How to read a Racing Form // Belmont Stakes value picks
Posted: June 20, 2020 Filed under: America Since 1945, horses, sports
Every time I’m in Las Vegas I pass through the sports book and pick up a few racing sheets. I’ve never been able to make much out of them, but the life of the full-time degenerate who’s eating a hot dog and watching the 3rd at Gulfstream or Louisiana Downs is somehow attractive. Why is that? What is it about this that’s appealing? The songs and legends are part of it, for sure. I’ve always found sitting in the stands at Santa Anita an appealing afternoon. Less so since news of the frequent horse deaths.
Santa Anita is running right now, without spectators.
“I love to go back to Paris,” Hemingway said, his eyes still fixed on the road. “Am going in the back door and have no interviews and no publicity and never get a haircut, like in the old days. Want to go to cafés where I know no one but one waiter and his replacement, see all the new pictures and the old ones, go to the bike races and the fights, and see the new riders and fighters. Find good, cheap restaurants where you can keep your own napkin. Walk over all the town and see where we made our mistakes and where we had our few bright ideas. And learn the form and try and pick winners in the blue, smoky afternoons, and then go out the next day to play them at Auteuil and Enghien.”
“Papa is a good handicapper,” Mrs. Hemingway said.
“When I know the form,” he said.
from the Lillian Ross New Yorker profile of Hemingway.
How do you “learn the form”?
I chanced recently across this academic paper, Sports Betting As a New Asset Class, by Lovjit Thukral and Pedro Vergel. It addresses the possible money-making potential of a strategy of “laying the favorite.”
The authors take a simple betting strategy based on Horse races in the UK and invest consistently on laying (betting on the event not to occur) the 4 favourite horses (with the lowest odds) in each race. They find the following:
(1) this type of horse racing strategy provide uncorrelated returns to the market;
(2) the strategy outperforms the Credit Suisse Hedge fund Index and S&P 500 Total returns on average for the last 6 years.
Can this be so? A quick investigation reveals that “laying the favorite” in this way doesn’t seem to be a commonplace option in US horse betting. I don’t think this strategy would be financially viable here.
This talk of laying favorites reminded me of my friend Beth Raymer’s book, Lay The Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling.
The book was made into a 2012 film starring Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
In the book, Raymer describes learning from the professional gambler and line-setter Dink:
Studying to find value — into it! I resolved to learn how to read a Racing Form, and try to glean some information from it that might give an edge.
Using the very helpful resources provided by the late Neil Benoit’s Getting Out Of The Gate website, which has a Racing 101-401 course, I was able to grasp the basics. This resource at Art of Manliness was also quite helpful, and there’s a Wikihow about racing forms, but it’s Benoit who really gave us a gift.
I’d like to try and summarize my learnings for you, to save you the time in case you’re interested, and because the easiest way to really learn something is to try and teach it.
Let’s take as our example the first horse, Route Six Six, in the 7th race tomorrow (Saturday, June 20) at Santa Anita.
Up top we’ve got some basic info about the horse, like who owns her (f=filly), and her mom (Dam) and dad (Sire).
Personally, and this is based on zero study, but I suspect there’s all together too much focus on breeding in horses. It feels distracting and possibly irrelevant, like when the old-time scouts in Moneyball are focused on how hot a player’s girlfriend is. It just feels old-fashioned and unstatistical. But then again, since I haven’t run any statistical studies, this belief of mine is based on zero evidence as well.
You know what I want to find out from a racing form? One thing. How fast is this horse?
I turned to my high school experience as a cross-country runner under the rigorous coaching of Livingston Carroll, who also taught statistics. He’d always have a pretty good sense of the average race times of most of our competition. It seems to me that the racing form, while interesting as a compressed pile of information, doesn’t really focus in on the central question: which of these horses is the fastest? Beyond that is intangibles and unpredictable noise.
Luckily the Racing Form gives us lots of info towards figuring out which horse is fastest, if we can just figure it out. We get a bunch of data on the horse’s recent races.
