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.
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?
1) elimination of horses that seem unsuited to the distance of the race2) elimination of horses that do not seem in sufficiently sharp condition3) elimination of horses that seem outclassed4) elimination of horses at a serious disadvantage on today’s footing or in light of track biases
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.”
Don’t bet the horse, bet the jockey
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.
Santa Anita racetrack is a beautiful place. There’s history. Seabiscuit raced there, a statue honors him. It’s good to sit in the stands, look at the mountains, and drink a beer, watch the horses race. Read the little horse newspaper.
Santa Anita’s been having problems though. Horses keep dying there.
Since December 36 (!) horses have died.
On Saturday at Santa Anita they had the Breeders’ Cup, a nationally televised race.
Santa Anita! This is your big moment. All eyes on you. You’re on TV, time to shine.
Don’t let any horses die.
They had ONE job. And what happened?
A green screen was rushed onto the track to block Mongolian Groom from the view of 67,811 fans and a prime-time television audience. He was loaded onto an equine ambulance and taken to a hospital on the backstretch.
Cup officials said in a statement about two hours after the race that Mongolian Groom had been euthanized after suffering a serious fracture to his left hind leg.
Couldn’t we pretend we were giving him tender care? euthanize him later?!
I’ll be sad if Santa Anita closes down. It’s like some enchanted time capsule of southern California. But, if you’re in the horse business, you can’t get me excited about horses and then keep killing them.
Was wondering why Justify / Mike Smith’s silks looked like the Chinese flag. Turns out the horse is part owned by China Horse Club.
The China Horse Club has about 200 members, according to its vice president, Eden Harrington. Membership costs a minimum of $1 million, according to some reports, but Mr. Harrington said the club offered different tiers of investment and that the fee was a credit that went toward the purchase of horses. He declined to give a range, and the club does not disclose the identities of members, who include wealthy citizens from China’s mainland and beyond.
Mr. Harrington said the club kept its membership private to shield members from potential public scrutiny amid a Chinese government led anti-corruption campaign which has “created a culture of fear where people didn’t want to be seen to be spending money in a way that may be seen as excessive.”
Much stimulating discussion ensued after Saturday’s post about why Kentucky Derby winners aren’t getting much faster.
Reader Avin D. sends us this 2014 Deadspin piece by Roger Pielke Jr. which has much better stats and looks at whether we’ve neared peak speeds in animal races:
One possibility, advanced by Denny and others, is that thoroughbred race times may have leveled off because the narrow genetic diversity of racehorses limits the genetic diversity in the pool of potential thoroughbred champions. Modern thoroughbreds are descendants of a small number of horses (less than 30 in the 18th century), and 95 percent are thought to trace their ancestry to a single horse, The Darley Arabian. Today, there are fewer than 25,000 thoroughbreds born each year in the United States. Compare that with the more than 7 billion people worldwide.3 The size of the human population may simply lead to a greater number of potential athletes with extreme speed.
Very cool. Imagine if every current human runner was descended from, like, Guto Nyth Bran.
The Darley Arabian sired Flying Childers:
It is said he completed this race, over the Round Course at Newmarket, in 6 minutes, 40 seconds and that he reached a speed of 82 1/2 feet per second or 1 mile per minute. This was claimed to make Flying Childers the only horse on record as having matched the top speed of the unbeaten Eclipse. By way of comparison, this would be nearly 40 seconds faster than the unbeaten Frankel ran the Newmarket Rowley Mile in his famous 2,000 Guineas victory of 2011, over 30 seconds faster than the current mile track record and very close to the five furlong track record set by Lochsong in 1994.
As for Eclipse:
Eclipse is still remembered in the phrase “Eclipse first and the rest nowhere”, snowcloned as “[name of competitor] first and the rest nowhere,” referring to any dominating victory. This phrase is occasionally seen in American print media (most often in newspaper sport sections) but is more common in Britain.
A new one to me. If Flying Childers could keep his alleged top speed of 82.5 feet per second he’d finish the Kentucky Derby in a minute twenty.
Why aren’t horse races longer anymore, the way they were in the Stewball era?
Anyway, congrats to Justify: