PTF: Maybe we should start out by telling the good people why we’re here. You go first.
(wrestling with handicapping topics)
issue 1: the gallop out
ED: During a Twitter discussion on September 10, I said that the gallop out "never matters." My esteemed blog colleague at TwinSpires, P.T. Fornatale (no relation to Barnum), took umbrage with my statement, asserted that I was exercising pure hyperbole and called said statement "absurd."
Being the successful author that he is with many gold doubloons sitting around his posh Brooklyn apartment, he spent some of those ducats on paying a messenger to deliver a singing telegram while wearing white gloves. At the end of the telegram the performer removed his gloves, slapped me across the face, and challenged me to a blog duel to state my case. I'm a poor marketer so I pawned the white gloves and accepted the duel via Twitter rather than ordering a singing telegram of my own.
PTF: Those things aren’t cheap. OK, tell me why you’re against the idea of using gallop outs.
ED: Racing is sometimes criticized for being a difficult game to understand, but really, what could be easier than "Whoever crosses the finish line first wins"? Granted, it's equally as easy to understand that in baseball the team with more runs wins and in football the team with more points wins, but explaining how teams score either is a lot more difficult than explaining how a horse reaches the finish line first. And the simplicity of the goal is what makes divining who will achieve it frustrating yet beautifully maddening. The best horse doesn't always win, but the first one to the finish line does, and everything else that happens during the race is dissected to determine who else could/should have won. To me, worrying about what happens after the line just clouds a picture that’s tricky enough to understand as it is.
PTF: Just like a baseball or football team can play better than the final score indicates, a horse can run better than the bare form indicates, too. But let me back up a second.
Handicapping is fairly easy to teach: Speed, form, pace, class. Put them in whatever order you like. Trainers, trips, raceflows, biases. All indubitably important. And yet, USA horseplayers as a group, even the good handicappers, win at a rate of less than 1% in aggregate over time. Handicapping is easy, winning is hard, especially in what you might call the post-Beyer era.
I believe there is a new frontier in handicapping, and ironically, it’s an area as old as racing itself: I’m talking about horsemanship. As handicappers, our ability to truly be horsemen is obviously limited, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lot by observing what the likes of Bill Mott, Graham Motion and Todd Pletcher observe themselves; i.e., watch the watchers. As many of you who know me know, I am a big believer in paddock analysis. But handicapping from a horseman’s perspective has another under appreciated aspect as well: watching gallop outs. But don’t get me wrong: Like so many other things in racing, gallop outs matter when the matter. And sometimes they do matter.
ED: Unfortunately, in the days I've let this stew, my idea has turned, spoiled, and is now emanating a foul odor. Leave it to a successful published author to win a war of words with a former journalist, but I was in a tough spot having to argue something never mattered considering P.T.’s perfectly reasonable point in his last sentence above.
So for a while here, I felt like one of Barnum’s suckers born every minute by agreeing to this debate. Saying they "never matter" would make more sense if he had said they "always matter," but he didn't. Still, the gallop out is grossly overvalued and matters so rarely that spending time assessing them is folly.
PTF: But one man’s folly can lead to another’s full wallet. I don’t just want to cherry pick specific, back-fit examples (a key intellectual flaw in handicapping literature). Rather I want to look at a couple of key situations. The first is maiden races. Specifically, “watch” horses in maiden races. When a horse has issues in a race, either via classic trouble (bad break, raced on wrong part of the track, checked, blocked) or is racing against a raceflow or bias not conducive to his running style, and he still has a lot of run past the wire, it pays to pay attention.
Perhaps the most obvious example where watching gallop outs pays dividends is with 2 year old first time starters, especially sprinting. In many cases, just by pedigree and trainer, you can identify horses who are unlikely to thrive going short in the first two thirds of the year. When these horses get predictably outpaced, yet finish OK and gallop out well past the turn, I would recommend making a note of that.
