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Track bias. Track profile.
Few discussions of modern-day handicapping are carried out without some mention of one or both. But there's an awful lot of interchanging going on, and it's time to make some finer distinctions.
Bias is a pronounced short-term phenomenon. It's overwhelming and prohibitive. It doesn't allow for variation. In place, it exerts its unbending will on the results charts, and sharp, observant handicappers will often throw out every other handicapping factor in order to give the bias its full credit.
Most of the time, biases are the result of one of two things: weather, or track maintenance. Weather, whether hot and dry or blustery and rainy, has a profound and obvious effect on the surface over which the horses are competing. A drowning rain or hard-blowing wind can sometimes narrow the contention in a race down to one or two horses -- those that will benefit from the conditions. And in response to extreme weather, track maintenance crews will attempt to manicure the surface to make it fair, but in their manipulations an even more partial track results.
Biases promoting early speed are the most common. Horses zip gate-to-wire without fail, race after race, inside or outside. The pressers and closers are doomed. Nothing can get past the first -- and only -- frontrunner. It happens, though not as often as most handicappers would believe.
On the other hand, when the frontrunners die time after time, the crowd will often remark that a closers' bias is in play. That may or may not be true, more likely not. If the rallying winners are horses laying in second or third most of the way around, any perceived closers' bias is probably exaggerated.
The most reliable test of determining the presence of a bias is to look for a lack of variation in the results. When obvious, on-paper race dynamics repeatedly fail to play out the way they should, that's a telltale sign there's a bias underfoot.
Post-position biases are less likely, but they do occur. More frequent is the inside-or-outside bias. Typical characterizations of this type of bias almost always involve the word "rail," preceded by one of the following two words: "golden" or "dead."
In short, track biases are like hot streaks and cold streaks, the transient runs that make up the whole. And that whole is called the track profile.
Track profile is much less fickle. It's definitely long-range. It's the result of plenty of races, over months and meets, and typically holds stable for the course of an extended period. Whereas biases are determined by circumstances that are difficult to repeat exactly, track profiles are largely determined by more-stable factors. Track layout, course composition, length of runs into the turns or from the turns to the finish line -- all these hard facts are the biggest determinants of how a track historically plays.
This winter brings several examples of the track bias/track profile interplay. Most notably, Fair Grounds had a brief run earlier in the meet in which dirt races were won almost entirely by frontrunners and tight pressers, and wet weather and sloppy tracks likely had a lot to do with it. The deep closers that frequently win on the Fair Grounds main track were seemingly being held back by an invisible force field.
But that period came and went, and the track over the last few weeks has reverted to type. The Fair Grounds' heavy soil composition and long homestretch have been propelling the come-from-behinders to their proper place in the track profile -- namely, into the winner's circle with regularity.
Track profile is like the lifetime batting average in baseball or the shooting percentage in basketball, if you will. It holds up over the long haul, despite .500 streaks and zero-for-29 slumps.
A one-month window gives a good view on how a track is performing with respect to its historical trend. Here's a rundown of how tracks are playing now. You can use this information to focus on certain types of plays (for example, your favorite lone-speed angle at tracks that aren't defeating frontrunners). The following should allow you to cash in on the short-term while being aware of the long run.
Aqueduct: As always, early speed is king at the lone sprint distance: six furlongs. But the two-turn races so far have been quite fair, with no one running style dominating.
Beulah: This track is currently living up to its reputation of wilting the front speed. Closers do particularly well at an unlikely distance: five and a half furlongs. Look for the come-from-behinders to do well at other distances here, too.
Charles Town: Outside of the four-and-a-half-furlong distance, the late-runners do quite well. Perhaps the abbreviated-sprint races attract all the quality frontrunners, leaving the longer six-and-a-half- and seven-furlong sprints to the ralliers. And at a mile and a sixteenth, the closers's advantage is pronounced.
Delta: Early speed does well at the obvious five-furlong distance, but it also holds sway, maybe surprisingly, at six-and-a-half furlongs. At seven furlongs and a flat mile, the various running styles for winners are evenly distributed.
Fair Grounds: As mentioned above, closers are regaining their usual advantage here. This advantage is especially large in the two-turn route races. On turf, it's a closers' paradise, and not many winners do any serious running before the first six furlongs have been contested.
Golden Gate: This track is a mixed bag right now. Early speed has a slight edge in the sprint distances.
