I grew up on a small farm in Illinois far away from any racetracks. Horses were part of the culture, from my cowboy heroes on television to the neighbours down the dusty gravel road who lived in a converted barn and used their Appaloosas for local transportation.
One of the most magical memories from my childhood was the morning our Morgan mare gave birth to a beautiful filly we named Flicka, after the title character of the book, movie and television series “My Friend Flicka.”
So while I have always loved horses, what hooked me on racing were the numbers: the statistics in Daily Racing Form, the odds on the tote board, the $2 bets that I tried to convert into $10 or $20.
I was no math whiz in school, but once I discovered horse racing while living in Chicago there was nothing I enjoyed more than handicapping nine races at Arlington Park, Hawthorne or the now defunct Sportsman’s Park.
I read every book I could find on handicapping: Tom Ainslie, Steve Davidowitz and Andy Beyer were my favorites in the mid-to-late 1970s. Each had their own unique ways of interpreting Daily Racing Form data.
Back then, the Form didn’t include race conditions, trouble or comment lines or Beyer Speed Figures in the past performances. You could get an edge by clipping charts from the local newspaper, read the condition of races along with the footnotes, and calculate your own speed figures based on the Beyer formula.
All of those statistics and benefits were gradually added to Daily Racing Form past performances (and to Equibase and Brisnet data) and it took the edge away from horseplayers who were willing to do extra homework.
By contrast, the statistics used to gauge the relative health of the horse racing industry were more comprehensive back in the 1970s than they are today. They were more available, too.
Each week, Daily Racing Form published a statistical table called the “Trend in Racing.” It included all race meets that had been conducted and showed the daily averages in attendance and pari-mutuel handle, with comparisons to the previous year.
Things were much simpler then. Tracks counted daily attendance because there was no free admission as we see today – especially at racetracks with casinos. All wagering was conducted on-track. There was no off-track or telephone wagers to commingle with the on-track bets.
As the game has evolved and become more complicated, industry record keepers have virtually given up on trying to present meaningful statistics that tell us how a racetrack is doing from a business standpoint. Equibase puts out raw figures on American racing each quarter with totals for all tracks, showing volume of wagers and purses and the number of race days, races and starts.
There is no breakdown of a percentage of wagers made on-track at off-track betting facilities or via computer or telephone. There are no inflation-adjusted numbers showing actual growth or declines.
How do industries make intelligent decisions without relevant data?
Let’s look at the breeding industry and how those statistics have or have not evolved.
In 1948, Blood-Horse magazine editor Joe Estes came up with a revolutionary way to evaluate stallions, a statistical tool called Average-Earnings Index (AEI) that looks at earnings by a sire’s runners and compares it with all other sires’ runners in a given year. The Comparable Index was then developed to gauge the relative quality of a stallion’s book of mares.
Seventy years later, the AEI and CI remain the most recognized tools to evaluate stallions. That is either a tribute to Estes’ foresight and brilliance, a statement about the industry’s lack of innovation, or perhaps a bit of both.
One standard that is clearly outdated is the Leading Sire List, thanks to super-sized stallion books and inflated purses in select races. Candy Ride got a $7-million head start on his rivals on the 2018 Leading Sire List when his son Gun Runner won the Pegasus World Cup.
In the list of leading North American sires of 2-year-olds, eight of the top 10 stallions had 100-plus foals, led by the top-ranked Scat Daddy, with 160.