The Gift Horse

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Derek Simon

August 26th, 2015

It’s hard to win consistently at the races. Although the guy hawking “guaranteed winners” on the Internet for just $9.99 would disagree, pari-mutuel markets are generally efficient, meaning that they reflect nearly all the pertinent data available for each race.

However, every once in a while, a player receives a gift: a moment of ambiguity from Lady Luck.

I received just such an early (or would it be late?) birthday present on Aug. 24 at Finger Lakes — and I knew it the minute I saw the tote board. In a $5,000 claiming event for non-winners in a year, a six-year-old mare named Thetrainwasgone was getting all the early money.

Thetrainwasgone had once competed successfully in mid-level claiming and allowance events, but had been away from the races for nearly a year and a half before returning in an $8,500 claiming affair at Finger Lakes on June 13.

Yet, despite a solid showing that day — she finished a narrowly-beaten third — the daughter of Silver Train was dropping in class once again after spending another 2+ months on the sidelines and showing a single (slow) four-furlong work in the interim.

Does this look like a horse that deserves to be odds-on?

Adding to my belief that the pari-mutuel gods had taken leave of their senses was my Win Factor Report (computerized fair odds line), which didn’t even have Thetrainwasgone listed among the top four contenders in the race. Instead, Wild Child, who was being dismissed at 10-1, topped my fair odds line.

Now, in instances like this, where there is a vast spread between my WFR line and the tote, I’m prone to believe that my fair odds are wrong. As I noted earlier, pari-mutuel markets are generally efficient and one shouldn’t fool oneself into believing the crowd is comprised of a bunch of dolts.

But this race was different.

To begin with, Thetrainwasgone is trained by Chris Englehart, who has dominated the Finger Lakes trainer standings for more than a decade. Last year, the 60-year-old conditioner won his 14th consecutive training title at the Farmington, NY track and he’s well on his way to making it 15 straight titles this year.

Secondly, Thetrainwasgone had the best overall speed figures in the field, which is always alluring to lazy bettors.

These seemingly positive factors were offset by several, more troubling ones, though:

  1. Speed figures earned more than a year ago, especially in cheap claiming affairs, are of little value today. Hence, Thetrainwasgone’s speed edge is moot.
  2. A good recent speed figure is also of little value if one suspects a horse’s form is deteriorating, which seems to be a reasonable assumption in the case of Thetrainwasgone. (Once again, I refer to the drop in class and the 72 days of relative inactivity.)
  3. Comparatively speaking, Englehart is not great with horses coming off a 46- to 90-day layoff (17 percent win rate, -39 percent ROI this year compared to a 22 percent win rate and -28 percent ROI overall).

On the other hand, Wild Child had the best Pace Profile Report Class Rating and the top median ESR, which is often a potent combination, particularly in cheap claiming races.

Thus, I bet Wild Child to win and show (there was a negative pool) and I also used her with Dogtooth Violet and Regarding Opal on top in a superfecta that kept Thetrainwasgone off the top half of the ticket (go big or go home).

When Dancin On the Sand rallied for second at 45-1, I was a happy camper (not that any of you care).

The point here is that one can find “gifts” like this every day at the racetrack. Remember, opportunity doesn’t always knock; sometimes it comes disguised as a bad 3-5 favorite in a race for $5,000 claimers at Finger Lakes on a Monday afternoon.