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Mysteries of the Mountain Man


Mark Patterson


Sat, May 21, 2016

Your fellow players have it dialed in. Did you know that nearly 40% of horses sent favored here last season responded with scores? And with the notorious "Mad Bomber" carpeting standouts at 5k per barrage, many of those winning chalks paid ridiculously low prices. Sure, Mountaineer's win pool may reverse field like a Green Bay Packers misdirection play, but by postime it invariably reflects an incredibly informed and preordained consensus. Unfortunately for the rest of us, those who dictate the odds have refined basic factors like class, speed, and even trainer intent to the point of near perfection.

One strong influence on race results, nonetheless, escapes the attention of whales. That's because it can't be quantified, seen, or completely proven. And it exists to give them FITS-to crush their mortal locks, grant wings to longshots they've discarded, and rain havoc on their lovingly-crafted numbers.

A certain jockey revealed this intangible to me back when I thought the mysteries of racing (if not life) could all be decoded from past-performance cuts. How complete those addictive rectangles seemed, and how sufficient for explaining thoroughbred performance. Until, that is, I spied "The General" doing some reconnaissance. He was walking the surface at about 2-hours to post, sometimes retracing his steps to prod, probe, and, as it turned out, plan a bold course of action. That afternoon he rode five winners, steering each out past the crown. The next morning found his halting stroll repeated, which led to six winners, all angled sharply to the rail. Some 30 years have since passed, and nobody (except when safety is at issue) trods the surface anymore. And nobody is enroute to 7,396 wins.

Unlike the legendary Dave Gall, I can't detect surface trends with my toesNYRA's track superintendent once told a symposium of handicappers that just a quarter-inch variation in cushion depth creates a path bias (sorry, my tootsies aren't that sensitive)-but I do put considerable stock in this mysterious, sometimes all-powerful force that tractors and water trucks can never quite neutralize.

Mountaineer's oval has a somewhat bipolar rep for playing dead rail, but nonetheless favoring speed. Let's see how those perceptions hold up to subjective bias notes, and to a profile shedding light on the strip's intrinsic nature.

A review of 2011 bias notes supports the track's rep for being prone to short-term cycles: On nearly half (106) of all (214) cards, some path bias or running-style trend was judged to have taken hold. The much-ballyhooed dead-rail reared its head on a full 46 occasions-22% of the time. Conversely (and consistent with widespread perception), the inside seemed an advantage on just nine evenings.

Post- position stats paint a cloudier picture. Since one-turn races, wherein horses stick more to respective gate-paths, better reflect path biases, let's look at the breakdown for Mountaineer's primary sprint distances (IV stands for impact value, a number expressing the ratio of actual winners to expected winners) :

Screenshot of horse racing position

Note that at two of these distances post-1 wins over 20% more than its share. Neither the rail draw ( nor post-2) fare nearly as well at five furlongs, the distance starting closest to the turn. That seems counterintuitive, except that a similar trend is seen nationwide and can perhaps be explained by tighter quarters on the pace.

But if Mountaineer's dead-rail rep is unfounded, try explaining post-10's prolific IV at 5 1/2 furlongs, a distance carded more than 1,000 times during the course of our profile. We can't chalk it up to clear running -room, since-and there IS no explanation for this- post-9 scores at a much higher clip in fields that include a 10- horse.

If no lane trend emerges from Mountaineer's conflicting post stats, both the profile and bias notes confirm the strip as speed friendly. Bias notes deemed the surface extra-kind to frontrunners on 54 (of the 214) cards last year. Statistics back that conjecture. The table below shows respective win rates for first-call leaders at Mountaineer (again, at the basic sprint distances) that exceed national averages:

Screenshot of horse racing position

Lumped together, first call leaders here at Mountaineer's most commonly carded route distances, 1 mile, and 1 mile 70 yards, prevail at only the national strike-rate of about 24%. Consistent with this discrepancy, speed on many occasions dominates our sprints, while enjoying no particular edge at two turns. Early leaders did fare discernably better at the longer 1 mile70 trip. That's certainly because flat miles attract more early speed, which results in stiffer pace-scenarios.

Here's the breakdown on how respective posts make out at those route distances:

Screenshot of horse racing position

Taking into account that mile races outnumber 170's in this sample by a ratio of about 2.5/1, it's striking how infrequently posts 9 and 10 manage to win. A short run to a scrunched first turn (that gives the track its distinct pear-shape) makes it hard for wide draws to set or press the pace while saving energy. Dramatically illustrating this: just a single 10 horse wired its field-over the course of the PAST TWO SEASONS. Amazing.

Bias notes and the profile agree that wet footing moves frontrunners up. Tracks rated "sloppy" or "muddy" were assessed as speed-favoring 40% of the time. (Less saturated ovals rated "good"-a label sometimes misapplied here to bone dry surfaces that contain frozen moisture-were considered pro-speed at just a 14% clip.) Cold stats fall in line, revealing that 36% of all profile races (spanning from five furlongs to a mile and 70 yards) run on wet footing went to the first -call leader, as opposed to 31% on fast tracks.

While wet conditions tend to favor early speed, a dead rail can sometimes work against it. Bias notes perceived a negative-rail on 17 of the 19 cards that found pacesetters at a disadvantage. An important distinction must be made here: Whereas just 36% of dead- rail trends were seen to compromise speed, almost 90% of negative-speed trends seemed attributable to a dead rail. To summarize: Lane bias doesn't usually hinder early leaders at Mountaineer, but it's the only factor that can.

*Look for a turf workup sometime in May.


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