• The 'Key Race' and Havre Disgrace

    POSTED Apr 11, 2012
    Many moons ago, in his master work “Betting Thoroughbreds,” Steve Davidowitz coined the term “Key Race” to describe a race that featured an inordinate number of next-out winners. According to Davidowitz, these winners are generally not coincidental.

    “Either [the Key Race] was superior to the designated class or else it contained an unusually fit group of horses. In either case, that’s important information,” the author wrote.

    Apparently the Daily Racing Form agreed, as that esteemed publication soon began italicizing the names of next-out winners in its result charts and past performances.

    Yet, by its very nature, the Key Race Method suffers from one very large and significant drawback: typically, by the time an event can confidently be deemed a Key Race it has lost its value as a predictive tool. After all, what good is it to discover a particularly strong race after half a dozen horses have already won their next start? Not only that, but given how infrequently horses compete today, it can take several weeks or even months to determine whether a past contest qualifies as a Key Race.

    Hence, I decided to come up with a method of assessing Key Races that doesn’t require validation after the fact. Like Davidowitz’s initial technique, however, I wanted to keep it simple, so that even novice horseplayers could judge the merits of a particular race with just a modicum of time and effort.

    Here’s how it works:
    A) Using the result chart from a horse’s last race, find the median finishing position for all the entrants in their prior race. This information can be found in the leftmost column following the (abbreviated) track name. For example, by examining the chart below, one will discover that On Lockdown finished fifth in his last race, which was run at Oaklawn Park (OP) on March 15, 2012.

    Note: For those who don’t have kids in school, the median is simply the middle value of an ordered array of numbers. If the array is even, it is the average of the two values closest to the middle.

    B) Divide the number of entrants, or the field size, by the figure obtained above to get the Key Race Rating.

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    That’s all there is to it; the higher the rating, the better the race was for the class. Notice I said “for the class.” Keep in mind that these Key Race Ratings need to be viewed in light of the overall level of the race. A high rating in a $15,000 claiming event does not make a horse a contender against a rival that earned a much lower figure in a Grade I affair — it’s just common sense. However, in races featuring horses that last raced against similar competition, the ratings can be invaluable. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at the two most dominant female performers of the new millennium — Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta:

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    Now, before I discuss these brilliant racehorses, let me start by saying that the following is not an endorsement for — or an indictment against one or the other. Both horses were great in their own way. This is simply a demonstration of my Key Race Rating method in action, using two horses that even the most casual of racing fans are sure to recognize.

    So, with that out of the way, the first thing I did was compute the Key Race Ratings for each of Rachel Alexandra’s and Zenyatta’s Grade I starts in 2009 (again, the idea is to compare apples to apples).

    Not surprisingly, it turns out that Zenyatta faced her biggest challenge in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (12.0 KRR), while Rachel received her staunchest test in the Haskell Invitational (7.0 KRR). Of course, some might argue that the Woodward, which featured older males, was a tougher race than the Haskell, which was restricted to three-year-olds, but I beg to differ. Whether viewed before or after the race, the 2009 Woodward simply did not stack up to previous editions of that storied race.

    Outside of Rachel Alexandra herself, only Cool Coal Man ever won another race. Subtracting those two horses from the equation, the other six Woodward entrants were winless in a combined 21 subsequent starts. Even worse, they hit the board (finished third or better) just five times.

    And Rachel was the one that many claimed was “done in” by the Woodward… go figure.

    Anyway, based on the whole of their campaigns, the data indicates that Rachel Alexandra faced stiffer competition (4.3 median KRR) than did Zenyatta (2.9 median KKR) and that was borne out by the number of next-out winners their individual races produced.

    Zenyatta’s four Grade I starts saw only three follow-up winners (an average of 0.8 per start), whereas Rachel’s five Grade I forays witnessed six follow-up winners (1.2 per start). More importantly, a bet on each of Rachel Alexandra’s vanquished rivals in their next start would have produced a return on investment (ROI) of 1.3 percent; Zenyatta’s defeated foes produced a -38.4 percent ROI.

    Hopefully, this comparison highlights the merit of assessing the strength of a race before, rather than after, it has been run. Handicappers that use my Key Race Rating method will not only find unusually strong fields at a particular class level, but also incredibly weak ones.

