Fit vs. Fragile

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Derek Simon

August 24th, 2012

Rail Trip
A few years ago, I wrote about the Freshened Horse Fallacy, the theory that the modern-day thoroughbred simply cannot withstand the rigors of day-to-day training and — heaven forbid — racing on a consistent basis.

I pointed out that much of this hysteria is based on the belief that thoroughbreds are getting weaker and more fragile due to the emphasis American breeders are putting on speed, rather than stamina. 

The premature retirements of both I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister, the 1-2 finishers in this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, seems to back this contention up, as does the recent tendon tear that unethically targeted last year’s juvenile champion Hansen and likely relegated his career to the history books as well.

That horses are making fewer and fewer starts is indisputable. In 1975, the average thoroughbred went to post 10.2 times a year; in 2011, the average number of starts per year was down to 6.2.

Of course, whether or not this has to do with dubious DNA or a changing economic and social landscape is very much in doubt. After all, does anybody seriously think that we’ll ever see another Triple Crown winner compete past the age of five, which both Assault and Citation did (in the 1940s)?

What’s more, if American stud farms are, in fact, breeding for speed these days, they’re having about as much success as Kris Jenner did breeding for class and dignity. While all eight of the quarter horse world records for distances up to 550 yards were set in the last three years and standardbred records seem to fall every week, only a handful of thoroughbred world-record times have been recorded in the new millennium. Some, like the seven-furlong mark, date back to when the Internet was merely a sparkle in Al Gore’s eyes.

Personally, I think the notion that breeding for speed has led to the decline of the thoroughbred racehorse is largely bunk. Likewise, the view that more rest and fewer races is the only way to effectively deal with this “delicate” situation is also malarkey.

When I penned “The Freshened Horse Fallacy,” I presented some test data to prove this and I want to do the same thing here, only with new, up-to-date statistics. But before I reveal the numbers, let me first establish the ground rules, as set in that original piece:
Of course, the biggest challenge one faces when attempting to prove or disprove a racetrack “fact” is obtaining truly independent variables. The reality is that almost no single factor contributing to the outcome of a horse race can be easily isolated. Take, for example, speed and form — what’s the real difference? Typically, a horse that runs fast also runs well, right? After all, it’s not often that a 30-length loser will post an outstanding Beyer figure.

So, my first hurdle was distinguishing between a “freshening” and layoffs resulting from injury or infirmity. Thus, I decided to concentrate solely on post-time favorites (ignoring entries). That way, I could be reasonably certain that I was apprising only those contestants that had shown at least a semblance of class and form in the recent past.

Now, does this ensure an autonomous sample? Of course not. Obviously, the date of a horse’s most recent outing is going to influence the crowd’s betting habits, but at least it helps eliminate those hapless nags that neither racing nor resting will aid.

First, I looked at favorites as a whole (provided they were single betting interests with at least one lifetime start) from assorted races run during 2004-2009:

Races: 5,786
Won: 2,075
Rate: 35.9%
ROI: -15.49%

As you can see, these figures are right in line with long-term national averages. Thus, my database would appear to be “fair.” Next, I looked at favorites that were coming back on less than 10 days rest:

Races: 250
Won: 98
Rate: 39.2%
ROI: -8.36%
At this point, let’s take a DeLorean back to the future and take a peek at the current figures, culled from my brand new database consisting of 4,873 races. First, all the favorites:

Races: 4,873
Won: 1,811
Rate: 37.2%
ROI: -16.82%

What immediately strikes me, of course, is that although favorites are winning more now than before (37.2 percent vs. 35.9 percent), the ROI is even worse (-16.82 percent compared to -15.49 percent). Just more proof that value betting is the only way to profit in today’s game.

However, that’s not what my test and this article are about. So, with that in mind, let’s see if the current crop of thoroughbreds can stand up to the “rigors” of a recent race. Below are the digits for favorites competing within 10 days of their last start:

Races: 225
Won: 97
Rate: 43.1%
ROI: -10.11%

Once again, we see a huge improvement in the stats — an improvement that seems to argue against an increasingly brittle breed. This test also demonstrates why one should (at the very least) be hesitant to accept horseracing “truths” at face value.

Far too often, they are anything but.

Six-Figure Saturday & Sunday

A couple of $1 million Grade I events highlight this weekend’s racing action. On Saturday, the top (remaining) three-year-olds do battle in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga; then, on Sunday, the best older horses on the West Coast square off in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
In the former, I’m intrigued by the ever-improving Street Life, who just captured the Curlin by 1 ¾ lengths on July 27, as well as Liaison and Neck ‘N Neck, both of whom had wide trips vs. probable race favorite Alpha in the Grade II Jim Dandy on July 28.

Where the surf meets the turf, I’ll be keeping my eye on Rail Trip, who recorded a race-best +6 late speed ration (LSR) in his last race, the Grade II San Diego Handicap. The old guy still has some spring left in his legs and he should get a great... well, rail trip... in Sunday’s feature.

On the other hand, I’m completely tossing Dullahan, who is starting to remind me of Ice Box. Yeah, his non-effort in the Haskell can probably be excused — I’m not convinced the son of Even The Score cares for the dirt, much less Monmouth Park’s speed-favoring surface — but, honestly, this guy’s resume hardly screams greatness. And given that the Classic will mark his first try against older foes, I’ll take a pass.

For FREE Brisnet past performance that include my speed rations(ESRs and LSRs), check out the links below: