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Why it pays to handicap the track as well as the horses

Updated August 15, 2019 - 6:47 pm

Serious baseball bettors know what happens when a ball ricochets high off the Green Monster at Fenway Park, but it amazes me how few horseplayers pay attention to the characteristics of the tracks they bet on.

Assessing the horses in a particular race is, of course, Job 1 as a handicapper. But it pays dividends to know as much as possible about the surface they’re running over and whether it plays to an entrant’s strength or will make the path to victory tougher.

That information isn’t easy to come by. Equibase offers profiles of all U.S. and Canadian tracks, but provides only statistics on winning post positions broken into three categories: dirt sprints, dirt routes and turf races. And as every horseplayer knows, racetracks can play differently at 6 and 6½ furlongs, for example.

Del Mar and a handful of other tracks do a bit better, serving up winning posts statistics by distance. But even that is a rough tool that isn’t terribly useful in most cases.

That paucity of good information enables handicappers who put in some extra work to unearth nuggets that will pay off at the betting windows.

I’m going to use Del Mar as an example, as it’s a track I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know. It’s also one of the most changeable racing surfaces anywhere. It’s almost as if someone flips a switch to change it from a speed-favoring surface to a paradise for closers.

Using free race charts available via Equibase.com, I created a spreadsheet that broke down races by distance for the first three weeks of the meet that began July 17. In addition to tracking post positions, I charted position and beaten lengths of winners at the first and second calls of each race, their final fractions and noted whether they raced inside or outside on the track.

Here are a few of my learnings:

— Only three of the first 18 6-furlong sprints were won gate to wire. And those occurred on back-to-back days, July 27 and 28.

— Starters from the 3, 4, 5 and 6 posts have dominated turf races at a mile, winning 16 of 19 races.

— Only one winner of a 5 furlong turf sprint started farther out than post 7.

I don’t think I need to explain how useful such knowledge is when it comes down to deciding between two horses that appear evenly matched on paper or determining when a heavily backed favorite might be up against it.

One piece of advice: Don’t try doing this for every track you play. Given the time commitment required, you (or a designated friend) will drive yourself to drink if you do.

#RJhorseracing featured races

The #RJhorseracing handicapping crew is focused on Del Mar this week for two of the premier races of the meet: the $300,000 Del Mar Oaks, a 1⅛th-mile turf race for 3-year-old fillies and the $1 million Pacific Classic, a 1¼-mile test on the main track for 3-year-olds and up.

In the Oaks, the crowd ’cappers are boldly taking a stand against two East Coast shippers trained by top turf trainer Chad Brown, including the 5-2 morning line favorite, Cambier Parc. Instead, they favor local hope Much Unusual (5-1), with Cambier Parc second and Lady Prancealot (8-1) third.

I’m also going to try to beat Brown, but I’ll try to do it with European mystery horse Hidden Message, who will be making her first U.S. start after two top efforts overseas and attracts Del Mar leading rider Flavien Prat. I have Cambier Parc send and Raymundos Secret (10-1) third.

In the Pacific Classic, the crew is backing 3-1 morning line favorite Seeking the Soul for the win, with Campaign (6-1) and Quip (9-2) picked for the minor placings.

“Hope he finds it, for God’s sake,” wrote the #RJhorseracing handicappers resident quipster, Thomas Mahoney, of the group’s pick.

Seeking the Soul looks like a legitimate favorite, but his off-the-pace running style can put him in tough spots. So I’ll use Quip on top and Seeking the Soul in second. For third, I’ll use live long shot War Story (8-1).

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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