By Craig Milkowski
People who make speed figures enjoy few things more than a race card that lines up perfectly with expectations. The times are converted to numbers, and the numbers fit together perfectly, like a jigsaw puzzle. This is not just within one race but spanning across all the races.
Typically, handicappers who use speed figures like that as well. The figures match the times. They can see why one horse got an 80 and another a 75. Many are familiar with how times at different distances compare to each other and can tell at a glance if things line up as expected in those cases too. The 80 figure is solid and so is the 75. There is nothing more to discuss.
Unfortunately, making speed figures isn’t always as easy as putting a puzzle together. The figures don’t always fit nicely together. There are no border pieces to give an easy start. The practice that draws the most consternation from bettors and fans of horse racing is the “breakout” race. It is the race that just doesn’t fit the puzzle no matter where you try to place it. It is isolated and rated as if it were the only race run the entire day. Races before it and after it are rated using the same track variant, but not this one. This one has been rated in isolation. It doesn’t give the warm, fuzzy feeling that the easy-to-make figure does.
Those who use figures always notice these races above all others. Give two races run close in time dissimilar figures and get ready to hear the comments, mostly complaints. These are understandable. People like things to be neat and orderly, especially when it comes to numbers. But there are reasons why these races are treated the way they are. First, speed figures should have a certain level of utility going forward. Second, not breaking out a suspect race will directly affect the figures of the other similar races on a card. It can make the other races look faster or slower than they really should be.
There are three main options a figure maker can consider in these cases:
- Don’t break the problem race out. Proceed as usual.
- Break the problem race out and rate it in isolation.
- Don’t break the problem race out. Rate it using the variant from the other races while allowing no contribution from the horses in the problem race.
There are problems with all of these approaches:
- With the first, there is the very real chance you will not only get the race in question wrong but that the error will compound, harming all the other figures in similar races as well.
- For the second, sample size is limited and a lot of faith is being placed on the horses in just one race, while depriving that race of its usual contribution to the variant for the other races run that day.
- Finally, with the third option, there is the very real chance you will greatly overrate or underrate the particular race in question.
There are times I will use all of these different options. This is based on experience and really knowing the horses you are rating. I will treat a two-year-old maiden race much differently than a stakes race for older horses, for example. The same goes for a six-furlong sprint on the dirt for battle-hardened claiming horses versus a field of turf horses where many haven’t tried the surface.
The Cigar Mile card at Aqueduct was run on December 7th, 2019 and featured a breakout-race candidate. I’ll try to keep it pretty simple but wanted to give a real-life example. Races 1, 5, 6, and 10 were all run at the distance of one mile on the dirt. The sixth race, the Grade 3 Go For Wand Handicap, was the troublesome race. It was run much slower than projections when compared to the other races.
- Race 1: Time translated to final-time figure of 95, expected figure of 99, track considered 4 slow
- Race 5: Time translated to final-time figure of 96, expected figure of 101, track considered 5 slow
- Race 6: Time translated to final-time figure of 97, expected figure of 114, track considered 17 slow
- Race 10: Time translated to final-time figure of 125, expected figure of 131, track considered 6 slow
It came down to which of the three options discussed previously should be used. Option 1 would average the four races and determine the track was about eight points slow. Option 2 would rate the track five points slow for races 1, 5, and 10 and treat race 6 in isolation and assume it was 17 points slow for that one. Option 3 would rate the track about five points slow and apply that to all races.
I chose the second option, the “breakout” option. I think it was the best choice so as not to exert too much influence on the other races and to give a realistic assessment of the horses in the Go For Wand. The first choice would have caused the horses in the other races to be overrated in my opinion. The third option would have rated the entire Go For Wand field much slower than what they are capable of running.
The next best choice would have likely been Option 3. I would have used that one if using Option 2 would have caused some of the Go For Wand field to be rated faster than they usually run. That does happen at times and I try to avoid it. I’d rather underrate a few of the better horses than overrate the also-rans and have people betting on a false fast number.
This was actually a fairly easy decision since it was pretty obvious the very slow pace is what caused the Go For Wand to be run so slowly to the wire. There are times, however, when the reason isn’t obvious. Races occasionally get broken out even if the pace looks normal. I wish I could explain them all, but that isn’t possible. Experience has taught me that if a number doesn’t make sense for a large part of a field of horses, it is likely a bad number. The “breakout race” isn’t a weapon I use often, but it is a necessary part of the figure-making arsenal.