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Doing the Bounce

Ever since Super Saver retreated like a hairline at a 20-year high school reunion around the far turn in the Preakness Stakes, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to “bouncing.” Not the “Roadhouse” kind of bouncing, mind you — I tried that once and, surprisingly, it wasn’t that glamorous.
No, the type of bouncing I’m talking about relates to horseracing and, specifically, the belief that an animal coming off a hard race or series of hard races will invariably regress, or “bounce,” in its next start if not given the proper amount of time to recover. First advanced by Len Ragozin of “The Sheets,” the “Bounce Theory” has gone from a controversial premise once “snickered” at by Andrew Beyer, to an accepted handicapping tenet — right up there with “thou shalt not bet against Bob Baffert in a Triple Crown race.”
Moreover, Beyer’s no longer laughing. In fact, in “Beyer on Speed,” the speed figure guru even added to the Bounce Theory lexicon with his “Three-and-Out” pattern, the author’s observation that a sequence of three improving Beyer speed figures often leads to a pronounced rating decline.
But is that erosion due to the stress from a taxing effort or does it simply represent a return to the mean? After all, when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962, did he bounce two days later when he tallied just 58? When Dallas Braden, a guy with a 4.41 career ERA (through May 25), pitched a perfect game on May 9 this year, did he bounce in his subsequent start when he allowed four earned runs in eight innings of work (4.50 ERA)?
Personally, I don’t think so. Chamberlain never scored 100 points in a single game again and I seriously doubt that Braden will even so much as sniff perfection again. Like Bellamy Road in the 2005 Wood Memorial, Arazi in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile or Da’ Tara in the 2008 Belmont, Chamberlain and Braden had their moment in the sun and then the moment was gone.
The mistake, as it relates to horseracing and the Bounce Theory, is in believing that such a moment is indicative of one’s overall talent level. Just like the duffer that shoots a hole-in-one or the weekend warrior that bowls a 300 game, all of us, with the possible exception of the cast of “MacGruber,” are capable of greatness on occasion. What makes one truly exceptional is the ability to maintain a high level of performance over longer periods of time.Hence, I contend that, often, what handicappers term a “bounce” is nothing more than a regression of form, born out of the horse’s general lack of consistency. In other words, it is a perfectly normal, dare I say expected, reversal of fortune.
To test my theory, I decided to take a look at horses that won their last race by less than a half-length (i.e. a tough effort) and group them by their overall winning rates over the past two years. If my hypothesis is correct, one would expect to see more successful horses — those with higher winning rates — bounce less often. However, unlike other studies, I did not use speed figures as evidence for or against a bounce; one cannot cash a speed figure — trust me, I’ve tried. Instead, I focused solely on winning percentages and ROI.
Using my own database of over 6,500 thoroughbred races run from 2004 to present, I searched for steeds meeting the following criteria:
  • Won last race by under ½-length (less than 100 days ago).
  • At least five combined starts this year and last.

What does this prove? Well, to be honest, not much. But it does disprove the notion that horses are destined to run poorly after a demanding race.

So, the next time you see a horse with a towering Beyer figure or one that you believe may have left its guts on the racetrack last time out, don’t be so quick to dismiss it. Check the tote board — the odds might be crazy.


November 20, 2010 - Posted by | Horse Racing | , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Great insight job well done!!

    Comment by Michael | November 20, 2010 | Reply

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