Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Guest Post: Derby Week Dictionary

--Brian Ludwick, WinStar Farm Bloodstock Analyst

   If you are a veteran of Derby week, i.e. watch morning training either at Churchill or the tape-delayed version on one of the racing networks, or simply keep up with the racing scene, you have heard all these comments and expressions before. These handy dandy simplifying translations are intended to help the uninitiated who may not be properly versed in the vague, dodgy trainer lingo which routinely replaces the everyday English language on the Downs' backstretch. This rephrasing will not be limited to trainer dialogue, though that is clearly the meat and potatoes of this perplexing double-talk. Can't quite understand the mysterious handicapper slang? It's all explained right here in this easy (ya, right) to understand, all-encompassing, gibberish made easy for the rookie Derby-follower.

Let's begin with the Trainish-English dictionary, shall we?

"He went super!" - Stock answer when pressed for a comment shortly after said trainer's Derby runner(s) just finished a morning workout. Never mind that unless the trainer witnessed the work from the 3rd floor of the grandstand, he likely failed to see three-quarters of it thanks to the jungle of corporate tents, etc. in the Churchill infield. This stock answer covers 5/8 works timed anywhere from :58.00 to 1:03 (and change) and 3/4 works between 1:11 and 1:15. Any reporter foolish enough to ask a question regarding a work on either side of these parameters will immediately be escorted from the grounds.

"He loves this track!" - The trainer's horse may have only just jogged a mile after arriving on the grounds the previous night, but hey, why not put an immediate positive spin on one day's worth of light training? Any trainer quoted as saying his charge "didn't handle the surface" (wet tracks excluded) will be promptly examined by trackside medics and, if deemed fit, whisked away to join the unnaturally honest, trainer/racing network analyst Tom Amoss on set.

"I ran a short horse." - He could be, but no, he's not referring to his horse's physical stature! This trainer is, in essence, taking one for the team--claiming he failed to have his horse fit enough for a race in which he was beaten double-digit lengths. Yes, the nine published workouts in the Daily Racing Form would seem to refute his claim, but let's not admit at this late stage that perhaps his colt's Derby should in fact be the Derby Trial the previous Saturday.

"We just decided to give him an extra day off." - If ever you hear these words muttered during Derby week, just put a big, red slash through that horse's name in your DRF. It really doesn't matter what the trainer sugar-coats that comment with once those words are spoken. In the crucial week leading up to the Derby, where there's smoke, there is fire. In this case, a raging inferno!

"He popped a quarter crack last week, but our farrier patched it and it's a non-issue now." - ISSUE!!! During Derby week, the Churchill surface is harder than quantum physics! There is no way that foot won't be pinching him significantly in the race as well as the training days leading up to it. Get that red marker out...

To be fair (just this once), these poor conditioners are asked the same ten silly questions over and over again by a mostly uninformed Derby media. It's no wonder they cook up certain "stock" answers.

OK now, feel free to use this handy Churchill backstretch honesty scale as an aid towards separating truth from fiction. Believe quotes from the last half-dozen or so at your own risk!

TRAINER (with a Derby runner)
TRAINER (with multiple Derby runners)

How about some handicappers' terminology?

"Bounce" - When first coined some years ago, it strictly referred to horses that regressed considerably after a best-ever outing in their previous race. Currently, the term is more overused than your favorite coffee mug...perhaps because it's so convenient to explain away a poor effort or maybe because it sounds so cool to scream, "BOUNCE!"

"Wise guy horse" - As in the movie Goodfellas, though I believe the Three Stooges got there first with this one. In any case, by the time you hear about a supposed wise guy (smart play) horse from a television host or racing beat writer, the real wise guys will have long since abandoned that sinking ship and quietly moved on to a much more desirable equine athlete that is actually "live" (has a chance). Your grandmother's Derby hunches win at a better clip than the W.G.H., steer clear!

"Beyer" - Pronounced (buy-er) but not the folks who purchase these horses at public auction. Rather, these are numbers, usually ranging from (at the better tracks) the 50s or 60s (slow) up to rarely assigned 120s (fast). Many years ago, a clever Marylander, Andrew Beyer, began a huge undertaking. Beyer wondered how to reliably compare races from different tracks. In other words, if there was an eight-runner field at Saratoga and all eight were exiting races at different tracks, how could he decide which races were best? Horse "A" won his race at Monmouth in 1:10.3. Horse "B" won his race at Calder in 1:11.2. Horse "C" was beaten by a half-length at Delaware and the winning time was 1:10 flat and so on. The fastest raw time does not always tell the whole story. Some tracks simply yield much faster or slower times than others. Most tracks also change from day to day and a 1:10.4 on Wednesday may well be superior to a 1:10 flat on Saturday. Armed with years' worth of DRF race charts, Beyer established par times for all different classes at all the major tracks. Let's see some NASA engineers do that! It is through these par times that the number is adjusted (plus or minus) accordingly. Because these Beyer ratings are achieved under varying circumstances (i.e. perfect trip, wide throughout, unusually slow pace etc.), the raw number is meant to be interpreted. Most folks just bet on the runner with the highest number in his most recent effort...and cry after the race that "the Beyers are useless!"

"The Rags" - The Rags or Ragozin Sheets, the brainchild of Len Ragozin, are an elaborate system using every factor under the sun (in fact, probably including the sun) to evaluate a horse's performance. All these elements are then fed into a computer, mixed with a highly classified, mysterious formula, and voila...you have your number! The numbers (lower is better) can then be printed out on "sheets," which to the untrained eye, are quite impossible to decipher. It's the lazy handicapper's high-tech version of the free (with purchase of a Daily Racing Form) Beyer rating with Mr. Ragozin's interpretations already built into the final number. Not for the flip phone (I still use one) set.

"Big Fig" - Even you are wise to the fact that handicappers don't eat fruit, so what is this exactly? Well, it refers to the Beyer Speed Figure or the Ragozin number that a horse is assigned after a huge effort. Big Fig and Wise Guy Horse might sometimes pass one another in the lunchroom, but Big Fig and Bounce need no introductions as they know each other intimately!

"Cycling around" - It's possible that a handicapper might have some rusted, 10-speed relic in some dark corner of his garage, but he surely isn't actually going to use it! No, the cycling, in this instance, refers to a racehorse's racing cycle, and figures most prominently in Ragozin circles. Race horses rarely run any more than two or three top efforts before performance levels drop off. Depending on the horse, number of days between races as well as numerous other factors, they can take anywhere from a single start to three or four starts to cycle back to their top performance. Easy huh...NOT!

"Bias" - Pronounced (buy-us), like if you're unlucky enough to have your kids drag you into the exorbitantly priced Churchill gift shop on Derby day. Now that is what you call rotten luck! Bias is in fact the track bias, and refers to a predisposition of a racing surface on any given day to favor a certain running style, i.e. front-runner, closer, inside or outside. Pay no attention to that loudmouth proclaiming after the first race that "the inside is dead" because a runner that couldn't win under any circumstances made the lead and stopped in the stretch. The bias is best judged not by the winner, but by the general flow of the race. And give it at least a couple of races before reaching any conclusions. Got it figured out? Good, now here comes a rain shower to change everything!

That's that! Consider yourself armed and ready for Derby week. It probably hasn't got you any closer to finding that elusive Kentucky Derby winner, but at least you'll understand the jargon.

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