Horse racing fans commonly describe Quarter Horse racing as the drag racing of the equine world. That is a fairly accurate statement, but many people have a very inaccurate conception of the sport: that it cannot be handicapped. "How can you handicap a race that short?" "There's so much bumping at the start, so many horses get wiped out." While these are understandable impressions, they are nonetheless incorrect. The fact is that favourites in Quarter Horse racing actually win at a slightly higher rate than Thoroughbreds, meaning that handicapping Quarter Horses is quite possible.
So how does one handicap a Quarter Horse race? If you already understand the fundamentals of Thoroughbred handicapping, Quarter Horse racing will not throw you for too much of a loop; they are quite similar. Many of the factors you are looking at are the same: distance, class, surface, speed figures, trip, they're all important. Let's go a bit more in depth with these factors.
Quarter Horse races at Ajax Downs are written at eight different distances, all measured in yards: 110, 220, 250, 300, 330, 350, 400, and the classic distance of 440, which is exactly a quarter of a mile. Some Thoroughbreds excel sprinting five or six furlongs and some prefer going a mile or longer, some Quarter Horses specialize at dashing 220 or 250 while some need to get some ground under their feet before they kick in to gear and perform better going 350 or 400. When picking a horse, you want to see success at similar distances, or a horse that looks like it can improve with a distance change - either stretching out or cutting back. The difference 50 yards can make would surprise you.
Class levels in Quarter Horse racing are essentially the same as in Thoroughbred racing. You have Maidens, conditioned Allowance races and conditioned Claimers, Allowance optional Claimers, etc. Some races are restricted to horses who were bred or sired in Ontario (or whatever jurisdiction the race is being held in) and they tend to feature lower quality horses than non-restricted races (i.e. a non-winners of 2 Allowance for Ontario sired horses would be weaker than a non-restricted non-winners of 2 Allowance.) Quarter Horse racing mixes things up a bit with two race conditions that are not offered in Thoroughbreds: the Speed Index race and the Trial race.
The Speed Index race is interesting. First, a Speed Index is essentially a speed figure based on a horse's raw time compared to the three fastest times at the distance at the track in the past three years. It's a lot to take in, but how it's crafted isn't too important. A Speed Index race is for horses whose average speed index is lower than a certain number. An example of a Speed Index condition would be "For three year olds and upward with an average speed index of 75 and under." Generally speaking, Speed Index races are for the lowest quality horses on the grounds, but they do not run for a claiming price. This makes the Speed Index race attractive to horses that have had bad recent luck and now have an average speed index low enough to qualify for the race. They can frequently get in against easier horses than they would normally have to face. It's an interesting dynamic.
The Trial race is used to determine the fields for certain Stakes races, usually Futurities or Derbies. Let's say 30 horses enter for a Futurity. They would be divided into three Futurity Trials, each with a field of 10. All 30 would race, and the 10 horses who recorded the fastest times would go on to contest the final. Since we are dealing with potential Stakes horses, the Trial race is oftentimes a fairly high quality race. Class also varies between different geographic regions. Quarter Horse racing is most popular in the American Southwest, and the highest quality horses come from states like New Mexico, Oklahoma, California and Texas. A $5,000 claimer from Remington Park is probably a better horse than a $5,000 claimer at Ajax.
Surface does not play as big a role in Quarter Horses as it does in Thoroughbreds, but it is worth looking at. Quarter Horse racing does not have turf or synthetic surfaces (except in very rare, one-off events) but the fact is that rain happens, and the dirt does get sloppy. It is tough to judge how much a horse really improves in the slop. Slop races are not too common, but if by chance a horse does race on it several times, you can figure out whether that horse prefers or is hindered by a wet track. It is not worth over-thinking horses who have raced on a wet track only once or twice. However, there are two ways surface can be an important handicapping angle. The first is the horse-for-course angle. Some horses perform much better at some tracks than they do others, despite the class levels being the same. For example, on the New Mexico circuit, some horses who do not perform great at Zia Park in the fall do much better at Sunland Park over the winter. The other way surface plays a role is with track bias. Yes, we get track biases in Quarter Horse racing too. There are times when, for whatever reason, a track will become very inside favouring, and you will see winner after winner coming from the inside three posts. There are other times when the rail will be dead and all the winners will come from the outside part of the track. It is worth keeping notes on when the track has had significant biases and which horses may have been helped or hindered by it.
In Thoroughbred racing, handicappers like to use the Beyer Speed Figure to judge how fast a horse is. In Quarter Horse racing, there are two speed figures in your program. First, there's the aforementioned Speed Index. Second, there's the Equibase Speed Figure. If you are a believer in speed figures, which I am, I recommend using the Equibase Figure. The Speed Index does not take any variables into account which makes it faulty for handicapping. An 80 Speed Index at Delta Downs is not the same as an 80 at Ajax. I like the Equibase Figure, it does account for variables like wind speed & direction and track condition. If a horse is running Speed Figures consistently at least 10 points higher than its competition, it is probably the best horse in the field.
Although you might not think trip really matters in a 300 yard race, it certainly can. The object of Quarter Horse Racing is to break fast and straight, and keep running straight, but horses don't always break fast, horses don't always break straight, and horses drift in and out. A sharp veer in or out at the break, or some drifting down the lane can be the difference between a win and a loss. Then you've got to factor in bumps, which are usually noted in your program. Getting bumped can cost a horse a lot of momentum and usually the race. Bumping doesn't make Quarter Horse races into chaotic messes like many people believe, but they do happen and you need to know when they happen. This is another case where taking notes can help your handicapping.
After considering all of these factors, the last piece of advice I can give you is to watch replays. The great thing about Quarter Horse racing is that it takes less time to watch replays. Chart callers do their best to give the most accurate running lines and comments, but sometimes running lines can be deceptive. Watch the replays. You can catch things you may not have been able to gather from the running line in your program. It is definitely worth investing the time.
Don't let what you may have heard about Quarter Horse racing talk you out of giving it a try. It's fun, it's exciting, and if you take your time to learn about it, it can be a profitable game for you. Come out to Ajax on a Sunday and give it a try.
Doug McPherson is an active worker in the Ontario Horse Racing industry. He grew up in a Thoroughbred family, and has worked for several trainers at Woodbine as a hotwalker. He currently works at Ajax Downs as a results charter, clocker and program handicapper.
Doug can be found online at www.four-forty.net and on Twitter at @LDMcPherson.
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