards to physical appearance, is to know the individual animal (if possible), and to learn (through experience) to discern between different symptoms.

Taking other variables into account is, of course, crucial, as, for example, it would be dangerous to lay a horse that was likely to gain an uncontested lead no matter how poor the appearance.

My point is that the "impact value", as you call it, has the potential to be very big indeed when the behavior is judged through a finely tuned eye.


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