Horseplayers who encounter 7.5-furlong races on the grass at Gulfstream are being kept in the dark about a couple of fundamental facts: The timed part of the races is being called “about” seven and one-half furlongs when in fact it is exactly 7.5 furlongs, thus making the clockings misleading. And the official race charts are often no longer printing the run-up distance, which means horseplayers will not know the actual distance of the horse race from gate to wire. How did this happen?
First, some background:
- Turf races at Gulfstream Park at the published distance of seven-and-a-half furlongs have always been a bit of a mystery. There are many different rail settings used on the wide course, and also many different run-up distances. Run-up is the distance in feet the lead horse runs before the actual timing of the race begins.
- From 2009 through November of 2017, the seven-and-a-half furlong distance was run nearly 800 times at Gulfstream. In those races, over 100 different course set-ups have been used.
- For example, the rail at 120 feet with a run-up of 384 feet has been reported in the official Equibase charts on six occasions. For this article, that is considered one set-up. The many set-ups are used to save the turf course from overuse as much as possible. It isn’t easy on handicappers, but at least it is done with a worthy purpose–giving horses the best ground to run on.
- It could, however, be done better. For example, the set-up I mentioned could be timed as a one-mile race with a much shorter run-up distance: 54 feet. This would be a fairly normal run-up for most tracks. Gulfstream itself consistently uses shorter run-ups for many of its races. But as things stand, the situation is unfair to horseplayers. After all, the run-up is an untimed portion of the race. There is no good reason to list an unnecessarily long run-up and then time less of the race than the course set-up allows.
- What’s more, there have also been questions about the length of the run-up distances reported by Gulfstream Park. Due to the unique turf course, it is impossible to approximate run-up with the naked eye as you can do at most racetracks. Indeed, in July of 2017, Equibase stopped reporting the run-up of these races due to concerns over accuracy. Timing of races from the gate proved that the run-up portion of the races was taking much longer than would be expected for the listed run-up distances. The fact that the official provider of data for all racing in North America couldn’t come to an agreement with the racetrack to sort this out is disheartening.
And now the story gets worse:
The newest Championship Meeting at Gulfstream Park began in December of 2017. While doing my work as the speed figure maker for TimeformUS, I noticed that the run-up distances had returned to the official charts. I was hoping that they were now trustworthy and that they were now being reported accurately. A commander I had during my time in the Air Force once told me something I’ve learned to value: ”Trust, but verify.” And while doing further research, I found something as troubling as misreported run-up distances: The seven and one-half furlong races were now being reported as “about” seven and-one-half furlongs. The use of “about” distances is nothing new in horse racing. The label is sometimes used when the physical layout of the course does not allow an exact distance to be run. It is also used when the timing system in place is not set up to time a course properly. For example, if the rails are at 20 feet on the turf course but the timing system is set up for the course with no temporary rails, the timing system is still used, and we get times for distances that are longer than the exact distance. About distances are not ideal, but in most cases they are at least understandable.
Trakus is the official timer for Gulfstream Park. Its charts list the time and the exact distance each horse ran at various points during a race and at the finish. When I saw the new label applied to these races, I assumed the distance being used for timing had changed. It was no longer going to be exactly seven and one-half furlongs. It would be “about” seven and one-half furlongs: meaning a distance less than or greater than that but still reasonably close. But my assumptions proved incorrect. I learned that nothing had changed. The official times from Trakus for the new designation are for the exact distance of seven and one-half furlongs, just as they were before. The reported distance traveled by the horses for the new “about” designation is consistent with other races at the same distance without the label, both at Gulfstream and at other tracks that use Trakus. There is no reason for these races to be called anything different. They are run over the same distance and timed the same way as they have been for several years.
Why has Gulfstream Park has chosen the route it has chosen? Why isn’t it being made clear to horseplayers that these “about 7.5 furlong” races are really much closer to mile races, and often times even more than a mile? I don’t have the answers to these questions.
It is unfortunate that we horseplayers still have to deal with things like run-up distances (especially ones longer than half a furlong) and “about” race distances in 2018, but at least we’ve learned to live with them. However, this new situation is worse. Gulfstream Park has decided to call a distance “about” when in fact it is nothing of the sort. The reported run-up distances still don’t match reality when checked against the clock via video editing software. And Equibase has once again stopped publishing many of the run-up distances furnished by Gulfstream Park. We deserve to be treated better by a racetrack that offers arguably the best horse racing in the world at this time of year. All we want is accurate data. We’ll take it from there.