We see that Route Six Six ran on the 16th of May 2020 in the fourth race at SA (Santa Anita) in fst (fast) conditions at a distance of one mile. OK, already useful info. Remember what Thomas Ainslie says in his Complete Guide
about the basic components:
1) elimination of horses that seem unsuited to the distance of the race
2) elimination of horses that do not seem in sufficiently sharp condition
3) elimination of horses that seem outclassed
4) elimination of horses at a serious disadvantage on today’s footing or in light of track biases
The distance helps us sort out #1. Route Six Six, as we can see, has been running at 1 mile, even 1 1/8 mile. A mile is 8 furlongs. 1 1/16 mile should be a reasonable distance for this horse. Races of a mile or longer are called “routes,” vs shorter races, “sprints.”
In my limited experience I find routes are more predictable. At Los Alamitos they run races at 330 yards. At that point it can come down to what kind of jump you get out of the gate, which seems harder to predict based on the info in the Racing Form, or at least a different category of study.
Now, let’s talk about class. It’s worth reading Benoit on class
. Horse races are at all different classes, starting (for our purposes) with Md Sp Wt, or Maiden Special Weight.
A maiden horse has never won a race. Maiden races are thus famously kind of unpredictable. Let’s say you win a maiden special weight, as Route Six Six did on December 31, 2018, “breaking her maiden.” Well, now she’s on an Allowance race.
When it comes to understanding class, the metaphor of minor league baseball is often used. Going from maiden racing to an allowance race is like going from single A to AA ball. A horse moving up or down in class is facing a different caliber of competition.
Now, as they say, “the horse doesn’t know what class it’s in.” But it’s something to watch for, and learn from the Form. Is this a promising up and coming racer moving up to face faster horses? A declining athlete going down a level to compete against weaker competition?
Note that Route Six Six is coming down from an 80K to a 62K. I don’t know what that means, may not even be anything, but it seems like a slight step down in class. Which could be good!
Now, these numbers in bold. The Beyer Speed Figure.
Beyer figures are a whole thing
Beyer took a stack of old Daily Racing Forms and did the laborious math by hand, sifting through years of data, applying the analytical skills he had developed as a games-playing child. “‘Six furlongs in 1:13 equals seven furlongs in 1:26 and a fifth’ was my E=MC2,” Beyer says, laughing. By 1972 he had managed to construct a reliable speed chart that incorporated the important element of track variance, a measure of track speed and bias, which was previously calculated by an antiquated–and, in most cases, inaccurate–system. Beyer devised a highly specific, sophisticated method for determining track variances, a method that accounted for the times turned in by different types of horses.
By combining his newly minted speed ratings with his fresh perspective on track speed, the young columnist invented the Beyer Speed Figures.
Interestingly, Beyer come up with his numbers specifically because so much of racing thinking at that time was centered around class:
“The orthodoxy back then said that ‘class’ was the measure of a race,” Beyer says, while making hieroglyphic notations in the margins of his race program. “For instance, if a $10,000 claimer was running against a slower $200,000 claimer, the assumption was that the slower but ‘classier’ horse would win. I was looking for a way to verify–or contradict–that assumption.”
We’ll come back to Beyer Figures in a bit.
Now, how about the jockey?
Don’t bet the horse, bet the jockey
is an old racing adage. It is interesting that jockeys have very different stats and results. Here are the stats at Santa Anita from this week’s Racing Form.
Prat wins 27% of the time, and J Valdivia Jr wins 10% of the time. Worth considering.
Finally, we see the results of the horses in previous races:
Note those boldface names on the most recent race. That tells us that Ax Man (AxMn) and Multiplier (Mltplr) both are in this very race! So Route Six Six is running today against two horses that have already beaten her! This is good information to know, as we try and figure out who will win today’s race!
The notes on the race are kind of helpful, but in the age of YouTube, you can also go back and watch these previous races, and see if there’s anything interesting that may not be fully recorded here in the Form.
One more thing: works. Sometimes the horse hasn’t run any races, and all you have to go on are the “works,” or officially timed practices. These are intriguing measures of a horse’s speed, although the horse is (always? almost always?) running alone in these conditions.
