"The rail is dead". "Speed is holding". "Wide sweeping closers are getting there". "Golden rail". These are comments horseplayers make on a daily basis. It's an observation about how the track is playing often identified as track bias.
Understanding how the track is playing or has played at various times can be one of the most productive ways to gain an edge over your competition. Knowing which pace profile has an advantage on this surface, or may have had a disadvantage in recent races, can focus your handicapping to those runners who align. But how do you actually identify a track bias? In my opinion, it is often misused and over-considered. It can be tricky to asses.
Let's first talk about the 2014 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. While Santa Anita was known for having a speed bias, it was never more prevalent then on the two-day Breeders' Cup that year. In total, 9 speed horses won out of the 14 dirt races including the impossible 62-1 winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, Take Charge Brandi. She set the pace in :45.4 and 1:10 flat in the early stages and kept going to win wire to wire.
She came into the race off of a bunch of pop-and-stop efforts and was listed at 30-1 on the morning line. She went off at 62-1 which was probably an underlay except to those who were paying attention to how the track was playing. Those understanding that a major speed bias had developed to this point could have considered this filly as the controlling speed. I tossed her just on her pitiful form but the track bias said to reconsider.
Figuring out how a track is really playing takes a lot of time and a very objective approach. As horseplayers, we all want to quickly identify an angle that we can apply that isn't commonly understood by others. If you knew that the stretch was going to bring speed horses to a walk, you could make a fortune identifying serious closers to run by in the lane.
The first thing you must do is handicap every race in advance. You have to understand what should happen in the race from a pace scenario. If the conditions of a race indicate speed will be good, and one horse goes out in slow fractions and wires the field, this hardly validates a speed bias. However, if that horse gets swallowed up in the lane, you might have something. But further research is needed. Small sample sizes are unreliable.
The next thing I do is document the race after the fact. I track the winner and runner-up primarily but will expand if needed. I'll look at the fractions, the early pressure, whether the top two saved ground or went wide both early in the race and in the stretch and, most importantly, if the results of the race were in line with my expectations prior to the race.
Last year, inside speed at Oaklawn Park was lethal. Virtually every single race I was tracking saw the winner gain control early on the rail and the runner-up was either pressing or stalking right behind the winner, also on the inside.
This was happening so often that tracking it wasn't necessary any longer. There was a rail bias that was kind to speed. What I started to pay attention to were the horses who ran well against the bias. Strolling, trained by up and coming Jason Barkley, was an interesting runner following a win on January 27th.
He closed resolutely to win a $20,000 claimer on a day when nothing was moving in the stretch. In addition, this horse took a lot of early and late money from the 8-1 morning line. Also, he was eligible to be protected from a claim due to the claim/layoff/tag rule that OP has. He was the only horse in the race protected from a claim. The betting and the high opinion of the connections, along with how he ran against the bias, meant he was one to track coming back. He ran second to a good runner, Nuclear Option, next time out and then won in an optional claimer after that. Unfortunately, he was favored in both but the point is still valid.
Knowing which runners ran against a bias in a previous start is often the most important handicapping angle you can find as an astute track profiler. Whenever you can make an excuse for a horse off a poor effort, and an excuse that is not obvious to the general public, you have a serious advantage. The public at large is much less forgiving and the odds typically illustrate that.
So some things to note if you are going to take track bias seriously.
1) Do the handicapping in advance and do it every single day.
2) Recognize in your handicapping what you expect to happen from a pace scenario.
3) Track the results of the winner and runner-up focusing on how they ran and what part of the track they were traveling.
4) Identify horses who ran against the bias for future consideration.