One of my favorite drinking buddies, Kevin Brown, is a life-long fan of horse racing. He has been handicapping races for decades and even wrote a book on the subject that describes some of his thinking.
The granddaddy of all horse races, the Kentucky Derby, is held annually on the first Saturday in May (next Saturday), and Kevin is having a viewing party at his house. To prepare for Kevin’s party, I decided to bone-up on horse racing.
Handicapping is the real essence of horse racing. It is the art or science of predicting which horses are likely to do well in the race – win, place (2nd), or show (3rd). Most handicappers rely on The Daily Racing Form (DRF), a newspaper-style publication, to handicap a race. The DRF details statistical information about each horse entered in a race, including detailed past performance results, lifetime records, amount of money earned, odds for the particular horse in each past race, and a myriad of other information available for casual or serious study. I will obtain and study a copy of the DRF before the party.
Aside from handicapping the race, I decided that a little well-placed research would enable me to avoid sounding like a dilettante, and I might even add something to the conversation. For instance, I have previously asked Kevin what percentage of the parimutuel bets was siphoned off by the track, and he didn’t know. I do now. Tracks on average take about 17% of the betting pool, which sounds reasonable to me. FYI – parimutuel betting differs from fixed-odds betting in that the final payout is not determined until the pool is closed – in fixed odds betting, the payout is agreed at the time the bet is sold. Thus, the odds for the race may change dramatically in the last few minutes if an inordinate number of late betters favor a particular horse.
Kevin might not know that there are generally three types of horses that race – Thoroughbreds, Arabians, and Quarter Horses, with Thoroughbreds being the most popular. All Thoroughbreds can be traced to three Arabian stallions and 74 foundation mares of English and Oriental blood in 17th and 18th century England. They are bred to race at a distance of 5-12 furlongs (with a furlong being one-eighth of a mile). Quarter horses, as suggested by their name, are bred to run a quarter of a mile (two furlongs), while Arabians are best a long distances – between ten and 100 miles.
(Incidentally, a height of a horse is taken at its shoulders (withers), as opposed to cattle, which are measured from their hips. The unit of measurement is called “hands.” A hand is equivalent to four inches.)
Kevin has previously described to me the difference between a stakes race, maiden race, and a claiming race, but he wasn’t able to list all six categories. Now I know:
- Handicap race. A handicap race is one in which the runners have been “handicapped” by carrying more weight, also called an impost, according to their performance in other races. Theoretically, all horses have a chance of being competitive in a race that is correctly handicapped.
- Stakes race. A stakes race is higher-class race for bigger prizes. They often involve competitors that belong to the same gender, age and class. These races may, though, be “weight-for-age”, with weights adjusted only according to age, and also there are “set weights” where all horses carry the same weight. Furthermore, there are “conditions” races, in which horses carry weights that are set by conditions, such as having won a certain number of races, or races of a certain value. Examples of a stakes/conditions race are the Breeders’ Cup races, the Dubai World Cup, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes, and the Travers Stakes.
- Maiden race. A maiden race is one in which the runners have never won a race. Maiden races can be among horses of many different age groups. It is similar to a stakes race in the respect that horses all carry similar weights and there are no handicapped “penalties.” This is the primary method for racing a two-year-old for the first time, although only against other two-year olds. Three-year olds also only race against their own age in maiden races early in the year.
- Allowance race. An allowance race is one in which the runners run for a higher purse than in a maiden race. These races usually involve conditions such as “non-winner of three lifetime.” They usually are for a horse which has broken its maiden but is not ready for stakes company.
- Claiming race. A claiming race is one in which the horses are all for sale for more or less the same price (the “claiming price”) up until shortly before the race. The intent of this is to even the race; if a better-than-class horse is entered (with the expectation of an easy purse win), it might be lost for the claiming price, which is likely less than the horse is worth. Someone may wish to claim a horse if they think the horse has not been trained to its fullest potential under another trainer. If a horse is purchased, a track official tags it after the race, and it goes to its new owner.
- Optional claiming race. An optional claiming race is a hybrid of allowance and claiming race, developed to increase field sizes. A horse who does not fit the conditions can still “run for the tag”, i.e. be run conditional on also being offered for sale.
They say that Thoroughbred racing is the sport of kings. I don’t know about that, but I think I will try playing a king on May 7th.
btw – the Daily Racing form won’t be available for the Derby until Thursday or so. After reviewing that form, I will try to handicap the race and post a blog entry so that my readers can make some easy money on Saturday.