the years, there have been a few writers who have tried to bring greater
accuracy to the calculations we apply to figure handicapping thoroughbreds.
Not many, but a few. I don't know why they do it and I wish they would
cut it out.
I am perfectly happy--as a matter of fact, I'm tickled to death--that
the vast majority of race goers don't make their own numbers--and those
who do, for openers, are convinced that a length is equal to a fifth
of a second, and that the same length is ten-feet long. The fastest
horse I ever rode wasn't ten feet long, and he didn't have a registered
name that anybody remembered, he was just "Charlie." (I don't name horses
after myself; he came that way.) This horse had an extra gear somewhere,
direct-wired to a switch that kicked his brain into neutral, and when
he hit that gear, he had no sense for his own safety, or yours. I would
twist his head back and lay his lower lip on my knee to discuss the
matter of slowing down, while the rest of his body with mine atop was
doing fifty miles-an-hour over irrigation ditches or whatever happened
to be in a straight line from where he wigged out. Charlie was a retired
quarter horse, and he was a little like a punch-drunk fighter. If he
heard a bell, he came out swinging.
Aside from that little idiosyncracy, he was the best horse I've ever
owned. He taught me to rope, we worked cattle, I did archeological surveys
on him; we out ran everything on four legs. Charlie had one other little
idiosyncracy that came from his racing days: he would not, under any
circumstances let another horse put its nose in front of his. It didn't
matter if it was a race, or just walking to the pasture to gather cattle.
Charlie had an attitude. Someday maybe we'll talk about "class," but
to me, there's not much more to be said than that. Put breeding and
physiology together with that attitude and you not only have a race
horse, but a rare kind.
I've owned and ridden better-bred horses since, both thoroughbreds and
quarter horses, but none with more heart--and none faster. When Charlie
hit that gear--and I know now what it was: the three-hundred-yard breaking
of the inertia barrier--and, if there was clear sailing ahead, so that
you could think of something other than survival and enjoy the trip,
there was a certain feeling, a certain sound, a certain whistling in
your ears, that I have never felt or heard on another horse.
Charlie spent his retirement years with my sister and had to be put
down last winter at twenty-something. Charlie was buried in a hole six
feet deep by seven feet long. The fastest horse I ever rode was seven
feet long. I didn't find this out by measuring his eye with an engineer's
scale and extrapolating, or by comparing his length in a photo with
paraphernalia in the background that I later measured. Rather, I ran
a Stanley Powerlock 16' Model 33-423 tape measure from his nose to his
rump, trying to make sure he didn't cow-kick me in the process. He didn't.
He was 83 inches. Six feet, eleven inches--give or take a half. He was
a quarter horse, so for thoroughbred calculations, you would multiply
that by four. [...joke...]
Charlie was a short horse in more ways than one. I've ridden and measured
a lot of fancier horses since then, and they were much bigger. At least
six to twelve inches. You know those black-and-white WWII Navy movies
with the ship's horn that rattles the bulkheads and makes whales cringe?
Picture that horn. Okay, NOW HEAR THIS: the average length of both thoroughbreds
and quarter horses is eight feet.
I don't know where the new ten foot standard snuck in, but I am tickled
to death it did. You don't get many breaks anymore, and with morning
line odds being set more and more by young Sartinists with computers,
having "ten feet" burned into their chips is about the only thing between
me and even-money. Actually, I do know where it came from, and like
most of the other novel ideas in horse race handicapping, you can trace
it to one of three sources: Tom Ainslie, Andy Beyer, or Huey Mahl. Huey
Mahl? I know Ainslie and Beyer exist, I've seen them; but I'm not so
sure about Huey. I've seen his by-line in WIN magazine, but I'm not
so sure he's not one of those "urban legends" you hear about, like exploding
Every time I come up with an idea that I think is pretty hot, I've learned
to try it out on a few guys I know to see if they're going to say, "Huey
did that," or, "Oh, yeah, just like Huey." If they don't, it's probably
original. But, if they do, you can bet it's a pretty damn good idea,
it's just that this guy--this Huey person--has got ownership on half
the good ideas in horse racing. [Regrettably, Huey is no longer a legend
in his own time; he passed away a few years ago in Las Vegas.]
Actually, the monster horse has been around a long time, but it became
wide-spread with Ainslie, and was brought to high-art by Mahl. Tom Ainslie
used the distance of ten feet in his books, but I don't recall that
he had much to say about it; I suspect that it was the rule-of-thumb,
just like the fifth-of-a-second for time-per-length (which we'll get
to next time). I was heavily influenced by Beyer, so I used eight feet
without thinking much about it--until it occurred to me just how significant
that two-foot difference is.
When we make handicapping figures, we're not just talking about two
feet between the nose and rump of one horse in a photo-finish picture.
We're talking about hundreds of lengths over the course of a race, and
each one of those times two feet--which puts a ten-foot horse in Pennsylvania
before an eight-foot horse leaves The Big Apple. Whoa.
