An Off-Season Handicapping Primer

By Michael Cusortelli 
(The following article is reprinted from the January/February 1998 edition of The Horseplayer magazine.)

In a conversation with Gary West, the turf writer and handicapper for the Dallas Morning News, he told me that when he handicaps a Thoroughbred race, he determines the class of a horse by its ability to withstand pace pressure. Many Thoroughbred handicappers share his view.

Mr. West then asked me this question, "Because there is no real pace in a Quarter Horse sprint, how does a Quarter Horse handicapper determine class?"

Good question.

In a large sense, Quarter Horse handicappers are more blessed than our Thoroughbred colleagues in that we don't have to muddle through the nebulous task of figuring how pace is going to determine the outcome of a race.

This article addresses Mr. West's question. It also covers a handicapping factor considered meaningful in Quarter Horse racing-post position/lane biases.

JUDGING CLASS IN A QUARTER HORSE RACE

When I'm determining the class of a Quarter Horse, I check the company lines of the caliber of horses he's been running against. If he's been winning races, who's he been beating? If he's been competitive, but coming up a little short, who's he been losing to?

For example, if a horse wins a $5,000 claiming race and beats a bunch of horses that come back and run poorly in their next starts (against basically the same class level), then I may knock that horse down a few pegs in my estimation the next time he runs, particularly if he moves up in class.

Conversely, if a horse runs, say, a close third in a $5,000 claimer, and the horses that were first and second have good overall winning percentages and come back and run well in their next start, then I'm going to strongly consider that horse the next time he runs, even if the should move up a level or two in class.

In my handicapper's analyses of major races on the American Quarter Horse Association's racing web site (www.aqha.com/racing), the individual horse profiles always include the records of horses recent opposition. This gives the handicapper an idea of the caliber of competition the horses have been beating, or getting beaten by.

If a handicapper doesn't have access to that type of data, or doesn't have the time to compile it, there is a more quantitative way in which to determine the class of a horse, and that's by figuring a horse's earnings per start index. In my Internet handicapper's analyses, I determine this index by toting up the horse's earnings in its most recent six starts and dividing it by six.

The more casual handicapper who only has access to Daily Racing Form or Equibase program-style past performances can figure a horse's earnings per start index by simply multiplying the horse's current year purse earnings by two and adding that figure to the horse's previous year earnings, then dividing that sum by the horse's total number of starts during that period.

When using this method, it's important to double the horse's current year earnings, because what the horse has done this year is more indicative of his current form. While past form should not be ignored completely, current form should always be emphasized.

A case in point is last year's MBNA America Challenge Championship (G1) at Los Alamitos. In that 440-yard dash, the three horses with distinct class advantages-SLM Big Daddy, Heza Ramblin Man and Winalota Cash-finished first, second and third, respectively. And Winalota Cash, the 1995 AQHA world champion and champion three-year-old in '96, had to overcome a ton of trouble at the start, when he gave anywhere from one-to-two lengths to his opposition just a few jumps out of the gate.

SLM Big Daddy entered the Challenge Championship with four wins and eight in-the-money performances in nine starts in 1997. He boasted earnings of $239,569 and was named horse of the meet at the contentious Remington Park session, winning such prestigious races as the Remington Park Championship (G1) and Eastex Handicap (G2).

Heza Ramblin Man and Winalota Cash also entered the race with impressive class credentials. Winner of the AQHA Juvenile Challenge Championship (G1) back in 1995, Heza Ramblin Man had been facing open graded stakes company exclusively this season, winning or placing in six of seven starts and pocketing $172,546 competing at Remington Park and Los Alamitos.

A horse's class can also be quantitatively determined by examining their winning and in-the-money percentages. In the case of the Challenge Championship, Winalota Cash came up big in both categories. A victor of 18 of his 28 starts, Winalota Cash finished first, second, or third in 26 of those races and boasted a career bankroll of $1,906,348, with $186,644 of it coming this season.

Another less common, but effective, way of determining class is to examine a horse's odds in his most recent races. Classy horses are usually recognized by handicappers, and their odds reflect that class. Also, in Quarter Horse racing, as in the Thoroughbred sport, horses that perform well at big odds rarely repeat that strong effort in their subsequent start.

DETERMINING TRUE POST POSITION / LANE BIASES

Post position/lane biases are important elements in both Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred handicapping. However, Quarter Horse handicappers can better use this factor to their advantage.

If there is a track bias in a Thoroughbred race, a jockey will have more time and opportunity to move his horse to the better part of the track without losing much time or ground. But in a Quarter Horse race, jockeys are more likely to keep their horses in the lanes from which they break. Changing lanes can have a rider moving his horse sideways, instead of driving toward the finish line.

Be diligent when analyzing lane biases at your track. Don't just rely on the superficial statistics provided in most track programs, statistics that merely include starts per post position, and win and in-the-money percentages. If the rail post, for example, has produced no winners in 20 starts, but the average odds of the starters from the one hole has been 25-to-1, the poor performances by horses racing on the inside may be more due to lack of ability, rather than a perceived lane bias.

During last year's Delta Downs meet, an in depth examination of the post position bias in hook races (i.e., races around a turn) produced some interesting figures. In 29 races, the four hole produced one winner (3.4 percent) and the six hole produced eight (27.5 percent). Combined, the three and four posts produced three winners in 58 starts (5.2 percent), while the six and seven posts yielded 12 winners in 53 starts (22.6 percent).

An examination of the averages odds of the starters from these posts produced some useful numbers, and helped erudite handicappers put the percentages in perspective. The odds for the lone winner from the four hole were 4-to-5. The average odds for the eight victors from the six post were nearly 12-to-1, with one winner returning a bountiful $112 win mutuel.

Furthermore, seven favorites broke from the four hole, and six of them were beaten. The only favorite which won from that post was odds-on. Conversely, only one of the eight winners from the six post was favored. In fact, a great majority of the winners from that post were 5-to-1 or higher.

Another example, this one dating back to 1993, is worth noting. Toward the end of the Remington Park summer meet that year, there were grumblings among horsemen that the track favored horses that ran on the inside part of the track in sprints (550 yards or less).

To be sure, during the final nine days of the meet, the inside posts (one, two, and three) produced 14.6 percent winners and 40 percent in-the-money finishers. On the other hand, the outside three posts (eight, nine and ten) produced 6 percent winners and 22 percent in-the-money.

Did mere coincidence give rise to these figures? Perhaps, but a more in depth analysis of the bias confirms that the suspicions of the disgruntled horsemen may have been justified. Astute handicappers used this analysis to produce lucrative visits to the payoff windows.

During one 27-race stretch, the two hole itself produced eight winners (nearly 30 percent), only two of which were favored. During the last nine days of the meet, 14 winners came out of the two lane, and the average odds of those winners was 4.89-to-1. One winner was 22-to-1, another 11-to-1, and yet another lit the board at 8-to-1.

By contrast, the ten hole produced two winners in 51 races (3.9 percent). The average odds of the horses that ran in the ten line were 4.75-to-1, actually slightly lower than those that broke from the two post. No favorites won from the ten hole, but six favorites were beaten, including one 2-to-5 choice that finished second.

Now, the point of this analysis is not to encourage handicappers to only bet the inside post in Remington sprints or the six and seven hole in Delta Downs' hook races, but instead to encourage Quarter Horse handicappers to look beyond the depthless traditional post position stats, read between the lines, and to try to find an edge.