After a short hiatus, Past Performances is back: a chance to take a look back at the week that was, see what I have gotten right in my handicapping, and see what I have gotten ever-so-wrong. As always, what I got right or wrong may have to do with how I handicapped the race, or it may have to do with how I chose to bet the race. It may even have to do with the interplay of those two aspects. No matter what, they’re races I can learn from, and hopefully you can learn from as well.
This edition will be a little different: instead of going into two specific races, it will look into my handicapping experiment of attempting to pick based only on physical appearance. Today, I went to Arlington without having looked at the card, except for noting the conditions of each race. I didn’t know the names of the horses, I didn’t know any of the statistics: just distance, class, conditions, and surface. There were some times that this led me to some very nice finds, and some times when it did not.
All in all, I would say that the experiment was a success. For one, I was a lot more focused in my physical handicapping. I wasn’t going back and forth between looking at the horses and looking at my PPs. I wasn’t split between trying to identify horses who looked good and trying to identify whether the horses I picked looked good. My attention was fully trained on the horses in front of me, and I looked more closely at each of them. I noticed how they were built. I noticed their feet. I noticed their gait. I noticed their muscle. These are all things I have been able to pick out inconsistently in the past, but could do so at a deeper and more focused level today.
As far as my ability to pick winners just by physicality? Given the limited information with which I allowed myself to work, it ended up pretty well. In nine races, my top physical picks finished first twice (Summer in Montana – Race 1, Hike – Race 2), second twice (Forest Elf – Race 4, Greek Life – Race 7), third once (Moncor – Race 3), and off the board four times (Paulies Pick – 5th in race 5, Copus – 10th in Race 6, M J Seeker – 12th in race 8, Costly King – 5th in race 9).
In general, this experiment gave me more confidence in my physical handicapping. There is always going to be subjectivity, there is always going to be error margin…but it suggests that I am seeing at least some of the things that I should be seeing in the paddock. However, it also underscored the need to use it as part of an overall strategy, as a complement to on-paper handicapping. Though it led to some winners, it also led to some selections who were, once the past performances came to light, utterly bonkers. Still, when used in conjunction with the information about the horses, it provides useful information. It can help elucidate viable longer shots or vulnerable favourites.
It also highlighted a way I could operate better at the racetrack: instead of trying to continuously cross-reference between my handicapping notes and what I see in the paddock, I need to set those handicapping notes aside until I have finished my paddock observations, and then harmonize them before finalizing my plays. There is a lot of relevant detail to take in, and there is no way to actually comprehend and document that detail if I am distracted by my PPs during the ten or twelve brief minutes I have to observe up close. This is especially important in larger fields, as I am hardly experienced enough yet to to get all of the information I want from a larger field even with minimal distraction.
Going into every note and decision I made would make this unbearably long, but I will hit some of the highlights and some of the lowlights from the experiement. If you are curious about any of the picks that I don’t cover in detail here, or are curious on what notes I have from another horse on the card, please do let me know in the comments or on Twitter, and I would be happy to fill that in.
On The Board
The second race was a six-furlong maiden special weight over the polytrack, for fillies and mares three and up. Two of the horses stood out to me: the #5, and the #3. They both had good sprint builds, good engines in the back. The #5 looked great: she was really nicely dappled, and even though there was a tiny bit of lather, she looked perfectly composed. It looked like that could be chalked up to it being a hot day. Her muscles were great, well defined: something that was really her advantage over the #3. The #3 had a good frame, but her muscles just weren’t as defined. It was almost like she still had the slightest bit of baby fat, like she needed a bit more conditioning. So, #5 was my pick. I looked at the odds board, and was pleasantly surprised: #5, Hike, was hanging out at 5/1. #3 was Swift Sword: a buzz first-time starter trained by Michael Stidham, and the betting favourite. For the two of them, the race unfolded just as I saw them in the paddock. Hike, who looked perfectly ready to go, made every pole a winning one and won by daylight at 9/2. Swift Sword went off at 6/5 and chased from the back, never really fading but never really firing. Hike looked sharp. Swift Sword was very well put together (as befits her stellar breeding, by War Front out of a Smart Strike mare), but clearly needed a race.
The other race in which I picked the winner was the first, a state-bred maiden $10,000. However, that one was a little less interesting since the star in the paddock was also the chalk in the race: Summer in Montana. She was another one who stood out because of his fitness and frame. He had the best muscle of the field, and had more of a route build than a sprint build. He just looked better put together and classier than the rest of the field: something that stands out in a lower-level claimer. In this case, it turned out he did not just look built for the distance, but had broken his maiden at a mile two starts back. This time out he rated in second as Roolynn Ruler bolted to the lead, pounced when the pacesetter faded, and held his advantage over the late-advancing Dittman Thunder.
