Churchill Downs - Coady Photography

Churchill Downs – Coady Photography

Track biases… is there a more mysterious aspect of handicapping horse races? Maybe, but I’m not sure what it would be.

In essence, track biases are simple enough. Their name says it all—some tracks can be biased toward horses racing on the lead, or horses rallying from off the pace. Other tracks can favor horses racing on the inside; other times, the inside is deeper, and horses racing on the outside have an advantage.

The mysterious part is how quickly track biases can come and go. Sometimes they’re tied to the weather and track conditions; other times, they’re present one day and gone the next despite no obvious change in conditions. Some tracks frequently present a predictable bias; others generally play fair, except for the days when they don’t. Sound confusing? You can bet it is!

But suffice to say, if you can correctly identify a track bias, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to capitalize. If you identify the bias while it’s in play, you can bet on horses that seem likely to take advantage; if you recognize the bias after the fact, you can look forward to betting on horses that disadvantaged by the bias while playing against horses who took advantage of favorable conditions.

One of my favorite examples comes from the 2012 Triple Crown series. In the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), the victorious I’ll Have Another unleashed a sharp late rally to win going away by 1 ½ lengths. Normally, such a performance would have stamped him as a clear favorite for the Preakness Stakes (gr. II) at Pimlico two weeks later, but instead, Preakness bettors chose to focus their attention on Bodemeister.

At first glance, this made sense. Bodemeister had run a huge race in the Kentucky Derby, setting blazing pace fractions of :22.32, :45.39, and 1:09.80 (among the fastest in Derby history) before tiring only slightly to finish second. The shorter distance of the Preakness, and the possibility of a slower pace, figured to help his chances at Pimlico.

However, this analysis failed to account for the fact that the Kentucky Derby was contested over a blazingly fast track that gave speed horses an advantage. And considering the condition of the track, Bodemeister’s times weren’t really all that fast; earlier on the card, an unheralded maiden name Big Ring pressed an incredible :20.78 opening quarter-mile in a six-furlong sprint, yet still held on to win.

With this in mind, I’ll Have Another’s Derby victory took on a much different appearance. His late-running heroics were made more impressive by the fact that he had overcome a track bias, and it seemed likely that he would maintain his edge over Bodemeister in the Preakness. It also wasn’t hard to imagine that the Grade 1 winner Creative Cause, who had rallied from mid-pack to finish fifth in the Derby, would be hard to beat out for a top-three finish at Pimlico.

In the end, the Preakness was a tight race, but I’ll Have Another was the winner by a determined neck over Bodemeister, with Creative Cause coming home best of the rest. Remarkably, I’ll Have Another started at odds of 3.20-1 (compared to 1.70-1 for Bodemeister), so bettors attuned to the track bias that affected the Derby were rewarded with an $8.40 payoff for every $2 win bet. Even better, the logical $2 exacta and $2 trifecta combinations returned $18.60 and $70.80, respectively.