Rebel Rebel, How Could They Know?

Rebel Stakes Speed Figure Dilemma

It is never easy to make speed figures when the track is not fast.  It gets even harder to do when rain continues to fall throughout a racecard.   Tracks take on moisture, and the amount of moisture in the track changes throughout the card.  The track superintendent tries to keep the track safe for the contestants and in the best possible shape for the upcoming races.  Of course, this is the right thing to do.  It is also a nightmare for speed-figure makers.  Track speed can and does change during the course of the day.  Individual races often need to be rated on their own merits (“cut loose” from the other races run that day) because lumping off-track races together requires making assumptions that can be a recipe for bad figures. In other words, if the evidence from the horses and the timer is that the track is changing speed, and we know that rain and track maintenance had ample opportunity to shuffle the deck, making assumptions about track speed remaining constant is something we will not do.

The weather on Saturday at Oaklawn Park was ominous.  The forecast was for showers during the card. Aware of the potential for bad weather, we had an associate at Oaklawn monitor and document the weather, racetrack, and track maintenance for us.  We always want to have as much information as possible when making speed figures.

Unfortunately, the weathermen nailed it and rain began to fall between the sixth and seventh races.  The seventh race was a $7,500 claiming race for horses that had never won two races.  It was to be followed by three graded stakes races, the highlights of the card.  First, older fillies and mares would contest the Grade 2 (G2) Azeri S.  Then older males would contest the G3 Razorback Handicap.  The final stakes race was the highly anticipated G2 Rebel S., a key Kentucky Derby prep race.  All three races were run at the same distance: a mile and a sixteenth.  Unfortunately, comparisons that are often straightforward on fast tracks are very often anything but straightforward on wet tracks.

The Azeri was won wire to wire, and pretty easily, by odds-on favorite Close Hatches, who went the distance in 1:44.34.  Golden Lad romped in the Razorback, winning by nearly seven lengths in 1:43.72.  The Rebel was won by Hoppertunity from just off the pace in 1:43.90, in a race that looked like bumper cars down the stretch.  Only a length separated the top three at the wire.  If track speed remained the same, the Rebel would be a very impressive performance.  Running about one length slower than a runaway winner of a graded stakes for older males is a sign of a very good performance from a three-year-old.  But did track speed remain the same?

We start with a proprietary computer program that creates a worksheet that we use to make pace and speed figures for each race card.  It simply crunches the data and turns times into figures for the top four finishers in each race.  It also assesses the top four and makes a projection on what each horse is most likely to run.  Figures from past races, plus age, distance, and weight are considered in the projections.  These are not computerized figures. Far from it. Rather, they are merely a starting point.  The projections are used to create a provisional track variant for each race, meaning an estimate of the speed of the track for any given race.  Many times the projected variant is straightforward throughout a race card, orderly from race to race.  The work for the day can be easy.  Other times, the variants are scattered and require closer scrutiny of the past performances.  Some of these scattered days simply have a lot of inconsistent horses and, as it turns out, track speed was actually consistent.

On other days, track speed changes during the card.  This was the case on the Saturday card at Oaklawn.

The first route races of the day, races 5 and 6, were run on a fast track.  The projected variants for those races were “tight,” or similar to each other.  Not only were the races tight overall, but each horse ran very close to what was expected.  Then the rains came, and the track was a few lengths slower for the seventh race.  The top four ran almost exactly as predicted in relation to each other.  This is fairly normal when rain first hits: a slowing of the track.  Next up were the stakes races.  The track seemed to return to its prior speed, according to the worksheets.  Races 8 and 9 were again tight.  The only small deviations from projections were that Golden Lad ran faster than expected and Close Hatches ran slower.  Given the circumstances, neither was particularly surprising.  Golden Lad’s performance looked very much like a breakout performance, and Close Hatches was returning from a layoff and was perhaps not all-out.  We concluded without trepidation that the speed of the track for the two races was similar.

We wish we could say the same about the Rebel Stakes.  To be clear, we hate nothing more than using different variants for different races, but when the situation warrants it, we won’t hesitate.  Races aren’t run indoors in perfect climates.  Tracks can and do change, and we’re nearly certain the track changed for the Rebel.  The worksheet projected a race variant several lengths faster than the two races preceding it.  Not only was the overall race variant higher (i.e. the track was faster), each horse in the top four had a variant projected several lengths faster than those races as well.   It is certainly possible that early season three-year-olds can improve several lengths, but unlikely for all of them to do so in the same race.  Importantly, it should also be noted that some improvement is built into the projections already.  This factor has been studied at length and is built in as a safeguard against underestimating performances of maturing horses.  Further complicating the issue was the slow pace of the race.  Slow-paced races almost always lead to bunched finishes if fields are competitive. What they do not lead to, as a rule, is faster than expected times.  The half mile pace time was a full one second slower than the Razorback, and that doesn’t consider that it was likely run on a faster track.

The final race, the 11th, was also a route race.  Indications are that track speed returned to that of races 8 and 9.  We hoped it would be tight with the Rebel S., but it is not surprising that it wasn’t.  Rain continued to fall, and it would not be surprising if the track did not get the same treatment for a maiden race that it did for the feature race of a great card.

Still, as stated, we detest splitting races this way. So we put in a call the next morning to our friend at Oaklawn.  We intentionally did not do this before we did the figures.  Until we had done the work ourselves, we did not want to be influenced by what he said.  His report was simple.  While the tractors were out once the rain started, they were a lot more “busy” before the Rebel than before any of the races before or after it.  We asked what busy meant, and he said the machines made several more passes and that the track looked visibly tighter—more compressed—than it did for other races.  We’re sticking with the figures we assigned for the races.  We’re never 100% confident in these scenarios, but we’re confident we made the best call possible using all the information at our disposal.

The TimeformUS Speed Figures for the Rebel:

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 10.56.03 AM

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2 Responses to Rebel Rebel, How Could They Know?

  1. Ron Linfonte says:

    Your friend at the track should have given you more info than busy !!! Did they seal it between races? Did they reverse harrow it or go in usual direction? If they sealed it with more weight on the rear? How deep impressions in the dirt were the horses making in the walk on the track as a reference too!


    • Craig Milkowski says:

      The guy is not an expert on track maintenance. I’ll call Oaklawn on Wednesday and ask. But really, the numbers told the story more than the maintenance.



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