By Randy Moss
(The following article is reprinted from the March/April 1999 issue of The HorsePlayer magazine.)
Those who grew up cheering for A. J. Foyt and Al Unser in the Indianapolis 500 probably had little interest in how "Big Daddy" Don Garlits fared in drag-racing time trials. Likewise, those whose fondest racing memory was Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes triumph can find it hard to appreciate the athleticism of SLM Big Daddy, the current king of Quarter Horses.
But although Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses seem worlds apart, handicappers of both sports share a common bond: pari-mutuel wagering, and specifically, the search for betting value.
Thoroughbred gamblers occasionally bemoan the popularity of Beyer Speed Figures published in Daily Racing Form, and how their mainstream use has knocked down payoffs on horses that once might have been overlooked by casual bettors. But those longing for the good old days might be surprised to discover that in Quarter Horse racing, such overlays still exist for those willing to put in the requisite homework. Quarter Horse betting pools are smaller and wagers must be scaled down accordingly, but value is out there.
My duties as racing correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram include handicapping Quarter Horse races at Lone Star Park, an assignment for which a Thoroughbred background was woefully insufficient. My association with the Beyer figure-making team and preoccupation with speed handicapping didn’t help as much as anticipated. Actually, it didn’t help at all, a disturbing realization since speed means everything in Quarter Horse racing.
But prior to last fall’s Lone Star meet, I resolved to quit whining about “shortnecks”--Quarter Horses, not miniature beers--and immerse myself in the research necessary to gain an advantage. The results were mixed. But in the end, I was encouraged enough to keep plugging away. Hopefully, some of my discoveries can benefit the rest of the open-minded handicapping society.
My first move last October was to subscribe to TrackMaster, which advertised its Quarter Horse speed figures. The computer service’s pedigree and trainer-jockey information are useful, especially since Daily Racing Form past performances for Quarter Horses don’t provide as much statistical information as for Thoroughbreds. But the TrackMaster Quarter Horse speed figures turned out to be disappointing at best. Their numbers repeatedly gave horses from Prairie Meadows and Manor Downs huge advantages that were unjustified.
Thus, it was necessary to try to establish my own Beyer-like numbers for Quarter Horses. And just as with Thoroughbreds, the initial baby step was to create par times.
Reliable par-time information for Ruidoso Downs and Blue Ribbon Downs is almost impossible to obtain long-distance, but I got a gift from heaven. Because of a computer glitch totally unrelated to Y2K, the par-time database maintained by Daily Racing Form for private Beyer figure-making use also includes quarter-horse races. A 350-yard race for quarter horses is mistakenly recognized in the database as a 3.50 furlong race. The relationship between Blue Ribbon maiden $5,000 claimers going 250 yards and older Oklahoma-bred $2,500 claimers at 350 yards suddenly wasn’t nearly as mysterious. I felt like sending a Christmas card to the computer geek that didn't know the difference between yards and furlongs.
Once the par-times were logged and a speed chart developed for various distances (220, 250, 300, 330, 350, 400, 440, 550 and 870 yards), it was apparent that some of my labor had been unnecessary. To the credit of the American Quarter Horse Association, its basic speed index chart comparing times at various distances is very accurate. This chart can be obtained from the Players Page in the racing section of the AQHA’s web site (www.aqha.com/racing).
But my par-time data was valuable for the calculation of a daily variant, a crucial element that the AQHA does not use in its speed index numbers which appear in past performances.
Daily variants at Sam Houston Race Park and Ruidoso Downs - the primary feeder tracks for Lone Star - were surprisingly easy to develop. A comparison of par times and results of head-to-head competition between horses from the tracks indicated that Ruidoso’s surface was an average of nine speed index points faster than Houston’s.
At Lone Star, Quarter Horses with clearly superior variant-adjusted speed figures occasionally would go to post at 8-1 odds or higher. Bottom line: they ran consistently well enough to warrant the time and trouble involved in the figuremaking process.
Making one’s own Quarter Horse figures can be frustrating at times. For example, wind direction and velocity can wreak havoc on daily variants. The vast majority of racetracks do not have equipment to measure the wind, and the most dedicated handicappers can’t possibly remember to consult the flagpole every half-hour. Lone Star, with the largest daily Quarter Horse purses in the game, finally bought a wind-measuring device midway through the 1998 meeting, and then gave it a half-hearted effort. The wind was measured once, prior to the first race, then wasn’t updated the rest of the day. They needn't have bothered at all.
Sam Houston has a wind gauge, and the velocity readings are posted on the Equibase web site in the chart of each race. But Equibase made no mention of wind direction. What good is it to know that the wind shifted from five to 25 miles an hour, if there is no indication of which way the wind was blowing?
Furthermore, in past performances all tailwinds are noted as “tw” and all headwinds are lumped together as “hw,” whether the prevailing condition is a gentle summer breeze or a spring tornado. Thankfully, a good set of Quarter Horse speed figures can help overcome these inconveniences. Make the extra effort to consult results in the newspaper, racing form or Equibase, and create a table of average running times for each classification and distance. Use them for par times, and make variants based on the AQHA speed index chart. Utilize speed figures along with trip handicapping and track-bias notes, and overlays will appear with even more frequency.
Keep an open mind, Thoroughbred boys and girls, and you might be surprised at the outcome. You won’t abandon Del Mar for Los Alamitos, but you could find yourself moonlighting now and then.
Randy Moss is horseracing columnist/handicapper for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is also an associate of Andrew Beyer in the making of Daily Racing Form's Beyer Speed Figures, is co-author with Jim Mazur of handicapping guides for Lone Star Park and Oaklawn Park, operates a successful national telephone handicapping service, and has appeared the last two years as an analyst of ESPN's pre-race coverage of the Kentucky Derby. In previous lives, he was Oaklawn Park's director of operations, and a racing columnist/handicapper for the Dallas Morning News and Arkansas Democrat. Randy resides in Irving, Texas, with his wife Katherine, and can be reached by e-mail at RMossFW@aol.com.
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