In the first two parts of our series on speed figures, we've seen two contrasting approaches for analyzing how fast racehorses run — Beyer Speed Figures and TimeformUS.
Now for something completely different.
By its own description, Thoro-Graph isn't even a speed figure. It's a performance figure. While the company uses some conventional speed figure data, the final number for a horse also includes things like ground lost or saved, the effect of wind speed on a race, weight carried, and a “proprietary” formula for assessing beaten lengths.
In addition, as the name suggests, Thoro-Graph past performances look nothing like traditional PPs. The ratings are presented on a graph to help horseplayers identify trends and form cycles. Unlike most figures which rate the best performances with the highest numbers, like in golf, the lower the Thoro-Graph figure the better. Negative numbers represent the top performances.
“We put figures on a graph for a reason,” said Thoro-Graph founder Jerry Brown. “It's so you can look at them (in terms of cycles) and you're not always going to have the same conclusion as someone else looking at the same data. There are some people who rely more on how fast horses are, as opposed to pattern, and other people rely on pattern more.”
Brown didn't coin the term “bounce” but he recalls when the theory came into existence; the visual representation of it being a ball hitting a wall and bouncing back. The word is widely used among handicappers today to describe a horse that might run poorly in his next start after a taxing race or a vastly improved effort. But while bounce is a major theme for “sheets” like Thoro-Graph, Brown said the idea is easily misinterpreted.
“People think we're saying that every time a horse runs a big race, he's going to bounce, and that's not true,” said Brown. “A 2-year-old that goes 20-17-14, that horse goes forward probably as often as he goes back. And a 5-year-old who has a history of bouncing off big efforts and now runs a new top at the age of 5, is a far likelier candidate to bounce than that 2-year-old.”
One element of the Thoro-Graph sheet that's especially helpful in determining probable bounce candidates is the profile information to the left of the graph, which provides extensive data on how trainers perform in certain circumstances with horses in various form cycles. Plus, there's data on the jockey and the horse's sire, broken out in different categories.
In the first installment of the series, we discussed the use of “par” figures — a comparison number generated from many races at specific class levels and distances. Thoro-Graph doesn't use pars and Brown is emphatic about it.
“First of all, one $10,000 claimer can be much tougher than another $10,000 claimer. So you make your figures off the horses in that race and other races that day rather than the average of 10 or 20 claimers,” said Brown. “The second reason is if the breed is getting faster, you can't catch it because you're bringing all the 10 claimers to par at the end of the year. By using pars, you bring everybody to par.”
One issue Brown has put a lot of time and effort into understanding is changes in track conditions. He references scientific studies and formulas to explain how weather and moisture can not only alter a track surface but different parts of the same track.
“There are places where at certain times of the year, the sun is blocked. Like the backside at Belmont might be in the shade in the spring and not in the fall.
“If you have, for example, a cloudy day with no wind and they're watering the track regularly, the track will get wetter throughout the course of the day,” he said. “With the same amount of water being added every race, if it's sunny and windy out, the track would be getting dryer.”
To adjust for changing conditions, Thoro-Graph looks at each race individually in the context of a whole card. That means some races could be split off with different variants, and as a matter of course, Thoro-Graph also separates one-turn races from two-turn events. Brown said reviewing figures in hindsight and possibly changing them is also an important part of the process.
“The nature of what we do, mistakes compound themselves,” said Brown, “because you're making figures off past figures. And if I've got some doubt, I've got to go back and find out.”
Revisiting our case study of Carrick's faster time in the hot-paced Secretariat versus Robert Bruce in the slower-paced Arlington Million on the same day at the same distance, Brown said he also gave a better figure to Robert Bruce. But he doesn't agree with other figure makers that making numbers for turf races is especially challenging.
“Grass horses are far more consistent than dirt. They run their figures in a tight group,” he said. “And it's especially easy to see once you make adjustments for weight and ground loss. Even if the pace is horribly slow and the final time is not usable, it's still easy to make figures based on the horses themselves.”
Overall, Brown believes Thoro-Graph's success and popularity in the industry are due to two things: experience making figures and making as few assumptions as possible.
“People don't even realize how many they make. Just assuming the first race and fourth race are going to have the same variant, that's absurd,” Brown said. “A lot of these situations come up and I don't know why the track changed so much. I just know that it did.”
The other well-known graph-based figure maker is The Sheets, run for decades by Len Ragozin but since his retirement in 2012, The Sheets has been co-owned by Steve Davison and Jake Haddad.
Thoro-Graph and The Sheets share DNA — Jerry Brown worked with Ragozin many years ago but split off to form his own company. Brown and Ragozin didn't agree on some of the principles underlying figure making.
One of those issues still separates the two companies today. As detailed above, Thoro-Graph often uses different variants if the data suggests track conditions changed. The Sheets is more data driven. Unless there's a blatantly obvious shift in conditions, the track variant for a day's races usually remains the same. Also, The Sheets makes no differentiation between one-turn and two-turn races. It doesn't separate based on class either. In our Carrick vs Robert Bruce example, The Sheets gave 3-year-old Carrick a better number than the 4-year-old Million winner Robert Bruce, even though other figure makers did the opposite and split the races because the pace was fast in the Secretariat Stakes and slow in the Million.
“People said the Million had to go faster than the other race because the horses are better in the Million, but the time told you that's not the case,” said The Sheets' Jake Haddad. “How do you make numbers up? You're either going to make numbers on the actual time of the race or you're going to make it on class. Well, if you make it on class, you're going to blow a lot of races. Sometimes, the Belmont Stakes goes really good; sometimes it goes bad.”
When it comes to data, The Sheets is self-sustaining. The staff times all races themselves. They do their own measurements of run-ups. They get wind information from airports around the country. Ground lost or saved is incorporated, something many figure makers don't do. At The Sheets, all of this information is put into a computer but there's always human intervention.
“We have three different people look at the data that comes out of the computer and adjust it for the history of the track, for the certain conditions that are taking place that day,” said Haddad. “I've been to a few places that wanted to partner with us and I go, 'How do you do the numbers?' They say, 'Oh, the computer does everything.' 'Do you look at anything?' 'No.' They don't look at anything.”
In terms of adjusting figures, The Sheets will take note of certain days and review the results a month or so later, but most of the time, the figures stay the same. Haddad said The Sheets prefers to look at a day's race card as a whole rather than trying to break it down race by race. And the company relies on its decades of knowledge and experience.
“Ragozin's father started doing this and Len Ragozin started graphing it. It's over 40 years,” he said. “So we have a history. We know what tracks do and how they behave. It's not like we're just guessing.”
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