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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Keith Pettyjohn — We’ve all heard it before, and we’ve heard it more than once: “Saratoga: The Graveyard of Favorites.”And wasn’t that ever the case this past Saturday in upstate New York.

One of the things that I like to do when big favorites go down to defeat is to take a good hard look deep inside the numbers. So let’s start this exploration with Midnight Bisou, who lost the Personal Ensign as the 1-5 chalk.

And for this challenge trainer Steve Asmussen had her fit and ready to fire in her second race off the layoff, giving her three nice, evenly spaced workouts under her belt. She was poised for a top effort.

There’s nothing truly negative that we can say about her performance. If one had to reach and stretch for something, maybe you could lay some blame on the COVID-19 protocols that kept regular rider Mike Smith in California.

So Ricardo Santana Jr. gets the mount having no experience with this mare in a race. Just as it is with workouts, afternoon’s are different, even when you have plenty of familiarity with the animal in the morning. Not only did he do nothing wrong, he had her in perfect position throughout.

OK, so let’s lay some of the blame on Jose Lezcano for “herding” and “floating an opponent” in the stretch to not let her pass by forcing her rival to look her in the eye and win a battle of wills.

Now let’s turn our attention to the winner, Vexatious. She returned to racing at Oaklawn Park after a six month layoff to post a Class-Based Performance figure of 79. She then is asked to run a marathon distance of a mile and three-eighths on the turf. There, she earned an 87, improving by 8 points.

Following that effort she returned to dirt, cut back to a one mile dirt race at Belmont Park, running faster and better in the Grade 2 Ruffian Stakes when she’s asked to tackle a monster in Monomoy Girl.

The interesting note here is that she actually gained a half length on the champion from the six furlong marker to the wire, an indication that the longer distance of the Personal Ensign could better suit her talents and conditioning–and it did.

In the Personal Ensign, Vexatious ran a final time that was about one fifth of a second slower than the boys ran in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes, the slow early pace notwithstanding.

For this effort, Vexatious jumped up 14 more points to earn a 107. With that, she has thrust her name squarely into the very competitive BC Distaff conversation.

Midnight Bisou lost absolutely nothing in defeat. On this day, where she spotted a peaking rival four pounds, a significant spread at nine furlongs, she was beaten by a head.

Midnight Bisou was up against a mare that is improving at 6 and was locked and loaded for the race, brilliantly executed by her trainer, Jack Sisterson, who proved worthy of the recent attention he’s been getting.

So now Distaff table talk includes the likes of Monomoy Girl, Midnight Bisou, Fighting Mad, Ollie’s Candy, Ce Ce, Point Of Honor and Vexatious, Wow!

Who knows, the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Distaff might turn out to be even more competitive than the Classic?

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8 Responses

  1. Keith, knew she had to improve, but 16 points? Wow, alright. Still learning about and mixing and matching Class Performance-Based Ratings. Now when Thoro-Graph figures improve by a couple of points, I have an idea how many lengths that is depending on weight and distance, etc, next out. How big a leap is a GSR of 16? And do you have a figure for the Whitney for comparison?

    1. Hey John, thanks for the note. Let’s see if I can do a good enough job of explaining without giving away the whole “secret sauce” .

      Think of a Class-Based Performance Rating like being back in school and you’d have a teacher that would grade on a bell curve. Grading on a bell curve would actually place more responsibility on the teacher to make sure that he/she did a good job of teaching the material. Afterall, the whole class will be graded by the smartest person in the class or at least the one who actually “GOT” what the teacher was trying to teach them.

      My Class-Based Performance Figures are driven by several factors, but the four that carry the most weight are:
      Field Size

      Three are very simple and we all “GET”.
      Speed.….based on the timing of the race adjusted for track variant
      Pace…..based on the timing of several segments of the race adjusted for track variant
      Field Size…..based on the number of entrants in the race
      Class… this one is a little trickier and what really separates my figures from the rest. Here the speed and pace figures are measured AGAINST the quality of competition in this race.

