• The Bias That Wasn’t

    POSTED Nov 9, 2013
    Following a weekend showcasing some of the best thoroughbred talent on the planet, all the talk should have been about the horses, right?


    Even before the Mucho Macho Man nosed out Will Take Charge in a thrilling renewal of the Breeders’ Cup Classic to end two days of equine excitement on Saturday, Nov. 2, a word I’ve grown to detest was being bandied about like medicinal herbs at a reggae concert...


    Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form used the four-letter abomination when discussing Beholder’s scintillating win in the Distaff.

    “It would be a shame if the day’s speed bias detracts from the quality of Beholder’s win, because, in fact, she did not directly benefit from it. There is no doubt the bias was a major factor in earlier races, particularly the Dirt Mile, but it seemed less so in the Distaff, where horses actually came from off the pace to do well.”

    According to Privman (and I suspect many racing fans too), the fact that “improbable longshots” like Heir Storm, who went wire-to-wire at 37-1 in the second race on Friday, triumphed at Santa Anita over the weekend, the existence of a main-track early speed bias was irrefutable.

    Heck, I’ll admit it, I got sucked in myself. After SA’s third race on Friday was also won by a massive longshot that dueled for the lead throughout, I tweeted this:

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    There was a problem with my angry missive, though. The truth is I hadn’t actually looked at any of the non-Breeders’ Cup events — nor had I computed my pace figures — at the time I sent out my tweet. When I finally did get a chance to analyze those races, it was I — not the Santa Anita maintenance crew — that had reason to be ashamed.

    Despite what you may have heard from trainers and jockeys (and I’ve heard a lot), there is about as much statistical evidence to suggest that there was a Breeders’ Cup speed bias last weekend as there is to suggest that a “cuppy” track has led to the downfall of countless Kentucky Derby favorites over the years.

    Dr. Steven Roman, creator of the Dosage Index, put it best.

    “Basically, the argument for a speed bias rests on three of Friday's races, each of which was won by the horse in front at the first call,” Dr. Roman told me. “However, that argument ignores the fact that every challenger to the winner that was very close at the first call (and beyond) finished up the track.

    “I have no idea why a speed bias would help the horse in front but not the one right on his heels early,” Roman said.

    It is Dr. Roman’s contention — and I agree with him — that what folks actually saw last weekend was what one sees most weekends at the Great Race Place — a main track that is very kind to early speed.

    “I think it's fair to say that the Santa Anita main track favors speed, as do many North American racing surfaces,” Roman said. “Accordingly, there is a valid reason for believing early speed is the universal bias.”

    However, this “universal bias,” a term coined by William Quirin in “Winning at the Races” to describe the advantage that early runners have in general (“Winning at the Races” was published prior to the advent of all-weather tracks), is not what Privman and others were squawking about.

    Writing for the Los Angeles Daily News, Kevin Modesti summarized the feelings many had after Day 1 of the Breeders’ Cup Championships.

    “Recent results had made it appear climate and the way the main oval was prepared had left the soil harder than normal and thus less tiring for front-running horses,” Modesti wrote. “In the previous two racing days, and in the non-Breeders’ Cup races that led off Friday’s card, nine of the 13 main-track races were won by horses who led or were up in second early. Horseplayers cried ‘speed bias’ and noted Santa Anita had been this way for last year’s Breeders’ Cup too; on Twitter, a prominent East Coast racing analyst called such development on such an important day ‘an embarrassment of epic proportions.’

    “When Goldencents and rider Rafael Bejarano set a fast pace and kept going to win the Dirt Mile, the impression seemed to be confirmed,” Modesti concluded.

    Yet, Roman saw the Dirt Mile a bit differently and, in fact, held it up as a great example as to why a speed bias did not exist on Friday.

    “Goldencents was spectacular early through blistering fractions up to six furlongs, after which he tired dramatically in the stretch but had built up enough of a lead to hold on easily. There are two things to consider here,” Roman said.

    “First, a speed-biased track should have mitigated his fatigue, yet he finished in :26.2. Compare that with Secretariat's 12-furlong Belmont Stakes run on a truly speed-biased surface where he was able to finish up in :25.0 after a 1:09.4 six furlongs. I'm not comparing Goldencents to Secretariat, only the effects of a truly speed-biased surface.

    “Second, going into the Dirt Mile, Goldencents had the consistently fastest early speed profile of any starter. One that had shown flashes of that early speed earlier in the year, Broadway Empire, was within a half-length of Goldencents through four furlongs in :44.3 but folded and ran ninth of 11 beaten over 14 lengths.”

    A look at Friday’s figures confirms Roman’s thesis:

    Averages for winners on the main track at Santa Anita on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013

    Position at the first call: 4.1
    Lengths trailing (leading margins were counted as zero) at the first call: 4.4
    *ESR: -8.1
    *LSR: -10.7
    Field Size: 9.7
    Adjusted position at the first call (assuming a 10-horse field): 4.3

    Now, compare these digits to the stats for Santa Anita during the entire month of October:

    Averages for winners on the main track at Santa Anita during the month of October 2013

    Position at the first call: 3.5
    Lengths trailing (leading margins were counted as zero) at the first call: 2.1
    *ESR: -7.4
    *LSR: -11.2
    Field Size: 8.2
    Adjusted position at the first call (assuming a 10-horse field): 4.3

    Honestly, I don’t think even Justin Timberlake would have expected the data from the first day of the Breeders’ Cup to so closely mirror the data from October.

    Let’s take a look at Saturday’s stats:

    Averages for winners on the main track at Santa Anita on Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013

    Position at the first call: 6.2
    Lengths trailing (leading margins were counted as zero) at the first call: 3.6
    *ESR: -6.3
    *LSR: -12.7
    Field Size: 10.5
    Adjusted position at the first call (assuming a 10-horse field): 5.9

    Wow. Not only was there no discernible speed bias on Saturday, the numbers imply just the opposite. Most interesting to me is the average ESR, which fell by almost two lengths, despite the fact that the BC Sprint and both juvenile events were run on the second day — and those races typically produce lower (faster) ESRs.

    In fact, the figures strongly suggest that, perhaps, the Santa Anita maintenance crew listened to the knuckleheads like me bellyaching about the bias and made some changes to the main track.

    Again, Dr. Roman hit the nail on the head: “As noted in your recent podcast, many people are quick to pull the ‘bias’ trigger on scant evidence. Why didn't they complain about an ‘anti-speed bias’ on Saturday when not one winner on the dirt was in front at the first call?”

    Good question. And to add my own nail to what I hope is the coffin for all this bias bluster, I present the October statistics from Belmont Park, a track that many have proposed as a “fair” alternative to Santa Anita as host of the Breeders’ Cup events:

    Averages for winners on the main track at Belmont Park during the month of October 2013

    Position at the first call: 3.3
    Lengths trailing (leading margins were counted as zero) at the first call: 2.5
    *ESR: -4.0
    *LSR: -8.4
    Field Size: 7.5
    Adjusted position at the first call (assuming a 10-horse field): 4.4

    *See key below.

    What we see is what most racing fans already knew: Belmont Park is slower than Santa Anita, but the universal bias is still, well, universal.

    Can we please talk about the horses now? 


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