TimeformUS head figure maker, Craig Milkowski, was as impressed as everyone while watching Game On Dude blow away his 11 rivals in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sunday. However, Milkowski noticed a big discrepancy in the official times from the track and those collected by Trakus, which places a GPS-collecting chip on each saddle cloth to track speed and distance traveled for each horse.
By: Craig Milkowski
There is nothing in horse racing quite as exciting for a speed-figure maker as getting to work on a race card after watching a top-class performance. Such was my opportunity Sunday when Game On Dude drew away from the field in the Grade 1, $1,000,000 Pacific Classic, winning by over 8 lengths with seeming ease. Horses winning by open lengths often record lifetime-best figures, or very near it. He was winning for the sixth consecutive time since a loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and had recorded TimeformUS speed figures of 133, 132, and 131 during that span.
Kettle Corn has been in top form lately. He ran second by a length to Game On Dude in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup in early July. Later in the month, he scored a victory in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. This race was run over the same Del Mar polytrack surface as the Pacific Classic. In his best three performances out of his last five races, Kettle Corn had been rated 124, 123, and 118 by TimeformUS. Delegation entered the Classic a neck shy of an undefeated record in six outings on Woodbine’s polytrack surface. His last race was a dominating front-running score for which he was assigned a career-best TimeformUS speed figure of 126. Game On Dude was a deserving favorite, but on paper this was no walkover.
A speed-figure maker takes the times recorded for the races and compares them to what he believed the horses would run based on prior history, class of the race, or both. He then determines how fast or slow he believes the track was that day based on this information, and this determination has come to be known by most as the track variant. I use a computer to generate a worksheet for each race card, complete with all calculations done for “raw” figures, those unadjusted by a track variant. From this the variant is calculated, and in turn speed figures are assigned.
I was surprised to see that the Pacific Classic appeared slow in relation to the two other route races on the card. The track appeared several lengths faster for those races. If accepted at face value, the implication is that Game On Dude did not run the exciting race I had anticipated numerically. I was concerned. How could a star of the game demolish the field in a $1,000,000 race and run slower than he has all year? My initial thought was simply to rate the race in isolation from the other two, perhaps due to the 1/4-mile difference in distance. However, I prefer not to do that. I favor making figures based on more than one race if at all possible.
I decided to think it over and began to read some of my favorite internet sites. I saw an interesting post at DerbyTrail.com. A poster with the screen name of “Round Pen” questioned why there was such a big difference between the official time, 2:00.69, and the Trakus time, 1:59.26. I am familiar with Trakus, a company that does timing at many tracks in the United States and in several other countries. Trakus uses proprietary wireless technology to track tags that have been inserted into each horse’s saddlecloth. They provide an array of great information, but for this day I was concerned only with the times. As a test, I plugged the Trakus times into my worksheet and right away the variants lined up perfectly with the other two route races. That was a good start to figuring out which time was correct, but I wanted more evidence.
While some tracks use the Trakus times as the official times, Del Mar does not. Del Mar provides the information on the track website in the form of Trakus “T-Charts.” It is rare when the times aren’t close, and definitely a red flag that something is amiss when the times are far apart. A study of the official Equibase chart and the T-Chart quickly showed the majority of the difference was in the first quarter of a mile. Equibase reported that the teletimer displayed 24.19 seconds for the first 1/4, while Trakus reported 22.91 seconds. This difference of 1.28 nearly matches the difference in final times: 1.43. Given this information, I decided to focus on that portion of the race.
I downloaded video of both the 2012 Pacific Classic and the 2013 Pacific Classic. Using video-editing software, I was able to time the races from the gate to the finish. Ideally, I would time from the place where the official timing begins after the 45-foot run up, but due to camera angles, that wasn’t possible. Run-up is the distance horses run before the official timing of the race begins. Run-up is a terrible idea, one that is not used anywhere else in the world of horse racing, but that is an argument for another day. I don’t claim the times I give below are exact or official, but they are close enough to show there is a problem.
I moved through the video frame by frame and froze the image of each race at the instant the starting gate was fully opened. I noted the time on the video in 100ths of a second. I then followed the horses until they reached the finish line in each race. Since Del Mar is a one mile oval, in a mile and a quarter race, the finish line is the spot where there is one mile to go, and a quarter mile has been completed. I froze the video again and recorded the times. By deducting the time on the video when the gate fully opened from the time at the finish line, I was able to calculate the time it took to run the first quarter mile in both races.
Screengrabs of the races and times, as well as the complete story, can be found on the TimeformUS Blog.