Gulfstream: Another track with a split personality. The six- and six-and-a-half-furlong races are early-speed-friendly; but seven furlongs is not. The mile-and-70-yard distance is good for frontrunners; a mile and a sixteenth is great for ralliers. Watch your step. On turf, last year's weather biased the surface toward speed. This year, however, you don't really want to be anywhere close to the front on grass.
Sam Houston: Front-speed holds at five-and-a-half furlongs and six furlongs, goes limp at six and a half and seven furlongs. The route distances are reasonably fair, though the mile-and-70-yard distance has a little tilt toward the front. The Sam Houston turf is completely schizoid. At five furlongs, you must be leading, or you don't win. But only one early leader in turf routes has held on in 16 races. In fact, in the grass routes, only horse leading at the stretch call has been able to win. Wow!
Laurel: Good news for frontrunners at six furlongs and at a mile and a sixteenth; the other way around at six and a half furlongs and a mile and an eighth.
Mountaineer: Mostly early-speed-favoring in sprints, except at five and a half furlongs. Routes are pretty fair.
Oaklawn: A fair track, too, though perhaps with a modest advantage for come-from-behinders.
Penn National: Early speed lives well in the Keystone State, especially at distances up to a mile.
Philadelphia: One-turn races are all about early speed, especially up to six furlongs. Around two turns, closers have their say.
Santa Anita: The track is playing fairer in sprints than it has in recent years. However, the traditionally early-speed-friendly one-mile distance is up to its usual tricks, and the front is by far the best way to go. On turf, ralliers represent the bulk of the winning running styles.
Suffolk: Six furlongs has been kind to the come-from-behinders, actually, and they win their share. Routes revert to the frontrunners.
Tampa Bay: Closers have a good time here, especially beyond six furlongs. That the short five- and five-and-a-half-furlong distances play fair (and don't largely promote frontrunenrs) suggests a surface that is naturally partial toward ralliers. The local turf is very much the domain of the late-runners.
Turfway: Surprisingly, the sprints are going to the closers. Front-speed hasn't been shut out, but more ralliers than usual are doing the winning. Two-turn flat-mile races are speed-friendly, but not prohibitively so.
Turf Paradise: One-turn races are very much for the speed. The mile gets fair.
What to do? How about pitching the frontrunners and pressers in Sam Houston turf routes? The trend dictates it! But in turf sprints there, look the other way.
Maybe you should temper your enthusiasm for lone-speed-type plays at places like Beulah, Charles Town, Fair Grounds and Turfway. Or send it in a little extra with those types at Delta, Penn National, Philadelphia and Turf Paradise. The possibilities are endless. Moreover, they're real. This is stuff you can put to good use right away.
Well, that was no good last week. Came Home looked like the resurrection of City Zip and Maybry's Boy was nowhere.
Saturday, the big prep for a big Kentucky Derby prep is the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct. It's a mile and a sixteenth, and nine are entered.
D' Coach is the 9-5 morning-line favorite, and has run the same race in each of his three career starts. His dead-last running style is cause for concern, though the pace he gets today should be more than fast enough to accommodate him. He should be running on best of all at the end.
The rest of the runners seem to be committed frontrunners, and something's going to have to give here. The two imports are interesting, however. Goshin's Lad has won a dirt route, in England, as has More Specific. Granted, they've never faced this level of competition, but they're probably going to be running on at the end along with D' Coach. Their trainers are reliable, and this run in the Whirlaway looks more like a serious try than a what-if curiosity. Let's tie up the strangers with the fave.
Big-time card on Saturday at Gulfstream, and not just for the big Donn, either. Oversubscribed fields from first race to last. Enjoy.
The Donn itself has attracted 14 horses, and they'll be going nine furlongs for the lion's share of the $500,000 purse. Point of fact: last year's winner was a gate-to-wire job, but that's typically not a successful style for a mile and an eighth on the Gulfstream main track.
Red Bullet and Graeme Hall are one-two on the morning line and make sense. Both should settle comfortably early before pouncing somewhere into the far turn. Our longshots candidates will have to be Duckhorn and Kiss a Native. Duckhorn looks like a stone frontrunner, but has some versatility and should be ready to pounce on Keats when he wants. Kiss a Native will be finding his best stride after the field straightens for home and will be passing a few of these late, especially at this distance, his favorite.
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