by Jeremy Plonk
January 11, 2021
Welcome to a new handicapping series for our Monday blog space entitled “Monday Myths.” Each week I’ll use the power of the Betmix database to take common handicapping assumptions and either support or dispel them with data. Betmix data powers the 1/ST BET app and its features like Angler and Birddog give data-minded horseplayers a treasure trove of information in which to query your own curiosities.
It’s 1/11 today, so all eyes are on the 1. And on the racetrack, there’s a common debate whether starting on the rail is a plus or a minus.
The rail always will be the shortest way around the track. I’ll never forget as a kid, my sister came to the track with us once and picked 6 winners from 10 races. We plowed through the form and deep skills, she simply admitted, “I just bet the 1 every race because they don’t have to run as far.” Of course, you’re not winning 6 of 10 doing that in the long run, but there’s a common belief among experienced horseplayers that the rail can actually be a bad thing: you can’t sit off the pace, you must commit to the front; there are tight quarters with rivals and the pine; and there are no breathers.
So which is it, advantage or adversary?
Common dirt distances that I studied in the Betmix database are sprints at 6 furlongs, as well as routes as the most common 1-1/16 miles trip. Not only did I study the results by distance, but also field size. Does being on the rail differ in a 6-horse field vs. a fuller field? I also looked at the reliability of rail favorites. The timeframe included all North American tracks over the past 5 years.
-- Rail horses win 14.61% in 6-furlong sprints ($0.79 ROI), highest win % of any post position. Post 3 is next-best at 14.35%, and then it’s a full point back to the next-closest (post 6 at 13.46%). The rail is almost 2% better than every other post than this pair.
-- Rail horses win 15.37% in 1-1/16 mile routes ($0.78 ROI), highest win % of any post position, outpacing post 2 (14.59%) as next-closest and another solid point-plus better than any other post.
-- In 6 furlong sprints, the rail horse wins 16.69% in 6-horse fields and 8.88% in 12-horse fields. The win % actually is a touch stronger in 12-horse fields compared to the random chance of numbers winning (1/6 and 1/12 as comparables).
-- In 1-1/16 miles routes, the rail horse wins 17.80% in 6-horse fields and 7.25% in 12-horse fields. Field size has a more negative impact on the rail horse in large-field routes than sprints by comparison.
-- Rail favorites won 39.70% in 6-furlong sprints, compared to 37.38% for all favorites not starting from the rail.
-- Rail favorites won 40.14% in 1-1/16 miles routes, compared to 36.43% for all favorites not starting from the rail.
Overall Findings Verdict:
The rail, for all its perceived and real difficulties, still remains the best place to be in dirt racing, where speed is king and saving ground obviously doesn’t hurt. At the sprint and route distances studied, post position No. 1 was the most common winner by percentage. But ROI shows fans likely overbet the rail in routes as a majority of posts at 1-1/16 miles have a stronger return than the 1-hole. When it comes to favorites, rail horses out-perform those not on the rail by a solid margin, especially in route distances. Bottom line: having the best horse on the rail is a good thing, not a reason to look elsewhere.
You can go into Betmix and run your own queries for a deeper dive into this theory and any that you can create. For instance, which tracks and particular distances are most advantageous to the rail, and where might vulnerabilities lie? What about the turf races? One refrain that you always hear about is 2-year-olds struggling from the rail. A quick query showed that the rail wins just 12.20% in 2-year-old races at 6 furlongs (down from 14.61% noted above for all ages), so the numbers back up that juvenile worry. Now it's your turn to go dig and make your game stronger.