Take a look at Route Six Six’s opponent Ax Man’s works:
That bullet mark means Ax Man had the fastest work of any horse of the day on June 17 at Santa Anita. How meaningful is that? Depends, I guess. (Note that Ax Man is a gelding (g in the gender line). They castrated Ax Man?! Rude. I don’t know much about the meanings of horse gender on speed. The colts seem a little faster than the fillies, but three fillies have won the Kentucky Derby.)
Here’s my crude handicapping method:
Let’s start by just trying to rank these horses on speed.
Simply averaging the Beyer speed numbers, occasionally throwing out some outliers, and factoring in a pinch of understanding about class and jockey and so on seem indeed to be a reasonable predictor of which horses will finish first in a race. In two days of experimental handicapping, the winner was always in the top three I selected via this method.
Now, you compare these results to the odds. It’s possible to occasionally spot a “value” horse. I found the results, as Ainslie would say, salutary.
In horse race betting, you’re not competing against nothing, or even the morning odds. You’re competing against the other bettors. Their bets determine the final odds.
Knowing a particular horse is the fastest competitor in a race isn’t that useful, because it’ll probably be reflected in the odds. Very occasionally, though, you can spot anomalies, where your personal handicapping of the race differs from the odds in an interesting and possibly profitable way.
Remember though, the track is taking an 18-20% take. You need to predict 20% better than the cumulative wisdom of the crowd just to break even!
Anyway, here’s how I’d handicap the Belmont Stakes tomorrow:
1 – Tap It To Win – average Beyer Speed Figure minus any outliers I chose to throw out: 75.6
Coming off two consecutive wins, but if this race goes off at any kind of speed will struggle to keep up
2- Sole Volante – 90.2
Very consistent, won on June 10 decisively. A fast horse, maybe underappreciated. Worth looking at the odds close to post time. This could be a value bet.
3- Max Player – 75.33
New jockey today. Don’t think this horse is fast enough.
4 – Modernist – 76.4
Last won a race in February
5 – Farmington Road – 77.33
A solid also ran horse
6 – Fore Left – 72.75
This horse’s last win was in United Arab Emirates. Feels fishy. But that was a good clean win and very fast.
7 – Jungle Runner
A weak horse
8 – Tiz The Law – 91
The strongest contender by far, on the cover of Racing Form this week. But look, the favorite loses something like 78% of the time.
9 – Dr. Post – 84
Can a new jockey get something out of this horse? The pickers like Dr. Post.
10 – Pneumatic – 89
Something just seems off about the results for this horse. Does he know how to win?
8 – Tiz The Law
2 – Sole Volante
10 – Pneumatic
I haven’t looked at recent odds. This morning Tiz the Law was at 6-5, and Sole Volante 9-5, so no real value there. Fore Left came in at 30-1, and Pneumatic at 8-1. Pneumatic to show could be interesting?
One attraction of horseracing is it really draws out a certain kind of stylized or old-fashioned writing in enthusiasts:
Benson has had it with this hanging crepe for its own sake!
Disclaimer: I’ve spent maybe twenty hours learning about horseracing. I know nothing. There are thousands of horse race bettors who’ve spent easily 10,000-20,000 hours on this. There are whole teams that have seen every single race any one of these horses have run, and spent hours putting information into fast computers. That’s the competition. I’m posting this for my amusement, and to enhance the amateur enjoyment of this pastime for my well-rounded readers.
Before you bet any actual money, which no one’s encouraging you to do, see if you don’t find a small “mind bet” as emotionally stimulating, as satisfactory in victory without being as painful in defeat.
Readers, I just idly checked out the 9th race at Belmont today, the Jaipur. Will be televised on NBC. I noticed Hidden Scroll, a very fast horse, had something aberrant in his last race:
What’s that about? Here we see the pleasures and oddness of the Racing Form as compressed storytelling:
Luckily in this glorious age of YouTube what Hidden Scroll did in his last race, this might be the craziest thing in a horse race I’ve ever seen:
Motherfucking horse nearly broke his own neck, lost his jockey, and still almost won! He’ll have the same jockey (JR Velazquez) today! That should be a very interesting race.