      Two of the best examples of this are two great sprinters from last year.
      On July 28th last year Shancealot blistered the Saratoga Racecource in the Amsterdam Stakes. He was given very high speed figures. Beyer gave him a 121. Equibase gave him a 122 and TimeformUS gave him a 133. All VERY high numbers. On the other hand, he only got a 102 from me. WHY? The quality of competition in that race was so poor (no offense to the owners of those other horses) but the quality of competition only came back as a C+.

      Now let’s look at the Met Mile. Mitole got a 108 from Beyer. 118 from Equibase and 132 from TimeformUS. All three of these companies rated Shancealot’s numbers better than Mitole’s. But not mine. Mitole got a 112 from me. WHY? The quality of competition that he had to face in that race. Finishing second was McKinzie multiple Graded Stakes winner made over $3 million dollars. Third was Thunder Snow, two time winner of Dubai World Cup made over $16 million dollars. Fourth was Promises Fulfilled, multiple Graded Stakes winner and winner of almost $1.5 million dollars. Fifth was Firenze Fire. A winner of multiple Graded Stakes races, one helluva a sprinter who’s currently still running and winner of almost $2 million dollars. It was a nine horse race but I’ll stop there at the top five. Needless to say that was one helluva a race. As a matter of fact, that was THE TOUGHTEST dirt race of all of 2019. The race rating came back as a A++.

      Now let’s fast forward a little bit. When these two horses met in the Breeder’s Cup Sprint, Shancealot had the faster speed and pace figures. Therefore the public made him the favorite in the race. I was literally smiling from ear to ear because I knew that he could not handle the class of Mitole. This race was an absolute lock for me. Mitole was better than Shancealot and Shancealot was better than all of the rest. So in the words of Dave Weaver from TVG, this race was an “ICE COLD….EXACTA!!!”

      So hopefully that helps to clear it up a little. My numbers measure what the horse did, but it measures them AGAINST the quality of competition in that race. Sorta like a teacher who grades on a Bell curve. Measuring the students against the smartest kid in the class.

      1. Thanks for this breakdown of the factors used and the explanation of your incorporation of race grading to determine class. When determining race class, will the Whitney’s grade drop due to Tom’s d’Etat’s severe stumble at the break? It would seem logical that Improbable beat less of a field if Tom’s credentials going in are largely dismissed.

      2. KP,
        If the “secret sauce” refers to HOW your numbers are actually computed, then your “Romulan cloak” approach is fine with me, but how can one appreciate/evaluate your work without being able to compare values you assign to races (and horses) relative to each other?

        I don’t understand the significance of your comparison of numbers given to the same performance from multiple sources. Are they all even on the same scale?

      3. “I see,” said the blind man on the other side of the bell curve. Seriously, thanks for the tutorial. I understand the concept better now.

        Cary Fotias was the best original thinker I knew as a handicapper/player and this is very good new stuff. I am proud that you are associated with HRI.

        I was overdo to get something right!

  2. Interesting article – seems to be consensus in the various figures that Bisou ran great but Vexatious was just a buzzsaw on Saturday.

    1. What’s Up Doc?

      Let’s take a look at Midnight Bisou’s top races from 2019. She won 7 races last year. In five of them, she topped triple digits.
      Nov. 2nd BC Distaff she earned a 102
      Aug. 24th Personal Ensign she earned a 104
      Jun. 8th Ogden Phipps she earned a 105
      Apr. 14th Apple Blossom she earned a 101
      Mar. 16th Azeri she earned a 100

      Her return to racing this year she got a 94. Now she didn’t run fast in that race nor did she beat much. But in this year’s Personal Ensign she lost by a neck to a mare that runs a career best 107. The numbers say that she didn’t lose anything in defeat. It took a horse running the best that she has ever run to beat her by a neck.

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