    These class-within-a-class distinctions will surely add to one’s understanding of the game… not to mention one’s bottom line.

    Something Amiss with Havre De Grace?

    All the weeping and gnashing of teeth over weight assignments from the connections of Havre De Grace has made me wonder: is something amiss with the defending Horse of the Year?

    The circumstantial evidence suggests there may, in fact, be a problem — and that the griping over weights is simply a smokescreen, a convenient excuse not to run.

    As I pointed out on my podcast, Havre De Grace’s late speed rations (LSRs) started going south in last year’s Woodward Stakes, when she faced males for the first time. After recording LSRs ranging from 0 to -2 from May 10, 2010 until July 16, 2011 (the date of the Delaware Handicap, when the weight complaints first started), the daughter of Saint Liam hasn’t earned an LSR greater than -4 since.

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    What’s more, from the time Larry Jones took over her training in 2011 until just prior to the Woodward, Havre De Grace recorded 18 workouts — nine of which were “bullets” (the fastest work of the day at the distance). Since the Woodward, Havre De Grace has worked out 12 times, earning just two bullets.

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    Free Handicapping Reports

    04/14/12 Hawthorne Win Factor Report
    04/14/12 Oaklawn Park Win Factor Report
    04/14/12 Oaklawn Park Pace Profile Report (selected races)

    Anonymous said...

    What would be the next handicapping step after determining the key race rating? Would you compare a horses previous key race rating to the race you are handicapping to, perhaps, find that a horse is facing a more or less difficult field?

    Derek Simon said...

    Yes, that's one thing you can do. I also think the KRRs can be used to downgrade or upgrade performances.

    For example, although Union Rags certainly looked impressive winning the Fountain of Youth, that race only received a 1.8 KRR, whereas the Florida Derby had a 3.2 KRR.

    Incidentally, the greatest value I have seen with the Key Race Ratings is in a negative context — stakes races rated under 3.0 should definitely be viewed with skepticism (I'm guessing similar thresholds can be found for non-stakes races).

    On a related note, I would not pay too much attention to large gaps in races rated greater than 3.0 given that field size plays such a large part in the rating.

    Anonymous said...

    Certainly not arguing Havre de Grace's fitness or ability; I am not in a position to know anything about her but as a fan, she seems to not be as "bright" or "eager" as she was.

    And, Mr. Pope seems to be a contentious figure around the track. The few times I've been to Oaklawn this year, there were mumbles and grumbles from various and sundry. I have no personal opinion on that, either; and I'm not going to say what I've heard through the (notorious) grapevine because I don't know what is and isn't true. All I know is the mumbles and grumbles weren't positive. So... Do with that what you will.

    And the one opinion I will commit to: I think it's a real shame that Havre de Grace didn't go to Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom. I was looking forward to seeing her and taking her picture. She is a beautiful animal and I am a fan of hers.

    Anonymous said...

    Derek, love your work...can u please do bodemeister Lsr's for Arkansas win, on next weeks podcast or blog. Been betting him all day today at $21 fixed odds, I figure he'll go off at $6-8'ish, so damn nice overlay. (Am in australia, our lazy Internet bookies don't work Sunday's hence don't update their odds!! It's heaven!!). I know no unraced at 2yold always bombs, but Everything about him stacks up to me, and the price I'm getting is just madness! SB.

    Derek Simon said...

    I'll tell you right now: it was a -5, which is very good for a dirt route. He also earned a -8 ESR.

    Bodemeister's problem, as you obviously already know, is his lack of experience. Having Baffert in his corner certainly doesn't hurt his chances though.

    Anonymous said...

    D Simon...3weeks ahead of the game!! Nice spot...u did know something was up with HDG. SB

    Erin said...

    This is an awesome tool. Thanks!

    Anonymous said...

    I started to use this tool for NYRA races about 3 months ag, and it is fabukos!! can`t tell you how many winners it has pointed me to.

    I have been keeping charts for thirty years and have been frustrated by key races that stoped at 2 winners or produced multiple winners before you had an offical key race. Many thanks for this invluble tool.
    Harvey the Horse

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