by Brett Sturman
Nearly one year ago to the day this column wrote about the potential for TrackMaster to become the new standard in classifying horses in race conditions. (full story here) Best known for its electronic past performances and handicapping data including horse speed ratings, TrackMaster has since expanded into the creation of automated morning lines and now racetracks use their horse ratings to determine race classification. It’s the most recent move that’s been received with some controversy, including a letter from one of those detractors that was published here in HRU last week (2019-06-16 Feedback).
What began last year with Ocean Downs, a total of 10 tracks including the Meadowlands now employ the TrackMaster horse ratings to some degree in determining their race classification as a substitute or complement to other conditions such as earnings. The two main questions are: 1. Shouldn’t the horsepeople and public know specifically what goes into the numbers since it now effects how horses are entered? 2. Is the TrackMaster rating system even reliable enough to be used as a classification tool?
TrackMaster president David Siegel was extremely candid in his discussion over those very topics.
“The system is totally transparent,” said Siegel. “There is a website that explains the entire algorithm, so anybody out there could calculate the same number that we calculate. Any person can look up the TrackMaster rating for any horse in North America and how that number has changed in the last 30 days. On the site there is 30 files and in those 30 files are roughly 30,000 horses and each one of those has a rating.”
What Siegel says is correct insofar as being able to see daily horse ratings and how those final calculations are determined, what it doesn’t tell you is how the underlying speed ratings are derived in the first place. This is TrackMaster’s intellectual property, though Siegel did provide the four key ingredients for the speed rating – or, in other words, a way to normalize a horse’s finishing time.
“Specific things that go into the speed rating are final time, an inter-track variant, a daily track variant which is how the track is playing that day relative to normal, and the fourth one is post position,” Siegel said. “So as an example, it’s actually possible at Yonkers where if you came out of the 8-hole and I came out of the 1-hole and I beat you by a neck, it’s possible that you would come out of it with a higher speed rating than I would.”
Siegel was firm in stating that TrackMaster doesn’t dictate how tracks are to use their figures. TrackMaster only provides tracks with one number for a horse and it is up to the tracks how to use that information, which nearly all tracks use in a variety of ways. Further, as for transparency, “If I were running a track I would have the TrackMaster explanation front and center in the program or maybe even in the header of the race condition. I believe in transparency and our information is there more than anything else. There’s a lot of other stuff in the condition sheets that you can’t always tell by looking at the program how a horse got in.”
There is no doubt whatsoever in Siegel’s mind that while not perfect, the TrackMaster horse rating system is the best alternative to traditional means to classify horses, provided that the goal is to put together the most competitive races possible.
“In fact, I have personally had a race secretary say to me, ‘I need to spread the money around.’ Now that’s a different goal; spreading the money to horsemen is a different goal than forming a competitive race.”
There are many obvious pitfalls and ways to game the system in using earnings as a way to classify, and there is also far too much subjectivity in the A-B-C system. What the results have shown over the past year seem to be an undeniable success for the TrackMaster ratings when comparing races that don’t include TrackMaster conditions and ones that do.
Siegel cites statistics from this year for Plainridge Racetrack, one of the tracks that heavily utilizes the TrackMaster ratings. From their opening this year in April up through June 17, there have been 173 non TrackMaster races and 164 TrackMaster races, where a race is being considered TrackMaster if at least one of their conditions used their figures (such as Also Eligible horses with under an 80 rating). From those races, the field sizes were 7.3 in non TrackMaster races and 8.4 in TrackMaster races. In fact, every single one of the 10 tracks using TrackMaster showed larger field sizes in TrackMaster races, which in turn provide more opportunities and larger potential payouts for bettors. Back to Plainridge, 61 per cent of their non TrackMaster races had an odds-on favorite, but only 35 per cent of races using at least one TrackMaster condition had an odds-on favorite. The same positive measures hold true at the track for percentage of winning favorites and the average odds of each winning horse. Every metric result’s in a positive variance for the track.
Issues that some have with TrackMaster – including ones brought forth in this column previously – go deeper than their horse ratings and more towards their overall industry standing. Siegel believed it was completely fair to discuss the company’s position in the sport and whether or not it’s a net positive.
He disagreed with my premise over the perception that TrackMaster has a hold over the sports data.
“We pay handsomely and it’s in the USTA’s annual report so I’m happy to disclose it because it’s in there — $900,000 a year to the USTA,” Siegel said. “We pay to have an exclusive on distribution of electronic handicapping information – those are the three magic words – electronic handicapping information. We have a decent number of customers who get all our data and who use it and who build programs from it. The only thing they are precluded from doing is commercially exploiting it. So, I think the question is, is the fact that we have an exclusive good or bad for the industry and what would happen if we didn’t?
“I think we’re terrific for the industry because the industry is so small that if the USTA decided to de-exclusive when the contract is up and take on other licensees kind of like Equibase does, I think given the relative size of the industry, it would mean while there would be here and there some small amounts of innovation, nobody could never undertake the things that we have done over the course of the past 22 years. The very fact that speed ratings exist and are out there in the public and they are in all the programs that are out there and, I don’t think those would have been developed at the same scale that we’ve done. And that’s just one example. When you look at the free services we have out there including the virtual stable as well as the automated morning lines that are now in use by more than 55 per cent of starts right now and is better on average than humans, that wouldn’t have happened on the same scale otherwise.”
Siegel also took exception to the notion that if past performances were made available for free in the U.S., as they are in Canada, that handle would grow.
“To the people who say that handle goes up, they’re wrong,” said Siegel. If you are experimenting, you can look at the trend of handle in Canada and handle in the US. That’s the best controlled experiment you’re going to find, where in one location there are free past performances and in the other place they’re not. That’s the macro view. And when you get into specific examples where we did have fights along the way, about 10 years ago we had a dispute with Pompano Park where they wanted to provide online past performances for free on their site. I asked them one simple question, ‘Do you give away your track programs on site?’ And the answer was ‘No, it’s too big of a line item for us.”
One year ago, it was widely unknown how the rating classification angle would be embraced or how successful it would be, but by any reasonable or objective measure the results speak for themselves. Through this process, TrackMaster continues to show why it believes itself to be a strong positive for the sport.