Friday, September 3, 2010

Don't Judge A Book By It's Cover

In racing some of the most important tools we as handicappers and fans use to help us identify the horse most likely to come out on top in a specific race are times. We look at final times, internal fractions, final quarters, and single furlong fractions in works. Basically any distance that is assigned a number, we look at.

We get so excited when we see a speed demon run killer fractions come home after being eased in the final furlong to get only a fraction of a second away from a track or stakes record. A closer who closes a quarter mile in under 24 seconds impresses us, and if they can run a sub 23 we are awestruck. As Americans, we are speed freaks.

It is no wonder that when a horse runs a slow final time as well as moderate internal fractions that lead to an even less final quarter or furlong, we are extremely underwhelmed. That is exactly what seems to be happening during the 2010 meet at Saratoga. The Travers Stakes for three year olds went the 10-furlong test in an unimpressive 2.03.23 and ran the final quarter in a lackadaisical 26 and change. Blame won the Whitney Handicap in an average final time of 1.48.88, and in this year's Personal Ensign, Persistently ran a sloooowwwww snail-like time of 2.04.49 while crawling home in a final quarter of 27 and change.

So how do we judge these horses? Are they really that slow? Are they really that average? Or could it possibly be something deeper, under the surface? The truth is that for the past three or so years the Saratoga main track has been steadily producing more average final times coupled with unimpressive final quarters and furlongs at the grade one level from nine furlongs and up. While also looking back, it can be seen that over the past few years at the same distance and level, Saratoga has been increasingly unkind to any horse that wants to try and take the race wire to wire.

Lets go back to last year's Alabama Stakes. Careless Jewel, known for her early speed, was rated back in second for the first six or seven furlongs before bursting away to a visually impressive win, but won with a less than stellar time of 2.03.24 with a final quarter of 25 and change. That same year, Summer Bird won the Travers in an average time of 2.02.83, but with a final quarter of 26.22.

An earlier example of this occurring was the 2008 Travers, with a final time of 2.03.2 and a final furlong of 26 flat. Another was the 2007 Woodward, where Lawyer Ron ran a solid 9 furlongs in 1.48. 6 but ran his final three eighths in 37.15 seconds. A final example was the 2007 Personal Ensign, a race run in 2.03.48 with a slow 26.69 final quarter. It would also be valuable to note that in not one of these races did the winner lead the field wire to wire. In fact, since 2006 there have only been three horses that were able to wire their fields at the grade one level, going 9 furlongs or over. Those horses were Fleet Indian, Commentator, and Rachel Alexandra. Horses that were closer to the pace were Premium Tap and Careless Jewel.

What does this tell us? It says that Saratoga is a uniquely deep and tiring track that takes it toll on horses, producing average internal fractions, average to slow final clockings and normally slow final fractions. So, next time you're handicapping a race at Saratoga, just remember to try to look a little deeper and not just at that slow final time you may see on your Daily Racing Form.

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