Monster Horses

Charles Carroll

Article Library




Over 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 housewives.

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 thoroughbred.

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 of "lengths."

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 six furlongs.

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


Copyright © 2009 iCapper.Com