Player’s Point of View: Aqueduct’s Golden Rail on Gotham Day

Track biases are one of the most ambiguous factors that handicappers must grapple with when evaluating past form. At TimeformUS, we help users ease their way into assessing track biases with our color-coded Bias Indicators. Our algorithms look for situations in which deviations from the expected outcomes on a given day are tied to a particular running style performing better than expected. In those cases, we assign a color to that day’s card:

  • Light Red: Frontrunners somewhat outperformed expectations.
  • Red: Frontrunners extremely outperformed expectations.
  • Light Blue: Closers somewhat outperformed expectations.
  • Blue: Closers extremely outperformed expectations.

While we’re comfortable with the algorithms at work here, we encourage handicappers to view our Bias Indicators as flags or cues to more thoroughly explore that day’s charts. After all, apparent speed and closer biases are often merely manifestations of other types of biases, such as “golden” and “dead” rails, and some speed and closer biases are caused not by the racing surface but rather by very strong headwinds and tailwinds. In other words, some detective work is often required to unearth the cause of the trends we observe.

Here’s an interesting example from last Saturday:

The Gotham Day Speed (Rail?) Bias

Unsurprisingly, our Bias Indicators coded Aqueduct’s card on Saturday, March 5—Gotham Day—as Red, indicating that frontrunners outperformed expectations to an extreme degree. A glance through the charts on this day reveals that 8 of the 10 winners on the card led at every call, and one additional winner had contested the pace while racing within a half-length of the leader. Only Shagaf, the winner of the Gotham, made up any significant amount of ground to win from off the pace. View the charts (customer log-in required) >

A close examination of Saturday’s Gotham card at Aqueduct clearly indicates that this particular speed bias was compounded by, if not entirely caused by, a strong golden rail.

Why are golden rails and speed biases so closely linked? Most jockeys will guide frontrunners over to the rail in an attempt to take the shortest way around the racetrack. Any horses that are attempting to pass the frontrunner are thus forced to leave the rail and move to an outside path, thereby giving up their advantage. Since the frontrunner practically never has a reason to abandon the beneficial inside lane, this results in a preponderance of wire-to-wire winners—a perceived speed bias—which is what we observed on Saturday.

Whom to Upgrade? Whom to Downgrade?

Which of the Gotham Day competitors actually performed better than it appears (were harmed by the bias), and which ones performed worse than it appears (were helped by the bias)? Below, we’ve highlighted horses in each race whose performances should be either upgraded or downgraded when they run back.

Race 1

Maiden Special Weight for NY-bred 3YO at 6 furlongs 

DOWNGRADE: Joy Drive, 1st

The debuting Joy Drive had a number of things in his favor. Not only did he race along the rail for the last three-and-a-half furlongs, but he was allowed to set a slow pace, designated by the blue color-coding of the 48.17-second half-mile fraction. Linda Rice’s runners often improve in their second career starts, but we’re still inclined to downgrade this colt when he shows up in the entry box next time.

Race 2

Claiming $12,500 for 4YO+ at one mile and 70 yards

DOWNGRADE: Unstoppable U, 1st / Now We Are Free, 2nd

This race featured a very slow pace. Each of the first three fractional times is color-coded blue. Unstoppable U is a definite downgrade out of this race, having set that slow pace while racing along the rail for his entire trip. We would also downgrade Now We Are Free, who drafted just in behind Unstoppable U for most of his trip. He did angle off the rail in the stretch, but he was losing ground late to horses whose performances were more affected by the bias.

UPGRADE: Clifton Pleasure, 5th

Clifton Pleasure finished a non-threatening fifth, but did so after sustaining a three-wide trip around both turns while trying to close into the aforementioned slow pace. This performance was much stronger than it appears, so it might be worth giving him a second look when he’s entered back.

Race 3
Maiden Special Weight for NY-bred 3YO fillies at 6 furlongs

DOWNGRADE: Five Star Rampage, 1st

Though she was dominant in her win, Five Star Rampage’s performance must be downgraded for all of the reasons we were critical of Joy Drive’s debut win in the first race. She was clearly aided by the bias in her rail-skimming wire-to-wire victory, and we feel that she may be an underlay when she runs back. 

