Winter tracks bring to questions to a horse players' strategy

Nov 28, 2017 3:00 AM

As the summer and fall race meets close from coast to coast and a handful of familiar winter tracks open for their seasons, I like to remind myself and other serious horseplayers that we need to answer a handful of key questions about each horse’s suitability to the shifts they will face in the weeks and months ahead.

For just one seemingly simple example: What will we do with a horse who was good at the recent Del Mar meets, but not so good at Santa Anita 10-12 months ago? Do we downgrade the horse’s Del Mar performances? Do we ignore last year’s poor SA efforts?

Of course, this singular question will not be the only issue we must deal with to properly assess the impact key changes might have on today’s performance. For a related example, the reverse situation will require a similar assessment. As in – what if the horse ran terrific at Santa Anita last winter, but was not a serious contender in a Del Mar race or two?

The good news about this and other seemingly difficult handicapping problems, can be found in Daily Racing Form’s extraordinary past performance profiles, which can provide important clues to help us decide what factors may have contributed to how this horse performed recently or in last year’s meet.

For instance, basic research will reveal if a trainer change was involved. If so, was it a positive or negative switch? DRF PP’s also can give us clues to a positive or negative distance change. Did a distance switch impact this horse’s good or bad performances at either track? Perhaps you will see if the horse had an absence from competition before or after a good or bad performance. Do the listed workouts provide clues about current fitness, or the lack of same?

While many answers found in simple DRF PP research may seem fundamental to the handicapping experience, I can assure all readers too few players go through any such examination. That, in fact, is a major reason why so many players struggle so hard to win money.

I know. I have been guilty of shirking from the necessary work on several occasions and can attest that such negligence proved quite costly. But, when I did the suggested research for the first week or two of a new race-meet, I also can confirm to having enjoyed some of the best seasons of my handicapping career!

Given that, I want to share the specific circumstance that happened many years ago that opened my eyes to the need to answer questions like the ones posed earlier in this column. The experience helped me realize the need to understand the potential value of racing surface changes as well as what may happen when a good horse has to compete under new or unfavorable circumstances.

At the bottom line, the lessons learned from this experience helped me become a winning player and if you take my advice – to carefully research major shifts in tracks and other major changes – it could help your game just as much.

The situation was the 1972 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Racecourse. After watching Riva Ridge win the Kentucky Derby, I thought he had a great chance to sweep the Triple Crown, something his famous stable-mate Secretariat would accomplish in 1973. But Riva Ridge did not win the ’72 Preakness, a longshot named Bee Bee Bee won that 1-3/16 mile classic. Yet, I did not really appreciate the factors that led to that upset until a horse playing friend pointed these details out to me:

“My pick,” he began, “goes back to what I saw at Bowie racetrack during the winter. Bowie’s racing surface was frozen through much of that track’s winter meet, which led to a lot of winning horses who went wire to wire using the extremely fast, frozen rail path.

“On one occasion, I saw a cheap claiming horse named Right Judex score a major upset in a small stakes for Maryland Breds using that frozen rail path. The favorite – Bee Bee Bee, who was fourth in the Florida Derby – finished nowhere close to Right Judex. Yet, seven weeks later,” he continued, “when I saw Bee Bee Bee entered in the Preakness with heavy rains turning the track into a sea of mud, I made my largest bet of the year on him at 19-1!

“My reason was based on the simple research I did on Riva Ridge, who ran terribly in his two prior races on wet tracks.

“Bee Bee Bee, on the other hand, did not have the frozen rail when he lost to Right Judex at Bowie.

“Of equal importance, my research said he was going to be the solo front runner in the Preakness and was the only horse in the field who ever had won on a muddy track!”

The way my friend researched past performances for that Preakness, convinced me I needed to do something similar going forward if I hoped to be a winning horseplayer.

So, I did.