I had all these hay converters hanging around out back, and a Stanley
model 33-423, so I started measuring them. Charlie was a scant seven
feet. A big, dapple grey, thoroughbred/percheron-cross "heavy hunter"
was about eight-feet-plus-four-inches. A friend's thoroughbred, fresh
off the track was eight feet on the money. But, I didn't settle for
that. You know, horses extend when they run. Their necks are long and
they stick up at about a forty-five degree angle (except the quarter
horse "pleasure" class, but that's another story), and some have pretty
long heads that stick down at another angle, so, if you straightened
them out like they sometimes do in a race, wouldn't they be sort of
like a jackknife and get a heck of a lot longer?
For this you need an assistant (or a piece of duct tape) to hold the
tape at the horse's butt while you plant both feet in its chest and
stretch it's nose out like an accordion. If you choose to do this with
anything less than a gentle horse, you can send word from the hospital
that this procedure, amazingly, only gains six to eight inches. It had
to be wrong. This is where I first heard about the mythical Huey Mahl.
Six inches for all that neck didn't seem right. There had to be something
different about a horse in full extension, running. So I got out an
engineer's scale and began scaling full-side photographs of running
thoroughbreds. I mentioned to a friend what I was doing and that it
wasn't easy, and he said, "Oh, yeah, Huey Mahl did that. Used the eye
as a constant and got ten feet."
The only trouble with scaling the length of a running horse is that
there are no constants. I thought I had one right off the bat with the
saddle girth. My saddle girths were four inches. I used that and got
good numbers (for my original bias), right around eight feet. Then I
was at the tack shop on the backside one day and noticed there were
some stinking metric girths! And they were about three inches. Caaarr-rud!
Do you know how many more three-inch girths you can scale into a horse
picture than you can using four-inches? Right--approximately two-feet
worth, and the horses come out ten feet long again.
If you own an engineer's scale, get it out and look at it. (These are
those triangular plastic rulers that don't have inches and centimeters,
just different spacings on each of the six edges, and are always the
only thing you can find when you actually want a ruler.) Take a look
at, say, the "50" scale, with the lines only a fraction of a millimeter
apart. Suppose you have a running horse photo that is 20 big units on
the "50" scale. That means it is 200 little tic-marks long. So how big
is its eye? Is it 1.5 tic-marks? Two tic-marks? If it's two, that means
this horse's overall running length is 100 times the length of its eye.
Of course, if you're wrong and it is actually closer to 1.75 units,
then it's 114.2 times, and you'd be 14.2 times the width-of-an-eye off.
We're not talking eyelashes here, but eyes. If an eye is 2.5 inches,
that's an eyelash under three feet! How long's an eye in real life,
anyway? Probably right around 2.5 inches. But, 2.25" is right around
2.5", and so is 2.75", and 3" when your looking at it all miniaturized
in a photograph. If the horse photo you scale this time is actually
2.25" and the one you scale next time is 2.75" and the constant you
use is 2.5", then the first horse is going to appear to be two feet
longer than the second! Horses
gather and extend as they run--they get longer and shorter. There is
an average, but an engineer's scale isn't going to get it.
Being a photo-finish operator is pretty much an entry-level job at the
track. The first one I met was actually pretty good at it, although
he had no aspirations at the track at all, and when he applied for the
job, he thought "Photo-Finish" meant that he would be finishing photos
over at K-Mart or something, and he would have been just as happy if
it had. But, he loved the hours; he could sleep till noon. He couldn't
fathom why anybody would be interested in the process of collecting
race finish photos, but was flattered that, since I was researching
a book at the time, the "press" was interested.
He gave me an earful. I wish I could re-run the tapes of those meetings,
because, he and one other guy that year, told me about "ten-foot rails."
I was interested in how different tracks make the lengths-back calls
at the splits and finish, and who makes the call (much too lengthy a
topic to begin right now--because it does in fact vary, and there is
no standard). And, these two photo-finish operators, one who did not
make the lengths-back finish calls at his track, and one who did, said
something about using the ten-foot distance between rails as a measure
of lengths on the photo-finish speed strip. There is only one problem,
but it didn't hit me until later: on a speed strip, nothing is stationary!
The film moves and only things that pass by the tiny slit at the finish
line get smeared onto it. Like horses and riders. Rail posts do not
get on the film. If one did, it would be the finish rail post and
it wouldn't look like a post, it would be a smear, the entire length
of the film. What was it these masters of their craft were seeing on
the strips and counting as ten-foot rail posts? I have no idea.
But, although I have always used eight feet in my figure calculations,
this experience and a few others, like hearing about the work of that
Huey person, left me with a little apprehension that maybe there was
a better average length of a race horse. It finally dawned on me to
simply try other lengths in the calculations and see what happened.
When you do, you get impossibly slow or fast splits and final figures,
which bring you right back to eight feet.
