Friday, March 14, 2014
Everything That’s Old Is True Again
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., March 13, 2014—In my fourth decade as a public handicapper and as executive editor of this site for seven years come Kentucky Derby week, money-making offers have come across my work station from time to time.
Interesting offers worth my time usually work out to the benefit of both parties; those that I’m uncomfortable with, or literally not worth the effort, usually go by the wayside. This recent dilemma, however, I never anticipated.
As many readers and industry types know, the late Cary Fotias was an original thinker, unbelievable human being and the best friend anyone could hope to make. I’m a better person for having known him. Any of his good friends would tell you that he was special.
I’ve written the story several times about how we met, about our passion for the game, our engagement in the art-science of handicapping and, of course, the gambling with its inherent risks and rewards.
My love of the game began at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways and gained full stride and Aqueduct and Belmont Park. Saratoga, of course, was a revelation, sacred ground imbued with friendly ghosts of legendary proportions.
Serious handicappers will tell you harness racing is all about the trips. Trip handicapping was the still-developing skill set that I brought to the altar of the Thoroughbred.
Professional gambler Paul Mellos was my trip-note mentor, teaching me trip shorthand, symbols I still use to note information in my track program.
Horse racing lends itself beautifully to the marvels of technological advancement, and to some degree has kept the game on life support. But old school still works and always will. The handicapping process constantly evolves.
Old school works for the same reason mom and pop operations can compete at the highest levels with the game’s giants. See California Chrome. See horseplayer Jack Ninio who won nearly a half-million dollars with the lone winning ticket on Fair Grounds’ Black Gold Pick 5 Jackpot.
Fate’s finger is fickle but sometimes it rewards hard work and good fortune. “Any horseplayer who has such an ego to think they’re the greatest in the world for getting lucky on a day like that needs to check their ego,” Ninio said. “I got lucky, things worked out my way.”
Fate also intervened in my friendship with Cary because in his book “Blinkers Off,” not only were there new terms of great interest to explore--“new pace top,” “turf decline line,” etc., but they were built on sound principles; conditioning and energy distribution.
“Blinkers Off” helped quantify my trip notes, not lending science to the art as much as providing a methodology that married art to science via a learned visual discipline. Cary’s work offered a vision that was more exacting than my own lyin’ eyes.
No one worked harder, no one, at producing performance figures than Cary, who at once enjoyed control yet was never controlling. It was numbers in the morning, betting by day, and more numbers at night.
“You can’t automate this stuff,” he said over and over, giving his predilection for repetition. “There are days when the races just don’t make sense. “You need handicapping experience, the kind that’s sometimes counter-intuitive.”
The heart of the Fotias’ methodology was patterns that emerged from a sequence of pace/final figures. It was those patterns, especially with young horses, that allowed me to see a horse develop before my eyes.
It was knowledge that when married with good trip-note-taking skills cannot be gleaned from reading trainer quotes in track press releases.
A devoted Equiform regular, who I know as Anthony, e-mailed last week to ask if I could, for pay, help him “brush up on the patterns.” I explained to him I could not and was not affiliated with the new company for several reasons:
First and foremost, I was made an offer I could not accept. Of greater importance, I don’t believe that accurate variants needed to construct top quality performance figures can be computerized no matter how sophisticated the algorithm.
I explained to Anthony that since I’m not engaged in the numbers-making process on a daily basis, I’ve been constructing my own pace and speed figures again, only this time infused with Cary’s energy principles.
Nick Mordin, a successful professional horseplayer, noted author and an international expert on our Breeders’ Cup tele-clinics, had some interesting takes on automation in a Feb. 8 e-mail to friends and members of the original Equiform partnership. To wit:
“I'd like to get into the issue of why it would be a bad idea to totally automate the ratings as I've been working on this very problem for the last three months. I've found just why you need manual intervention to make accurate ratings.
“The answer is something called energy return in academic papers. I call it the trampoline effect.
“On a trampoline you can bounce to much greater heights than you can from the ground because the trampoline returns stored energy to you with each bounce - as long as you bounce up and down in sync with the natural rhythm of the trampoline. It's the same way with racing surfaces.
“A racing surface can return as much as 6% of the energy horses expend. But the energy returned varies in line with the way the surface is maintained and also with its water contact [with its rubber content in the case of synthetic surfaces].
“It also varies with the speed of the horse. They have to run at the right speed to get the maximum energy returned. There are also a stack of other variables.
“What all the variables mean is that while you can produce a set of standard times that work well 75% of the time, the truth is every track is a new track every day - one to which past standards cannot be applied without some adjustment - an adjustment that really has to be based on human insight and expertise.
“Did the energy return/track profile vary because the track was wet? Was it because they just tossed in some more chopped up bits of rubber into the surface… Was it because they deep harrowed the track to keep it from freezing, or rolled it to repel water?
“You need to be able to make at least an informed guess at the cause to pinpoint the impact of early pace on final time and change your adjustment for beaten lengths correctly.
“Beaten lengths can vary by a factor of three or more at the same track according to the average speed which horses finish that day. The more tired they finish and the less the energy return, the greater the beaten lengths become.
“The optimal early pace can vary by something like three seconds a mile, too. I'd like to believe that at some point I will be able to come up with a formula that takes account of all the variables…I'm pretty sure there are so many variables they make the computation so complex it enters the realm of chaos theory.
“So if you want to accurately adjust speed ratings to take account surface changes you simply must have someone who has a deep and expert understanding of both the ratings and the way surfaces work.
“And that's before we even get into the way class pars change in line with the way the better horses migrate from one region to another due to changing prize money levels-- again something only an expert would be able to adjust for, not a program.
“Cary and I used to debate this issue and I wish he were here so that I could tell him I think I've finally figured out why he was right and I was wrong. Most likely it was his death that sent me down the path of researching this topic in the first place.”
And why my good friend, and his original Equiform figures, will continue to be missed every time I download a fresh set of past performances.