Joe and Brian Answer Your Facebook Questions - Vol. 4

By Joe Kristufek and Brian W. Spencer

Every Monday on the Arlington Park Facebook page at facebook.com/arlingtonpark, Daily Herald and Arlington Park handicapper Joe Kristufek and horseplayerNOW.com's Brian W. Spencer field questions in the morning, and provide answers in the evening. No matter how simple or how advanced, every question is a good question. Joe and Brian are available every Monday to answer anything you've ever wanted to know about horse racing.

Every other week, we'll reprint some of the best questions here in the Daily Racing Guide. Log on to facebook.com/arlingtonpark, ask your question, and come back to the track to see if it wound up in the program!

*****
One important part of handicapping seems to be the workouts horses take part in between races. But how can you tell if a workout indicates improvement, or is sluggish? What are some good time guidelines? - Owen M.

Brian W. Spencer: With workouts, the time can be very misleading. While it's easy to pick out a horse who has worked several "bullets" in a row (the fastest of all works at the distance that day, indicated by a bold black dot next to the work), there are really no good guidelines for what time makes a "good" work. Some trainers work their horses slowly while others tend to always work them fast, so comparing them can be like comparing apples to oranges. What does matter more to me is how those works are spaced. If a horse debuts and runs well, and then returns 28 days later without a work, that's red flag for me. I'd like to see the horse work in between starts to show me that the race didn't knock the horse out; that he or she came out of the race okay and is set for another solid effort. The clues like that will mean much more to me in the long run than trying to determine a hard and fast set of guidelines for what's a good or bad work on paper.

What exactly does the term "back class" mean?- Chris S.
Brian W. Spencer:
Back class is a term we use to indicate a horse that has run in competitive and classy races in the past. Say today's race is a $50,000 claimer, and one of the horses entered made several starts last year in Grade III stakes races, that horse would have back class. We still need to analyze and assess that class drop to determine whether a horse has lost a step and the connections are willing to lose him in that example given, but in a race where the other entrants have generally raced at or around that $50,000 level, the horse with the stakes running lines in his past performances would be considered to have "back class."

When handicapping, where do you expect a similar performance--or upgrade--: Horses moving from Poly to turf (first time) or horses moving turf to Poly (first time)...or do you weigh them equally? - Mitch D.
Joe Kristufek
: As with most factors/angles in horseracing, it all comes down to the individual horse, its style and the race shape. A good percentage of horses who handle turf also handle Poly, and vise versa. Since you're talking about "first time turf to Poly" and "first time Poly to turf", it's really just an educated guess, and no hard fast "rule" can be followed. We now have a three-year plus sample of synthetic racing, so pedigrees can now be researched to a limited extent. I also have a compiled list of Poly sires, based on statistics and local observations. To me, turf to Poly is so interchangeable, that I don't even bother to offer main track selections in the Daily Herald for the grass races (in case they come off).

How do you figure out a horse's class rating?- James O.
Joe Kristufek: True "class" is a tough thing to determine. A horse who was a graded stakes winner one year could be a claimer the next. "Back class" refers to horses who have been competitive against top level competition in the past. If horses drop to face softer competition, they are said to have a "class edge." With a few exceptions, horses who are jumping up in class are often a better bet than horses dropping down. They're trainers are showing confidence by bumping them up, while those dropping down are usually A) on the down side of their form and B) too short of a price (underlay). Recent form is more important than supposed class. Is the horse in good form? How do they "fit" against today's competition? Is it the right distance/surface for the horse? A simple way to determine "class" is to divide the horse's earnings by the number of starts they've made. A horse earning $8,000 per start may, theoretically, have more class than a horse earning $4,000 per run.

How reliable are speed figures when it comes to handicapping? Do you use them? -Ali H.
Brian W. Spencer:
I'm more of a visual handicapper. I watch replays and find horses with trouble or who may have done something they're not used to doing (wound up on the lead when they like to stalk the pace, etc) and key off those horses next time out. That said, speed figures can be a valuable tool in certain ways. If you're looking at a field of runners whose recent average figure is an 85, and one entrant has recent numbers in the 50s, it's usually a safe bet to say that the latter runner is simply too slow to win that race. That's an easy way to quickly get an idea of which horses fit and which horses don't in any given field. Obviously, there are many pieces to the puzzle, or we'd all just get the same speed figures and all the 1-9 favorites would win because they were the fastest horses in each race. The key is to use that as a tool, not the be-all end-all of your handicapping, because those figures don't take into account what you can see visually when watching races. They don't take into account troubled trips, most don't take into account ground loss on the turn, and there's just no way for a figure to capture the totality of what happened in a race...only your eyes can do that, so they're fairly reliable, but people will go broke just blindly betting speed figures, because usually those horses with the big numbers wind up going off as the favorite. Great question!