The issue of monster horses came up for me again last winter, when I
was invited to Handicapping Expo, and I made the mistake of choosing
to talk about accuracy in speed and pace figures (it was tough, watching
an audience go cross-eyed in unison--maybe next time I'll talk about
fertilization of fields for grazing race horses). Anyway, it struck
me that this eight-foot/ten-foot business is really fundamental to everything
else I do, so I wondered how to convince the ten-foot-aficionados, that
these suckers really are two feet shorter.
What I wanted to do was give everyone at the seminar a Stanley model
33-423 and a horse, and let them have at it. But, since I couldn't do
that, I thought it would be pretty funny to have a giant ruler, and
take a picture of a horse with it. So I made one--sparing no expense
for props and special effects--I measured and painted a twelve-foot,
one-by-eight like a big ruler. My own horses are quarter horses and
I knew I'd get flack for that--somebody would want to multiply by four,
or something--so I asked around among friends and came up with the quintessential
His name is Silver Surfer and he stands of all places, in Socorro, New
Mexico, so I only needed to haul the huge ruler about two miles. Surfer
ran out about $345,000 at the handicap level, mostly on the west coast,
and what impressed me most was he ran and retired sound at about nine
years old. As stallions go, Surfer is very gentle. Which means that
he may kill or maim you at any moment--but it would be unintentional.
Since my friend had been catching him every afternoon to breed mares,
we were uncertain how long he would be willing to stand in front of
a "ruler" while I snapped his picture. What a laugh. This horse had
been in the winner's circle so many times that when I climbed in the
pen with a camera on a tripod, he pawed the ground eleven times, to
tell me the f-stop.
We had the ruler standing on two legs against a fence and the horse
standing perfectly parallel to it, and I concentrated on watching through
the lens while my friend lined up Surfer's butt with the zero. When
it was exactly on, he froze and I looked over the whole frame for composition--ready
to capture history--and my heart stopped. Every bet I ever lost with
figures passed before my eyes. Silver Surfer's nose, standing at rest,
was at the ten foot mark on the ruler!
This is a family newsletter, so I can't repeat what I said, but I stopped
everything and got out Stanley, and re-measured my painted "ruler,"
which hadn't changed. I re-measured the horse, which was still eight
feet. I fell to my knees and thanked the gods of geometry. Guess what?
When you look at a horse as you normally do, across a track (or from
a camera on a tripod), and the horse is two, three, or four feet toward
you from the rail, they appear to fill the space between the (ten-foot-apart)
rail posts. If the rail posts are set on twelve-foot centers at your
track, there are times when they will appear to fill those too. Now
extend your arm straight out toward the horse and stick your thumb in
the air vertically. Bend your elbow and bring the thumb closer and closer
to your eye until it exactly blots out the horse and the space between
the posts. You now have a twelve-foot thumb.
I moved the mega-ruler around to the front, touching Silver Surfer,
and he seemed to consciously pose, while I took his eight-foot picture.
[I really like this horse, and if you've got some mares that can run
a distance, maybe we should talk.] I thought this picture was hilarious
(especially since Surfer thought we were measuring something else, which
he put to good use a few minutes later) but I don't know that it made
much of an impression on anyone at the seminar.
Eight-foot, ten-foot, what's the difference? If you don't handicap with
figures it makes no difference whatsoever. If you do make figures, it
matters a lot. The lengths-back of horses at the finish line are
estimated visually in different ways by different personnel at different
tracks. Regardless of how it is done, there is always some slop at the
finish, and much more at the splits, where they are often taken off
a moving tape by totally different (and sometimes indifferent) personnel,
of whom only the real sticklers for accuracy may extend the effort of
pressing a finger to a button to actually freeze a frame--and then the
angles of the camera toward the call points may obliterate any sense
So there's slop built in, but for laughs, suppose your track estimates
lengths-back at the finish from a speed strip photo in a reasonably
accurate manner. You want to calculate the actual time, speed, pace,
velocity, or whatever tickles your fancy, of a horse that is recorded
in the Form as finishing four lengths back. If a length were ten feet,
that would be forty feet that you would crank into your figures. If
a length is eight feet, it is thirty-two.
That's a difference of eight feet--one length for every four.
In some circles, that's called a twenty-five percent error.
A six furlong race covers 3,960 feet. A ten-foot Clydesdale would run
396 lengths to the finish. Thoroughbreds run 495.
My approach to figures uses numbers like these, so I have to be very
careful that errors don't get magnified by things like "99"--the number
of lengths difference between ten-foot and eight-foot horses running
If your approach to figures uses lengths only for the purpose of calculating
feet-behind at the finish or splits, which you then convert to something
else like velocity, then the difference is going to be relatively small.
Only a length or two...and what's a length or two at the finish?
Copyright 1993 by Charles Carroll May Not Be Reproduced
In Any Form With Permission Of The Copyright Holder