Some horses, like Rachel Alexandra above, are good enought to overcome traffic trouble.
Photo Courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire
Go back in time to 1979 when VCRs first started to appear on the scene and a racing fan would be lucky to tape and then review one or two races per week.
These days, in a digital era, there’s no shortage of races to watch, either on the Internet or through one of the numerous online wagering outlets.
As a result, there are few mysteries about what happens in a race, be it at Del Mar or Finger Lakes, but interpreting performances remains as judgmental as ever.
Trip handicapping is one of the best ways to target horses to watch long before their next start, but the process demands a discerning eye. Trouble alone is not a valid enough reason to back a horse in its next start, and knowing what to look for is the key element in picking out the horses most likely to make amends in their next start.
Much like the old adage of “no harm, no foul,” as visible as trouble might be, there are simply times when that incident has little bearing on the outcome of the race and a horse does not deserve extra credit for merely running into some sort of trouble.
Consider for a moment the example of a 40-1 longshot who gets shut off while racing in eighth place and winds up seventh at the finish. Is he worth betting next time? Take away the trouble and where would he have finished, sixth? Fifth? In either case, the trouble does not erase the fact that the horse is simply slower than his opponents and a clean trip would have had little impact on where he finished.
Meanwhile, a horse making a determined bid for the lead in the stretch when he runs into a roadblock and loses a few lengths at a highly inopportune time probably deserves a second chance.
Even better is finding a horse that has to put on the brakes due to traffic but then recovers and hits its best stride once again. That’s a highly positive sign that a bad trip was the explanation for a loss, not a lack of ability. It also gives off hope that the horse has enough talent and determination to extricate itself from a mess in a subsequent start.
Also factoring into the equation is where a horse encounters that moment of woe. The closer to the finish line a horse has that mishap, the more likely that incident is to affect the outcome since there’s less time to recover.
At the other extreme, horses who encounter problems at the start of a race can pose a quandary.
Union Rags, for instance, lost all chance of winning the Kentucky Derby at the start of the race but showed some late life in the form of a wide rally that propelled him to a seventh-place finish. Folks who forgave that loss because of the bad trip were rewarded with a victory in the Belmont Stakes (G1).
Yet more times than not, trouble at the start of a race should be viewed cautiously. Some horses, especially young ones, continually run into problems once the starting gates open. So why should that runner’s next start be any different? Chances are he’ll run into the same problem next time as well and will leave you with another stack of worthless mutuel tickets.
SOME POOR STARTS ARE WORSE THAN OTHERS
Another misconception is the notion that if a horse spots the rest of the field four lengths because of a tardy start and then loses by three lengths, he would have won with a smooth departure. The math might add up, but it’s not that simple.
Sometimes a horse can finish better than expected after a poor start. That awkward beginning could keep a horse away from a testing speed duel and make it easier to ramble past tired foes in the stretch. In some cases, that same horse might be guided over to the rail, which allows him to save an acre of ground. Meanwhile, a horse that rallies five or six wide on the final turn could lose so much ground that it gives away a much bigger edge than four lengths.
More subtle elements like ground loss and track bias are also important factors in picking out horses to watch, but for a novice, it’s best to start with something as visually noticeable as a bad trip and work your way forward.
The New York Racing Association has a YouTube area for trip and traps (http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=B9CC22B19E6EB24C) and that segment does an excellent of job of illustrating what’s gold and what’s fool’s gold when it comes to bad trips.
Watch and learn. They are two key words that can be richly rewarding to Thoroughbred racing’s answer to the film critic.