FEBRUARY 25, 2009
Which is the Key -- Yesterday or Tomorrow?
by Steve Zacks
Much, perhaps too much, has already been written about the performance of THIS ONES FOR PHIL (Untuttable) in the restricted Sunshine Millions Dash for California- and Florida-bred sophomores at Gulfstream in late January. This raises the issue of one's approach to the entire process of prospecting for winners on any racing card. Either you are looking at what horses have done in the past and using that as the basis of your approach, or you are regarding the past in the context of what it tells you about how a particular horse or horses "project" to run today.
They call them "past performances" for a reason! They tell you what a horse has done in the past. They tell you if he has been forwardly placed early and done his better running in the latter stages or vice versa. To the extent that the variant maker has precisely assessed all the factors that go into the construction of an accurate daily variant, the Speed and Pace figures may truly represent, in a series of numbers, just how fast a horse ran on a particular day. By adding paths and trips into the mix, performance ratings try to represent everything about a runner's race into one or two figures.
Following ANY LIMIT's (Limit Out) victory in the Hurricane Bertie S. (G3) at Gulfstream on February 15, Hall of Famer Alan Jerkens explained it simply by saying that she "ran a better race today than she did last time." He went on to add that if she continued to train well and was sound, she would try a tougher test at seven furlongs in a few weeks. A horse's form cycles; she will either run better or worse today than she did either last time out, or the last time she was in a similar situation as relates to class, distance, surface, surface condition and time since the last race.
A significant theme underlying my recent piece on evaluating trainer stats was the idea that trainers try to accomplish things with many of their charges; when they return to a previously successful pattern of preparation, one can frequently anticipate a change in the level of performance! That change sometimes shows up in the statistics, when a horse gets lucky enough to be well-spotted and things break his way during the running of the race and gets home on top. The piece made the point that very often horses actually do improve as anticipated, but for a myriad of reasons do not win and are thus not reflected in the published statistics.
The trainer-based approach is usually forward-looking. It focuses not only on trainers who are currently winning races, but also on an anticipated change in performance today, often basing that on knowledge of the trainer's modus operandi. Performance changes are basically unquantifiable and therefore tend to have wager value if an upside thrust is needed to win a race. In This Ones for Phil's case, there were numerous reasons to forget the past and to project or anticipate a significant change in performance today.
The horse had moved into a new barn, with a new trainer and a completely different approach to readying horses for racing. The work tab was different. I see Dick Dutrow as a terrific horseman, perhaps even one of the best of his generation. If he skirts the rules in a game that basically condones rule infringements, then so be it. But year in and year out he repeats many of the same patterns and wins races utilizing the same tried and true methods of generations of top horsemen in the past. His horses generally look good on the track, they get time off when needed, and he runs them where they can win, up or down in class.
Dutrow has a long and proven record of improving horses in their first start under his tutelage. This Ones for Phil was returning from a significant layoff and the time off for a newly turned three-year-old frequently produces a change in performance for the better. Off a layoff, the horse was going turf to dirt and route to sprint. Those who focus on trainers and trainer switches look for these runners all the time! Very often when they need to improve they do, and very often the odds are most generous.
A trainer switch with a layoff and a hold or rise in class is an extremely productive angle for numerous trainers and often produces significantly improved performances. The reasons are quite simple. One usually claims a horse with the hope or expectation of improvement. If an owner switches trainers, either he/she or the new trainer want results within the first few starts. Very often you will see a new trainer run a horse in a softer spot. When you know that a trainer is in control of where the horse will run, then the class rise has more meaning that it does with trainers who often dream.
As a former trainer, I know that when I brought a new horse into the barn, the blacksmith, vet and dentist were all called in to run various tests and/or for consultations. Blood was taken, teeth were examined and floated if necessary, shoes and hoof angles were discussed and altered, sometimes x-rays, ultra-sounds or scopes were carried out. If the test results were ok, a horse would often run back quickly; in other situations time was taken. If the horse went up in class after the jail period, it was often a positive sign. I cannot say that I did not often dream back then, but horses frequently did run better than they had before, even if they did not win.
Betting on horses is not simple. Even if you identify a horse that runs an improved race today, you have to be correct in your assessment of how he fits in today's race. I personally have gone through many periods where horses do run better as expected and at long odds...but do NOT win. Anticipating an improved performance is only one part of the jigsaw puzzle. When all the pieces fit together, the payoffs are usually rewarding.
"Yesterday" is a nice Beatles song, but we make money by predicting the future!
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