Race 4

Claiming $25,000 N2L for 4YO+ at 6 furlongs

DOWNGRADE: Ideal Quality, 2nd

On rare occasions, it isn’t the frontrunner that benefits most from a rail bias. In this case, the winner, Bensational, was actually never near the rail, racing in the two- to three-path throughout. Rather, it was the second-place finisher, Ideal Quality, who appeared to benefit most from his ground-saving trip. He briefly drifted one lane off the rail in upper stretch, but he seemed to find another gear when guided back down inside for the final furlong.

UPGRADE: Humboldt N Frost, 6th

Humboldt N Frost covered more ground than any other runner in the race, traveling three- to four-wide around the turn before drifting wider still in the stretch. He’s not a natural sprinter, and his lack of early zip put him in a difficult position right from the start. We won’t go so far as to suggest that he was ever going to win this race, but handicappers should not hold this race against him when he stretches back out in distance. 

Race 5

Claiming $35,000 N3L for 4YO+ at 6 furlongs 

DOWNGRADE: Hector’s Pride, 1st

Hector’s Pride’s performance was the first in a series of strong signals that we were dealing with an unrelentingly biased surface. While he wasn’t the most improbable winner based on past form, it was the manner of his commanding victory that raised some flags. Tellingly, he was the only runner in the race—aside from the overmatched Copernicus—to spend a significant amount of time racing on the rail, and it showed in the winning margin.

UPGRADE: T Sizzle, 7th

Jose Ortiz gave plenty of excellent rides on Saturday, but this one got away from him. Breaking from post position three on T Sizzle, he found himself widest of all around the far turn before getting spun out into the six-path as the field entered the stretch. This horse finished last but could conceivably have wound up third or better if the race had been contested over an unbiased surface.

Race 6

Claiming $14,000 N3L for 4YO+ at one mile and 70 yards

DOWNGRADE: Heady Creek, 1st / Summit Moon, 2nd / Lieutenant Dale, 3rd

It’s worth spending some extra time with this race, primarily because there are distinct parallels to be drawn between it and the Gotham, which was run three races later. The trips that Heady Creek and Summit Moon received in this race are nearly carbon copies of the trips that Laoban and Shagaf would work out, respectively, in the Gotham. Heady Creek drastically outran his odds, just as Laoban did, and that’s largely attributable to the pilot of both horses, Aaron Gryder, who was intent on getting to the lead at all costs. Summit Moon’s performance—and by extension, Shagaf’s—is not quite so easy to read. Summit Moon rode the rail for the entire race until he angled out for the stretch drive. He looked to briefly lose momentum before drifting back down towards the inside to meet Heady Creek for one final push to the wire. Ultimately, considering that other major contenders were hindered by against-the-bias trips in this race, we believe that Summit Moon’s mostly ground-saving performance deserves to be downgraded. We would also lump Lieutenant Dale’s trip into this category, since he never had to leave the rail while rallying from the back of the pack. To recap, the first three horses across the finish line, at odds of 52/1, 7/2, and 8/1, all spent the majority of their trips racing along the rail.

UPGRADE: Casiguapo, 4th / Jumpin Frac Flash, 7th

On a fair surface, Casiguapo almost certainly would have won this race. He was put into a difficult situation at the start, when he broke a step slowly from his outside post position. Kendrick Carmouche, not one to let others dictate terms to him, tried to take every opportunity thereafter to improve his position, but was forced to do so while racing wide and weaving his way through traffic. Ultimately, Casiguapo had to swing four-wide for the stretch drive and, all things considered, did remarkably well to nearly get up for third. Jumpin Frac Flash didn’t turn in nearly as strong a performance as Casiguapo, but we’d be remiss not to mention that he, too, was severely compromised by his wide trip. According to Trakus, he covered the most ground of all, 69 more feet than the winner and 79 more feet than Summit Moon.

