Questions of track bias raised by Breeders' Cup

Profile Picture: Alastair Bull

November 7th, 2017

Del Mar’s first Breeders’ Cup proved notable for its multiple shocks as well as for its great performances. When results like these happen, questions invariably get asked about whether there was any kind of track bias.

The only favorites to win were both on turf: World Approval (5-2) in the Mile on Saturday, and Mendelssohn in the Juvenile Turf – and at nearly 5-1 the latter wasn’t exactly dominating the market. Juvenile Fillies’ Turf victor Rushing Fall (3-1) was the second pick, but all the other turf winners were at double-figure odds.

On dirt, the shortest winning odds were 5-2 for Gun Runner in the Classic; he was the original morning line favorite, but by post time he was the second pick behind Arrogate (2-1). Forever Unbridled (7-2) and Roy H. (5-1) were both third favorites, but the other four winners were at 11-1 (Good Magic), 14-1 (Battle of Midway), 17-1 (Caledonia Road), and 67-1 (Bar of Gold).

On the turf course, the place to be during the Breeders’ Cup meet was clearly on the speed, preferably close to the fence. Of the six winners, only Rushing Fall had a wide trip in the second half of the field; Mendelssohn and the Filly & Mare Turf winner Wuheida were one back on the fence, Turf Sprint winner Stormy Liberal and Turf winner Talismanic were two back on the fence, and World Approval was one off the rail and one back from the pace.

The turning nature of the turf course, however, means a forward position near the fence will always be a good one, provided the horse gets clear early enough to mount a challenge.

Several writers have said there was a bias toward runners off the fence on the dirt track, especially on the Saturday. The only front-runner to win was Gun Runner, an outstanding talent all year, and he was at least three horses off the fence in the back stretch. Roy H. and Caledonia Gold all raced well off the fence, Bar of Gold came from last, and Good Magic was just behind the pace, though about four horses off the fence for much of it.

It’s probably best to defer to the experts on track bias, which did appear to go against pace setters. However, at the very least, the fact that most races had the greatest depth to any in their division for the year, and generally contained 12 to 14 runners, means the right trip and some luck in running always plays a part.

As always, there will also be horses that just don’t like the track. This may particularly apply to last year’s Classic hero Arrogate. Since his great Dubai World Cup win he’s run three times, all at Del Mar, and failed each time. Given that he didn’t run on any other tracks, it’s hard to know if it’s the surface beating him, or if he’s just not the same horse. As he has been retired, we’ll never know.

Whatever the case, it is possible that bias and surface preference played a part at the Breeders’ Cup, especially on the dirt track.

The big tip for handicappers may well be to give some of the horses that failed at Del Mar another chance. Time will tell if bias or a dislike of the Del Mar dirt had any real bearing.