Speed records may never be beaten

by Brett Sturman

For as much as speed in harness racing has increased through the times, all-time speed barriers on both the pacing and trotting gaits have proven stubborn in recent years. All of that changed this past year when Always B Miki set a world record for pacers and three years ago when Sebastian K set a similarly improbable new record for trotters. While obliterating previous established records, both horses might have made it impossibly difficult for their own records to ever be beat.

Decades ago, the sign of a top pacer was if it could break the 2:00 mark. As time went on, and the sport became faster, 1:55 was the new standard and to be considered a top pacer today you probably would need to be able to go a mile in a sub-1:50 time.

In recent years, as track records are broken seemingly daily and pacing a mile in 1:48 is no longer unheard of, horses have coalesced around what seemed to be the fastest physically possible times pacers and trotters were capable of. By breaking through the 1:46.4 log jam on the pacing side and 1:50 on the trotting side (on a two-turn track), Always B Miki and Sebastian K solidified themselves not only as superior against the clock, but against their competition at the time as well.

Comparing the world records set by Always B Miki and Sebastian K to the other fastest race miles of all-time is easy. But to illustrate the sheer dominance of these two records, we can compare their record times against the other top miles set by horses in those racing years using a statistical measure called a standardized score, or z-score.

Statistically speaking, z-scores show how many standard deviations a raw value is away from the mean. To put it more simply in this context, it measures each performance (or record time) relative to all other top times from a given period. In doing so, z-scores are comprised of not only a single metric (race time, in this case), but also by assessing that race time against others. You can think of z-scores in terms of a traditional bell curve, where 99 per cent of the scores will fall between values of 3.00 and -3.00, with those values representing complete opposite ends of the curve.

When Always B Miki paced his mile in 1:46 this past October at Red Mile, he rated an “off the charts” z-score of 3.02 when compared against the 20 fastest miles paced that year. Always B Miki was so dominant based on his 1:46 win that the next closest time of 1:47 was by Mel Mara and he was assigned a z-score of just 1.36; only slightly better than average when compared to all other top miles that year.

The above chart shows how dominant the 1:46 record mile was for Always B Miki using both time and z-score as metrics. State Treasurer earned a z-score of 2.59 for his seasonal leading time of 1:47 in 2015, while He’s Watching was assigned a 2.60 as the 2014 leader. Warrawee Needy’s 1:46.4 was rated at just 2.09 in a highly contentious 2013 season that included 1:47 miles by Pet Rock and Shebestingin.

What we can extrapolate from all of this is that times continue be as fast as ever (the average time by year of the fastest 20 races from 2013 through 2016 was always roughly 1:47.4), Always B Miki was able to establish himself with a lifetime mark that demonstrates an unquestionable superiority to any other pacing record holder; a truly unique animal.

As dominant as the Always B Miki world record is, the findings are even more profound on the trotting side.
Prior to Sebastian K, no trotter in history had ever broken the 1:50 barrier (excluding Enough Talk’s 1:49.3 mile that occurred on the one-turn track Colonial Downs). Even today’s super sire Muscle Hill could do no better than 1:50.1 in 2009.

But when Sebastian K shattered the 1:50 mark by his sensational 1:49 world record clocking at Pocono Downs in what would be the fastest night in harness racing history, he earned a z-score of 3.27. That z-score even exceeded that of his pacing record holding counterpart, Always B Miki.

The z-score of 3.27 was accomplished while being compared relative to the other fastest trotting times of that year, including a 1:50.2 mile from Father Patrick accomplished during the same race card as Sebastian K’s mile. For his 1:50.2 lifetime mark, Father Patrick rated only at a 0.69 z-score in the 2014 season, tied with Market Share and Cee Bee Yes. Archangel rated second best that year with a 1:50 mile.

The former mystical 1:50 trotting mark was broken the following year in 2015 although not with the dominance and authority that Sebastian K did it with. JL Cruze won in 1:49.4 good for z-score of 2.66; but still not close to the z-score of Sebastian K.

In 2016, Homicide Hunter earned a 2.75 z-score with a 1:50.1 seasonal mark, but that is largely attributed to a year in which only three trotters managed to go even sub 1:51.

More and more horses will be able to pace in 1:47 and trot in 1:50 as speed in harness racing continues to evolve, but the data suggests that it would take a horse of an all-time great caliber to eclipse these what seem to be unbreakable records. It might never happen.

Data in this column was used with the permission of, and is sourced from, the United States Trotting Association.

Picks of the Week

Last Week’s Bankroll: $781
Total Wagers: $76
Total Return: $141
This Week’s Bankroll: $846

Western Fair – Friday, Jan. 13

Race 5: PICTONIAN SARETA makes her second start over the Raceway oval and easily has enough early speed to clear to the front, even from the less than ideal starting slot. She gave way late a couple weeks ago but was able to cut fractions that none of these would be able to keep up with anyway; blasts and is best. HOWMACSCANASTA draws the rail in her second start since invading from Woodbine. We can forgive the first over try last out but barn hasn’t been overly sharp lately; Carroll off as well. BUSINESS AS USUAL lands a 5/2 rating on the morning line perhaps on the trainer change to Moreau but she hasn’t done a single thing of late; turnaround in a week seems to be asking a lot. CYNDALIANNE DUC sat the trip last week and was able to nail down second; McClure back.

$10 Win/Place 6

Race 7: GIA DIAMOND came here last week from Flamboro and absolutely crushed from out of nowhere to the price of 11/1. The post is an obvious issue but she was able to sweep against similar without issue last out; American Ideal mare looks good at an, albeit shorter, price. TIGRA SEELSTER drops from the Preferred-3’s but falls below the level of the 12/5 claim; not necessarily the best sign. SOLID QUEEN drops from the same condition as was a winner when last seen at this level four back; likely to attract some attention. MACH OF THE TOWN makes her seconds start at the reduced level while drawing the rail; obvious short priced contender. TWIN B J J comes into town off an open length score at Flamboro.

$10 Win/Place 7
$1 Exacta Box 7/1-2-5

Woodbine – Saturday, Jan. 14

Race 3: AMERICAN VIRGIN is deceptively good right now and will warrant a swing at square odds despite the outside post. He’s really raced good enough to win in every Preferred over his last three races and seems overdue for something better; does have speed if McNair wants to use it. MODERN LEGEND was awesome in his return two back and then didn’t have nearly the same punch last out when bet down to 3/5; I wonder if that return 1:49:4 mile took something out of him. Not an easy call now. ALEXAS JACKPOT aims for three straight in the Preferred and was widely overlooked in his last two wins; guaranteed to be on the front. NIRVANA SEELSTER was a 5/1 winner in this print last week and now steps up to the top level; will be tight in second start back from the month layoff. NICKEL BAG can beat me if he can.

$10 Win 7
$2 Exacta Box 1-4-7

Race 7: JJS DELIVERY bottomed out rivals at Flamboro two back by winning there in 1:52:1 while going first start off the $15k claim. He wasn’t as sharp last week on the move back to Woodbine but that race went just a couple ticks slower than the Preferred; can make amends as an overachieving claim. Speaking of claims, DOVUTO HANOVER makes his second start back since August and now drops in for $30,000; I wonder if there will be any takers. Seems easy on paper with the big drop; we’ll see. BOOMBOOM BALLYKEEL is a classy type who wasn’t able to close last out until the winner was already long gone; logical player. BUGGER BRUISER drops to a level he is typically a threat in; I think MacDonald is going to take an early shot.

$10 Win 4
$1 Exacta Box 3-4-7-9