ED: It's conceivable that a horse is destined to go long on the turf but in order to best prepare for that career, the trainer debuts said animal sprinting on the dirt. Perhaps the trainer instructs the rider to persevere through the finish even if hopelessly beaten--not for a check but for fitness. The gallop out could be worth watching in that instance, but to me that's as much a part of handicapping the trainer (as well as pedigree vis a vis turf) and knowing that type of move was potentially in play.
PTF: That’s a good point about the overlap of trainer handicapping and gallop outs, I hadn’t thought about it that way. Just like the traditional handicapping factors can overlap, so can the newer ones. Another application of gallop outs involves 3-year olds in the spring. This time, I can’t resist the somewhat back-fit example of Turbulent Descent in the Santa Anita Oaks. Anyone who watched her nearly fall down past the wire after gutting out that win at 1 1/16 miles would never consider backing her going any farther. At the same time, on that evidence, you (OK, well, me) might have pegged her then and there as the future Grade 1 winner of the Test.
At the same time, I recognize that our eyes can easily deceive us. Sometimes a horse looks super strong after the wire simply because the conditions in the race favored him. I remember Nehro in this year’s Arkansas Derby ending up seemingly 50 yards in front three strides after the finish. Many took this as a sign he would thrive at a longer distance. I kinda thought it was because he made the last move in a race that favored closers (though, to be fair, he did acquit himself well in the Derby).
ED: I will say that gallop outs NEVER, EVER matter when trying to determine who the more accomplished horse is among winners and losers. I don't care who "had his nose in front" a yard, foot, or picometer beyond the finish line. Who was ahead after 1 9/64 miles of a 1 1/8-mile race has as much bearing on who won the race as who was ahead after 1 7/64 miles of the same race.
They also never matter if they never matter to you as a handicapper. If you are not someone who normally appraises horseflesh after the race as a way to measure a horse's ability then you should not attempt to handicap based on that information just because it has become apparent to you.
The same rule applies to horseflesh before a race. I appreciate that inspecting horses in the paddock and post parade can yield clues about a horse's readiness to run, but I do not make those assessments myself because that is not a strength of mine.
PTF: Let me take the second part first. Fair enough. Clearly, every handicapper needs to stick with what works for them. I guess I’m just suggesting that players who aren’t happy with the results of their existing methodologies might consider learning to look at things from a horseman’s perspective, and one of the easier ways to do that, in my opinion, is by watching who is going well at the finish. Consider a scene I saw at Saratoga. One of Todd Pletcher’s runners -- there were so many I can’t recall which -- won a stake. The people in his box are all high-fiving. He keeps his eyes right in the binocs, watching the gallop out. How can they not matter?
As for the first part, about not using gallop outs to measure a horse’s overall body of work, I’m with you there. To me, they are really just a handicapping cool. Let’s say Horse A beats Horse B but Horse B gallops out better in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I wouldn’t be voting for Horse B for Horse of the Year, but maybe I’d be looking to bet Horse B if the two faced each other again. Often, it makes me crazy trying to express myself in the 140 characters that Twitter allows. But this time I feel like I got it right in tweet form: gallop outs matter when they matter.
ED: Evaluating a horse's behavior beyond the scope of how the race is run (e.g. handicapping based on the gallop out) is as much a part of knowing the jockey as knowing the horse. Some jockeys have earned reputations for not riding through the wire. A key jockey change in that regard could make a horse appear to gallop out more strongly than as in the past, but that's hardly a sign of form reversal.
This discussion started by noting that racing is easy to understand because the goal is easy to understand: reach the finish line first, and I'm a big believer of understanding the motives behind a horse being in the race when handicapping that horse's chances in a race, which is where understanding trainers come in.
Really, though, a hopelessly beaten horse is more likely to look good running past the wire because those so far ahead of him are already slowing down, so the gap will close quicker.
Which gets back to my point that it's just a tricky assessment and one that most should avoid.