There is nothing in horse racing quite as exciting for a speed-figure maker as getting to work on a race card after watching a top-class performance. Such was my opportunity Sunday when Game On Dude drew away from the field in the Grade 1, $1,000,000 Pacific Classic, winning by over 8 lengths with seeming ease. Horses winning by open lengths often record lifetime-best figures, or very near it. He was winning for the sixth consecutive time since a loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and had recorded TimeformUS speed figures of 133, 132, and 131 during that span.
Kettle Corn has been in top form lately. He ran second by a length to Game On Dude in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup in early July. Later in the month, he scored a victory in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. This race was run over the same Del Mar polytrack surface as the Pacific Classic. In his best three performances out of his last five races, Kettle Corn had been rated 124, 123, and 118 by TimeformUS. Delegation entered the Classic a neck shy of an undefeated record in six outings on Woodbine’s polytrack surface. His last race was a dominating front-running score for which he was assigned a career-best TimeformUS speed figure of 126. Game On Dude was a deserving favorite, but on paper this was no walkover.
A speed-figure maker takes the times recorded for the races and compares them to what he believed the horses would run based on prior history, class of the race, or both. He then determines how fast or slow he believes the track was that day based on this information, and this determination has come to be known by most as the track variant. I use a computer to generate a worksheet for each race card, complete with all calculations done for “raw” figures, those unadjusted by a track variant. From this the variant is calculated, and in turn speed figures are assigned.
I was surprised to see that the Pacific Classic appeared slow in relation to the two other route races on the card. The track appeared several lengths faster for those races. If accepted at face value, the implication is that Game On Dude did not run the exciting race I had anticipated numerically. I was concerned. How could a star of the game demolish the field in a $1,000,000 race and run slower than he has all year? My initial thought was simply to rate the race in isolation from the other two, perhaps due to the 1/4-mile difference in distance. However, I prefer not to do that. I favor making figures based on more than one race if at all possible.
I decided to think it over and began to read some of my favorite internet sites. I saw an interesting post at DerbyTrail.com. A poster with the screen name of “Round Pen” questioned why there was such a big difference between the official time, 2:00.69, and the Trakus time, 1:59.26. I am familiar with Trakus, a company that does timing at many tracks in the United States and in several other countries. Trakus uses proprietary wireless technology to track tags that have been inserted into each horse’s saddlecloth. They provide an array of great information, but for this day I was concerned only with the times. As a test, I plugged the Trakus times into my worksheet and right away the variants lined up perfectly with the other two route races. That was a good start to figuring out which time was correct, but I wanted more evidence.
While some tracks use the Trakus times as the official times, Del Mar does not. Del Mar provides the information on the track website in the form of Trakus “T-Charts.” It is rare when the times aren’t close, and definitely a red flag that something is amiss when the times are far apart. A study of the official Equibase chart and the T-Chart quickly showed the majority of the difference was in the first quarter of a mile. Equibase reported that the timer displayed 24.19 seconds for the first 1/4, while Trakus reported 22.91 seconds. This difference of 1.28 nearly matches the difference in final times: 1.43. Given this information, I decided to focus on that portion of the race.
I downloaded video of both the 2012 Pacific Classic and the 2013 Pacific Classic. Using video-editing software, I was able to time the races from the gate to the finish. Ideally, I would time from the place where the official timing begins after the 45-foot run up, but due to camera angles, that wasn’t possible. Run-up is the distance horses run before the official timing of the race begins. Run-up is a terrible idea, one that is not used anywhere else in the world of horse racing, but that is an argument for another day. I don’t claim the times I give below are exact or official, but they are close enough to show there is a problem.
I moved through the video frame by frame and froze the image of each race at the instant the starting gate was fully opened. I noted the time on the video in 100ths of a second. I then followed the horses until they reached the finish line in each race. Since Del Mar is a one mile oval, in a mile and a quarter race, the finish line is the spot where there is one mile to go, and a quarter mile has been completed. I froze the video again and recorded the times. By deducting the time on the video when the gate fully opened from the time at the finish line, I was able to calculate the time it took to run the first quarter mile in both races. The images with times are below, 2013 on top and 2012 on the bottom.
The 2013 quarter mile was clearly faster than that of 2012. Gate to finish line, the first quarter in 2013 was run in 24.69 seconds, while in 2012 it was run in 25.22 seconds. This doesn’t really prove anything other than the horses ran faster this year. The interesting part is the reported quarter-mile times. Equibase reported the 2013 time after a quarter mile as 24.19. The reported time for 2012 was 23.61. I’m not criticizing Equibase. The company just reports the times from the track timer, and it does have some checks in place to catch erroneous times. But it seemed very unlikely to me that thoroughbreds could cover the 45-foot run-up, from the time the gate was fully open until reaching the official timing beam, in 0.50 (24.69 – 24.19) as it would appear in the 2013 version of the race. Therefore, I went back to the video to see where the horses were 0.50 seconds after my initial screen shot.
Obviously, the above image shows the horses had barely left the gate, let alone run 45 feet to the beam. I think the evidence is overwhelming that the 2013 Pacific Classic time is in error because the timer was tripped early. I don’t know the how or why. Del Mar will have to answer that. But it is clear to me that this error was a big one time-wise, and that it carried over to all the other fractions and the final time. So while the “official” time will be listed as 2:00.69, I think Trakus is most likely correct.
Thoroughbred racing is a sport that is clearly struggling. It is also a sport that I love. There is really no excuse for mistiming a race in 2013. The technology is available and needs to be updated. If this sort of mistake happens in a Grade 1, $1,000,000 race, how often does it happen in a $7,500 claiming race at Mythical Downs?