Race 7

The Heavenly Prize Stakes for fillies and mares 4YO+ at 1 1/16 miles  

DOWNGRADE: Mei Ling, 1st / Include Betty, 4th

An otherwise competitive race turned into a one-horse affair once Mei Ling’s competition let her gallop off to a four-length lead in the early stages. However, she wasn’t the only runner that rode the gold rail every step of the way. Those interpreting this day’s results as being caused by a pure speed bias might be looking to upgrade the performance of Include Betty, who rallied from last to nearly get up for second. However, she was actually racing on the rail, with the bias, for the entire duration of her rally.

UPGRADE: Storied Lady, 6th

Though she was probably overmatched anyway against a field of this quality, it should be noted that Storied Lady was the only horse in this race who was significantly wide around both turns. She was probably never beating a field of this quality, but handicappers should not hold this performance against her.

Race 8

Allowance N2X/Optional Claiming $40,000 for NY-breds 4YO+ at 6 furlongs

DOWNGRADE: Little Popsie, 1st

There were three major pace players in the starting gate, but two of them did not break alertly, leaving Little Popsie all alone up front. He was able to set slow fractions (note every fraction color-coded blue) before spurting away in the stretch, all while never straying too far off the inside path

UPGRADE: Gypsum Johnny, 3rd

Considering that he raced three- to four-wide around the far turn, Gypsum Johnny put in a valiant effort. We did not observe too many horses making up ground in the stretch on this day, but this runner was moving nearly as fast as Little Popsie through the final furlong. He is a horse that merits respect wherever he runs back.  

Race 9

The Gotham Stakes for 3YO at 1 1/16 miles

DOWNGRADE: Laoban, 2nd 

As we mentioned in our discussion of the sixth race, Aaron Gryder was acutely aware of the bias as it developed during the day, and he exploited this knowledge in his ride on Laoban. Despite not breaking alertly, Laoban was put to the whip from the start to secure the lead. Unlike in most of the other races on this day, the Gotham did feature a fast pace (note the first three fractional splits color-coded in red). Yet, despite setting taxing fractions, Laoban still had far more factors in his favor than against him.

UPGRADE: Sunny Ridge, 4th

The only horse in the Gotham to nearly overcome a definitively against-the-bias trip was Sunny Ridge. Breaking towards the outside in a bunched field, he never had any opportunity to tuck inside and raced three-wide around both turns. Say what you will about his virtues as a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender, it’s conceivable that Sunny Ridge would have won the Gotham over a fair surface.

ON THE FENCE: Shagaf, 1st / Adventist, 3rd 

The trips of Shagaf and Adventist are not so cut-and-dry. Shagaf had everything go his way until the stretch drive, when Irad Ortiz was forced to angle him out into the center of the track. On one hand, he earned the designation of being the only horse to win from off the pace on a day when so many frontrunners proved uncatchable. Yet we still believe the evidence indicates that others overcame greater adversity. One of those runners is Adventist. He saved ground around the first turn, but Kendrick Carmouche was forced to angle him off the rail while attempting to move up down the backstretch, and then three-wide when launching his bid on the far turn. From there, he was forced out even farther by Shagaf as they straightened away in the stretch and, unsurprisingly, found it impossible to make up any ground in the late stages. Adventist is still somewhat green, so we’re hesitant to explicitly advocate betting him back in another Derby prep. Still, if we had to lean one way or the other, we’d favor downgrading Shagaf and upgrading Adventist. 

Race 10

Claiming $25,000 N2L for 4YO+ at 6 furlongs

DOWNGRADE: Bustin the Bank, 1st 

While he did at least set a fast pace to the half-mile split (color-coded in red), Bustin the Bank was able to secure the lead and the rail shortly after the start, and used those advantages to run off to a convincing win.

UPGRADE: Norm the Giant, 2nd 

Never near the rail at any point, Norm the Giant put in a respectable effort to get up for second, albeit far behind the short-priced winner. Bustin the Bank is obviously in great form right now, but we do think the margin between these two would have been greatly reduced had this race been contested over a fair surface.

 

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