BCBC: Maybe I'm Biased

BCBC: Maybe I'm Biased

Justin Nicholson

One word you’ll hear a lot if you hang out around handicappers is ‘bias.’ In particular, this usually relates to how a given track is playing. If a lot of frontrunners are winning, there may be a speed bias, or if a lot of horses on the inside are winning, perhaps there’s a rail bias. Whatever form the discussion may take, biases, whether conscious or unconscious, play into most decisions we make in life, and certainly play into the selections we make at the racetrack.

The ultimate question, though, is “when is a bias actually helping me?”

To me, there are two main factors in determining that a bias is useful. First, is it at least based in some kind of fact? Anyone can come up with a theory and support it dogmatically, but no matter how hard I may try to convince you that the moon is made of cheese, you can always just tell me to take a bite of moon-rock and prove me wrong. Second, is the bias being applied to the right circumstances? I might always prefer chicken nuggets to coq au vin, but I’m definitely taking my wife to the French bistro, not a fast food chain, on our anniversary!

Disclaimer: Moon not made of cheese.

Disclaimer: Moon not made of cheese.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at a couple of the biases that I already know will creep into my head over the course of Breeders’ Cup week. For one, Santa Anita is often thought to have a significant speed bias. Well, from the statistics thus far in the meet, this one appears to be factually correct. The average winner in one-turn dirt races is within 1.5 lengths of the lead, and the average winner in two-turn dirt races is within 1 length of the lead. What’s interesting is the bias appears a bit stronger in two-turn races, so keep an eye on those horses with some early speed going two turns!

Another bias I hold, and I think many others do as well, is that the quirky downhill turf course at Santa Anita is awfully tough for any horse to win over in its first try. While there’s limited history regarding the Breeders’ Cup and the downhill course, the sample size of five races is enough to suggest that this bias is based in fact. Four out of the five runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint on the downhill turf course have been won by horses that not only had been over the course before, but were basically specialists over it. The home-field advantage might not matter so much if California didn’t have some very talented turf sprinters, but since there are some pretty strong candidates like Obviously, Holy Lute, and Ambitious Brew ready to roll on Saturday, there’s a very good chance that California maintains its dominance in the Turf Sprint.


One last bias that I know will come into play is the ranking of turf horses based entirely on geography. Aside from that quirky downhill turf course, my general belief is that European turf horses are strongest, followed by East-Coast, followed by West-Coast. Again, the need for a lot of number-crunching keeps this bias anecdotal rather than easily traceable in fact, but there are a few hints that it may be true. As far as the West-Coast horses, just look at the races of Ashleyluvssugar, Metaboss, Midnight Storm, and Ralis when they shipped east to face different competition. All four looked dominant, or at least very strong, among West-Coast turf horses, but struggled in stakes and even allowance company on the East-Coast. Meanwhile, horses like Ring Weekend and Photo Call shipped out to California last year to win grade 1’s they weren’t winning on the East-Coast.

None of that may matter if the many European horses that come over do the same thing to North American turf horses that Flintshire did all year, right up until he lost to (yup, you guessed it) another European import. But will this bias based on ability matter in the end when the Santa Anita turf course plays so differently from other racetracks? The surface is nothing like the tall grass and rolling hills of Europe, and the turns are tighter and paces hotter than most of the major East-Coast tracks.

I’m sticking to my guns that the further east you go, the better the turf horses are (at least going as far east as the UK), but if the home-field advantage is significant enough at Santa Anita, I may just be taking my wife out for chicken nuggets on Saturday night after all.