Another point at which I was on the board was less about picking winners, and more about identifying a horse’s capabilities on sight. This particularly jumped out at me in the seventh race. My clear paddock pick was #4, Greek Life; she looked like a sprinter, and was right up on her toes and ready to go once a jockey was on her. The only other horse who stood out to me at all was the #7, but she just did not look like a sprint horse to me. She didn’t have the big old sprinting engine in the back, but more the lithe build of a router. That wasn’t what I wanted to see here, since the race was a five-furlong dash over the polytrack. After the horses left and I looked up the names, her name was very familiar: Pistols Drawn. Both her maiden win and an allowance win in the spring? Route distances. She has won a sprint as well, the six-furlong Pretty Jenny at Hawthorne. Still, it was a confidence-builder to look at a horse, decide she looked too much like a router to succeed in a dash, and see that she was actually a route race winner.
Up The Track
In two races, my paddock picks led me to some extremely long shots: neither of which turned out well at all. This clearly underscored the need for handicapping as well as visual inspection.
In the 6th race, an N2X AOC at 1 1/16 miles on the grass, I liked the 7 best in the paddock. He looked well built for a route, he was shiny, he was up on his toes…everything I wanted to see. Then, I looked to see who he was, and what his odds were. He was sitting at about 20/1 when I finally looked at the tote, and I also figured out that he was trained by Jimmy DiVito. DiVito is generally excellent on polytrack — but generally less than excellent on the grass. Copus had hit the board in has last two starts, both of which were at this level and distance, but both of which had been on the poly. Copus had also won a race at Hawthorne earlier this year at this distance on dirt. However, turf? He had been off the board in four starts. It turned out, he ran about to what his past turf record and his trainer’s turf statistics may have suggested. He stalked just off the leader early, but faded through the far turn to finish last, fourteen and a half lengths back. The winner? None other than Super Soldier. Super Soldier was a head case in the paddock, wanted no part of being saddled, but rode his excellent recent form to a four-length wire-to-wire victory.
In the 8th race, a $25,000 N3L/three-year-old claimer at a mile on the grass, what I saw in the paddock led me to an even more absurd longshot. The field was fairly close together in paddock appearance, so it was very small things that were pushing me to particular horses. No one really jumped out on me hugely positively on form, until the post parade. I was getting some mixed signals on the #8, who was built best of all for the mile, but was walking a bit awkwardly on his back right leg. The only ones who I really noticed to be up on their toes when they were walking around were the #7 and the #3. The #7 wasn’t a big horse, but had a two-turn frame, and was prancing around like he owned the place once the jockey climbed aboard. The #3 was up on his toes, and looked poised enough, but looked a little more like a sprinter to me. Between his frame and the stronger confidence he showed in the paddock, the #7 it was.
The #7 was M J Seeker — 30/1 on the morning line, and 94/1 by the time the gates flung open. I would never, ever have landed on him, no matter how good he looked in the paddock, if I had looked at the past performances. He is trained by John Haran, a very low-percentage trainer. Last out he was dead last at the $16,000 level, making a move to the $25,000 level perplexing. It was his first time on the turf, but the paddock seemed to be about the only thing going for him, looking at his statistics after the race. Unfortunately, he ran like the 94/1 shot he was on paper: he chased fairly close early, but faded quickly. M J Seeker was last, over twenty lengths behind the winner, and over ten lengths behind the second to last place finisher.
However, about that #3, the other one really on his toes before the race? That was Jukebox Johnny, and that would have been a great example of where handicapping and physical information could have dovetailed nicely to find a bomb. He looked like a sprinter, which was why I had him second physically, but both of his wins had been at this distance: a mile. He won a one turn mile at Arlington two starts back, and then a two-turn dirt mile at Fairmount last out. In the race, he was back early, made a late run up the rail, and dispatched with favourite Bells Big Bernie to win by a length. This is not to say I would have landed on Jukebox Johnny had I handicapped the race on paper — his previous two turf tries had not been so good, though they were against company likely too tough for him. To say I would or wouldn’t have been interested in him on paper would be redboarding, since I didn’t actually look at statistics until later. Still, he was coming into the race on two straight wins at a mile, and both his dam and his half-brother had won on grass. It isn’t crazy to think there were some intelligent handicappers on him going into the race, especially at a price. For anyone who had liked what they saw in Jukebox Johnny on paper, the paddock would have been an extra incentive to go to the windows — and then cash some tickets on a $29.00 winner.