Quarter Horse Futurity Trials

Charles Carroll

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Last week I waxed poetic about the horsy experience of standing at the finish line at Ruidoso Downs at the end of a Quarter Horse futurity or derby trial, and how it’s one of those nostalgia-makers—like strolling through the old shed rows at Saratoga on a misty morn’.

There was one little factoid that I left out of that scene that has a lot to do with my nostalgia:  Quarter Horse futurity trials are like having a key to the stinking bank.  In addition to the equine racing sounds I described, there is another one:  the loud Ka-ching! of money hitting the till.

Try to imagine handicapping a Thoroughbred route at Santa Anita in which:

  • No jockey is rating
  •  Nobody’s “saving ground”
  •  A horse can be twelve-wide and still have a clear shot
  • Every horse is running flat-out
  • Speed is the primary determining factor
  • No published Beyers to dilute the odds
  • Only a horse club-generated speed format that the public sees that makes the old DRF figs look like high science. 
  • And not one hoser’s got decent speed figures or parallel speed (for comparing speeds at different distances)except you!

Could you live with that?  Could you profit with that?  I am actually giving myself a public pep talk with this right now.  My betting on Quarter Horse racing has declined to almost nothing in the past decade, but I’m up for it again now for one simple reason:  I no longer have to manually type in what I need to handicap them.

I spent a lot of time at Quarter Horse tracks just about that long ago, when I was writing Handicapping Speed.  The reason was that Quarter Horses are timed from a flat-footed, standing start; from the instant the gates fly open, while Thoroughbreds are timed from a starting post at varying distances down the track from the gate.  This is a really interesting fact if you are curious about finding out what happens in the beginning of a Thoroughbred race, in the time you can’t know about—from when the gates fly open until the first horse passes the starting post.  So with the permission of the stewards at Ruidoso, Sunland, Albuquerque, and a few other places, I was down at the gates with a tape measure and a roll of electrician’s tape, marking different distances from the gates on the rail, where I stood with a digital stop watch, trying to catch “incremental start-up times.”  It made for a lot of cool graphs.  It also made for getting to know Quarter Horse racing pretty well.  But, since I was working on a book, doing backside interviews before dawn, photographing and timing works, and trying to be a paparazzi during the races to catch action shots, I had almost no time to handicap.

The funny thing is that I distinctly remember being highly bummed that it was on a futurity trial day when I found time to actually do a little speed-figuring.  There was absolutely nothing on the card that day at Ruidoso Downs but cream-of-the crop Quarter Horse babies running 350 yards for $1,500 hay money.  (Futurity trials are notoriously cheap.)  It looked boring on paper.  Every race was 350 yards.  Every race fit on one small page of the western Form.  Every past performance was 350 yards.  Every horse had one or two past performances (relatively few had no PPs, since these 1200-pound babies run on a tight schedule and have to get their prep races in quickly to remain qualified—and learn how to stay on the track, another notorious thing about hyper QH 2-year-olds).  I was determined to do a little betting anyway, and I quit interviewing and picture taking about noon.  Back then I had an incredibly expensive laptop with a 286 processor running DOS, and a handwritten, BASIC language version of Speed Handicapper® (which also ended up in the Speed book as a do-it-yourself project).  So, I started punching in times and finish positions with one hand, while I ate one of R.D. Hubbard’s hamburgers with the other—which was so outrageously expensive, you would have thought he cooked it himself.

Three days later, after no sleep from handicapping the pure excitement of the most incredible run of my life at the windows, the trials ended and I was in a black funk that it would not happen again for another whole year.  I had found the grunion run of handicapping!  These little $1,500 races just jumped up on the beach and all I needed was a bushel basket.  The irony was that you have no idea how expensive it is to write a book.  (One of the really laughable myths of horse racing is that guys like me make more money from books than from handicapping—on the contrary, I have to handicap to keep up my writing habit.)  I was virtually broke from buying the laptop and traveling to do research, so my bets were small and my actual return was, pathetically, just about enough to zero out expenses—but I will never forget the thrill of 34 of 36.  These were not all Win bets, either—after a while I was like the drunken mime who starts juggling blazing chain saws—I made some stupid bets, but they made money anyway—variance was smiling upon me.

I was too busy to make it the next year, and I have never really pounded the Futurity Trials since—for one big fat reason.  Quarter Horse handicapping was incredibly inconvenient.  I automated my Thoroughbred handicapping shortly after that, and it simply wasn’t cost effective for me to sit around for hours manually typing in final times for Quarter Horses from the paper Form, when I could download Thoroughbred past performances, click a few buttons and use the data however I wanted in my own program.  Quarter Horse data has been available for some time through AXCIS TrackMaster (I swear, Ellis, I am working on it), but it popped up by accident recently, just as I finished a Thoroughbred “data module” for Thoroughbred Sports Network (TSN) data, so I finally had the chance to quickly add Quarter Horse speed figures to an automated program.  The technicians at TSN were as surprised as I was to suddenly find Quarter Horse information appearing in their data fields—the last time I looked, they had not ironed out a few little things in their own software for displaying the data, like 350 yards showing up as “1.59 furlongs,” but maybe they have by now.  It didn’t matter for me because I was using the raw data—and as an added bonus, we now have wind velocity as well as direction—major factors in Quarter Horse speed calculations.  This is really something I’m itching to work during the season, because the average effect of a headwind in a 400 or 440 yard race is over a length and, until now, there was no way to know if “HW” meant a little 5 mph zephyr—or a 40 mph blast of dust and sticks off a Ruidoso mountain thunderstorm.  I can already see a lot of slop in the recorded wind data, but it ought to be fun—and it almost surely has to be profitable.

Hopefully, if you can’t actually get to one of the tracks, as I recommended last week, you can check out Quarter Horse racing through simulcast feeds from Los Alamitos, Ruidoso, or one of the other mixed-breed meets.  Then look into the on-line data sources, right now apparently limited to TSN and AXCIS.  Then—hone a few Quarter Horse handicapping skills and stand by, with a large whicker basket, for the Quarter Horse Futurity and Derby Trials—coming soon to a big screen near you.


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