Longstanding track biases must be considered in handicapping

February 14th, 2024

Not every Thoroughbred racetrack is equally kind to all types of racehorses. For various reasons—the type and composition of the racing surface, the configuration of a specific course layout, etc.—some tracks are more or less kind to horses with certain running styles, or those breaking from particular post positions.

The impact can be seen in the form of longstanding track biases—biases that play out day in and day out over the course of years, lending an advantage to certain horses in certain situations. Recognizing these longstanding biases is an important factor when handicapping races.

A good example comes from the five-furlong turf sprints commonly held at Gulfstream Park. Five-furlong sprints are so short that they’re usually kind to horses with speed regardless of the track or surface over which they’re contested.

But the speed bias in five-furlong turf sprints at Gulfstream is especially pronounced. Coming into the Feb. 7, 2024 card at Gulfstream, 21 such races had been contested since the previous December, with pacesetters winning at a 52% rate. That’s right—11 of the 21 five-furlong turf sprints had been won in gate-to-wire fashion.

Furthermore, Brisnet statistics indicated that horses with the “E” (Early) running style designation had won 59% of those five-furlong turf sprints, while horses with the “E/P” (Early/Presser) style had won another 23%, leaving “P” (Presser)” and “S” (Sustain or Closer) types—who rally from farther behind—to win only 9% of those races apiece.

Bettors aware of these trends knew to be wary of backing Valiant Force in the eighth race on the Feb. 7 card, a $75,000 allowance optional claimer for three-year-olds sprinting five furlongs on turf. He was an overwhelming 3-5 favorite in his first start since rallying to finish second in the five-furlong Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1) at Santa Anita the previous November, but if Valiant Force couldn’t quite seal the deal while closing into blazing fractions of :20.71 and :43.65 at Santa Anita, there was no guarantee he would unleash a winning kick at speed-favoring Gulfstream Park.

As it turned out, the Feb. 7 race unfolded with similarly intense splits of :20.93 and :43.23, which narrowly burned out pacesetter Esperon (one of three “E” types in the field), who finished third by one length. But even this tempo wasn’t sufficient for Valiant Force (the lone “S” type in the race) to overcome the longstanding bias. After getting shuffled back a bit in traffic around the turn, Valiant Force could only rally belatedly to finish second, beaten three-quarters of a length by the slightly more tactical “P” type Reef Runner, the longest shot in the field at 15-1.

Bettors handicapping off the longstanding bias profile wouldn’t necessarily have come up with Reef Runner as the choice to beat Valiant Force. But nor would they have singled Valiant Force in multi-race wagers like the Pick 5 or Pick 6, and bettors who spread deep enough to catch Reef Runner were in line for big payoffs after Valiant Force’s short-priced defeat.

And for the record, the next two five-furlong turf sprints at Gulfstream were won in gate-to-wire fashion. Over time, those longstanding biases are tough to deny.