Written by: Ray Paulick
For the stats lover, thoroughbred racing is awash with great numbers.
As a sports fan, I’ve always been fascinated with stats.
My first love as a young boy was baseball, and I was just old enough to remember the 1961 home run chase when Roger Maris caught and passed the legendary Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record of 60, set way back in 1927.
I didn’t mind when some insisted that baseball record keepers put an asterisk on Maris’ 61 in ‘61. Maris played in an era of 162 regular-season games, while there were only 154 games back in the Babe’s day.
Ruth still owned the other home run record, 714 during his career, and that was one I thought would last forever. But then Henry Aaron made like the Energizer Bunny; he kept going and going and going. Though he never hit more than 40 in a single season, Hammerin’ Hank sustained his home run stroke over 23 Hall of Fame years, catching and passing The Babe, then retiring with 755, a number I figured no one would approach. Then came steroids, rendering all home run records
Another magic number is 56. That’s the number of consecutive games the great Joe Dimaggio hit safely in during the 1941 season. It’s one record that has stood the test of time and the advent of performance-enhancing drugs.
In my early 20s, I began to follow horse racing, a sport that embraces statistics from the breeding shed to the racetrack.
The first magic number for me was 31 – the number of lengths that separated Triple Crown winner Secretariat from his closest pursuer in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
There were a few other numbers over the years that stuck – at least for a while. When Cigar hit his 16-race winning streak in 1995 and ‘96, it was the same number Citation won in the late 1940s. A decade after Cigar, Zenyatta came along and passed them both, winning 19 straight before tasting defeat for the first time in her 20th and final career start.
The time record that has the most significance is 1:32 1/5 – the world record clocking set by Dr. Fager for a mile on dirt at Arlington Park in Chicago in 1968. The number that gets lost in that amazing feat is 134 – the weight, as measured in pounds, that Dr. Fager carried to victory in the race.
Weight, in fact, is a lost number in racing. Gone are the days when the best horses had weight piled on them as a reward for winning. Many of the great handicap races of yesteryear have been transformed into weight for age events or are run under allowance conditions. The few major handicaps that still exist seem to top out at 126 pounds.
When I started working at Daily Racing Form in 1980, the only performance number available to the public was the newspaper’s “speed rating,” a figure calculated by subtracting a race winner’s final time from the existing track record
and adjusting it based on beaten lengths. Today, we have Beyer Speed Figures, Brisnet figures, Thoroughbred and Ragozin numbers. Our cup runneth over with performance ratings.
Unlike standardbred racing, where time records fall on a fairly regular basis, thoroughbreds are not running faster today than they were decades ago. Dr. Fager’s nearly 50-year-old mile record still stands. So does Secretariat’s 2:24 for a mile and a half in his historic Belmont win. Several other records at commonly run distances – five furlongs, seven furlongs 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles – date back 30 years or more.
One area sorely in need of a better number is sire rankings. The old standard of listing sires by progeny earnings has been corrupted by massive foals crops for some stallions. Average-Earnings Index, the gold standard for evaluating a stallion’s overall sire power, could use an overhaul to adjust for runners with high earnings that distort the AEI.
The most important and best number in the game, whether you’re a breeder, owner, trainer, or horseplayer is “1.” Getting your horse to the finish line first is what the sport is all about. It can be difficult, frustrating and, sometimes, seemingly impossible. But when it happens, there’s nothing like it.