Time for a change: Why North America must stop perpetually mistiming races

Photo: William Warby.

“One of the most difficult things in the world is to time races correctly.”

- Daily Racing Form, June 8, 1922

How should a horse race be timed? The answer seems obvious. How complex can time really be? Hyperbole aside, the above comment from a June 8, 1922 Daily Racing Form report was true then, and sadly, it remains true, at least in North America. The gate opens, the race starts – start the clock. Stop the clock at the finish. Right? For horse racing, the latter is always true. The rest gets murkier.

The problem

The seventh race at Saratoga on Aug. 4, 2014 was open to horses offered for a $40,000 claiming price. The published race distance was 5 ½ furlongs on the Mellon (outer) turf course. A field of 10 went postward and raced in lane three, set 18 feet off the inside. All facts.

Based on data that Trakus collects, horses in this race had to run for nearly 185 feet before reaching the point that is 5 ½ furlongs from the finish. Breaking from the outside post, Player to Be Named rushed forward and established a clear lead.

“The quarter was quick,” exclaimed announcer John Imbriale with his sharp intonation. “21 seconds.”

Officially, the time was posted in 21.15 seconds. “I think that was the fastest quarter of the meet,” handicapper Brian Nadeau exclaimed, sitting across from me as we watched from the clubhouse.

But the horses had not been running for just two furlongs to that point, nor had they only been in motion for just 21 seconds. Player to Be Named ran for more than five seconds before ever getting to that otherwise undesignated point on the turf course, with its rail extended 18 feet from the inside, that is 5 ½ furlongs from the winning post.

A half-furlong is 330 feet. Tack on the extra distance from this 5 ½-furlong race and you are staring down a race that, from the break of the gate to the finish, is just more than 5 ¾ furlongs. The public is presented a time for the final 5 ½ furlongs of the race, but that and almost every other race run on the continent is actually contested over a distance longer than what is published. Almost every Thoroughbred race in North America has some untimed portion – confounding legitimate analysis and comparison of the races.

It isn’t fraudulent, but without any particular malice, it is perpetually misleading. This demilitarized zone of North American racing is known as the “run-up.” Horses run-up to the point at which they are actually the published distance of the race from the finish. Then – the clock begins.

Basically, no track on the continent is benign to the scourge of run-up. The fact that run-up distances differ from track to track - a function of course design, safety considerations, turf rail positions, grass management, or just plain old habit (the “that’s where we always put the gate” argument) - makes its presence in racing even more difficult to comprehend. 

I spend a significant amount of time analyzing the timing of races in my role as director of racing information for Trakus. For full disclosure, Trakus does serve as an official timer for various courses around the world, including some discussed in this piece. As a company, Trakus has no official position on how a race should be timed. Whatever the identified local standard, it is programmed to the Trakus system and races are then timed. That works just fine. 

As an individual – a racing fanatic since a ridiculously early age, and now a professional who bathes in racing data on a daily basis – I’ve come to realize that the current method of timing races in North America is simply wrong. The figure-focused trend toward advanced analytics in racing will only grow stronger and more important to wagering in the future, making this problem even more worrisome and misleading.

Six furlongs on dirt at Churchill Downs – the run up is more than 200 feet. It’s about the same distance for one-mile dirt races at Santa Anita or Del Mar. Races at one mile on dirt at Laurel have a run-up of just 20 feet, it’s 40 feet at Parx, 48 feet at Arlington and Mountaineer, 56 feet at Delaware.

Get turf lanes in the mix, and this un-timed portion can vary to an even greater extent, even within the same track using different gate positions. 

How long has this been happening in North America? Basically, forever. 

Whether or not a track has employed Trakus, or any other company, to provide timing of its races, the method of clocking a race in North America is in desperate need of evolution. When you have been doing something wrong over the course of three different centuries, maintaining the status quo for posterity’s sake might seem nostalgic, not to mention simple. When you can change it, in some way, shape or form, to improve accuracy, transparency, and global consistency – shouldn’t you?

This raises the question: How does nearly all of the rest of the racing world time races?

The starter presses the button, the gate opens, the clock starts. Fairly simple.

In an age where North Americans can wager on races from the rest of the world, yielding action 24 hours a day, and a good chunk of foreign locales can have a punt on our races in return, bringing our race timing into the 21st century should only benefit our collective interests. Well aware of the vitriolic debates over medication and the perceptions the American industry has faced surrounding that, here is a fairly nonthreatening issue that could improve the development of a more truly global standard.

The impact

At Churchill Downs, the point that is six furlongs from the finish is on the edge of the end of the first turn. Starting races right on top of that awkward point could cause a safety issue. As a result, the gate is placed in the nearby chute enabling a more-aligned start.

Secret Circle won the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint at Churchill. He was a neck off the early leader after the first two furlongs and stayed-on to win as the 2-to-5 choice.

“The opening fraction here, astonishing,” simulcast host Todd Schrupp boasted to a global audience right after the race. “20 and four-fifths!” 

The published time of the race was 1:10.52. Watch the replay and notice the time the race starts and when Secret Circle passes the finish. Even in this wildly imprecise fashion and without any advanced data availability, it is impossible to say the horses ran only 1:10.52.


Now realize this happens with almost every single race on the continent.

On the grass, the situation gets trickier. Turf courses now have the benefit of temporary rail placements. Within those zones, some have multiple entry points to get the gate on the turf, mitigating damage from tire imprints.

Legendary figure-maker Andy Beyer opined on the topic of run-up for a Washington Post column in March 2014. “Because 7 1/2-furlong [turf] races are run so often, Gulfstream moves the starting gate to different locations so that it doesn’t inflict too much damage to the grass course.”

Some tracks start all races from the same point, regardless of the rail setting. The result is chronographic havoc. Races at five furlongs on grass at Tampa Bay Downs begin from the same location whether the rail is in the true position, or in one of three other temporary settings. Depending on the position, the run-up can vary between 70 and 180 feet. Opening quarters of 20.6 seconds are not out of the ordinary when giving grass sprinters such a head-start over the clock.

The horses run their races regardless. The significance of this issue is most noticeable to the bettors. Comparing some races, even within the same day on surfaces that might not differ, is incredibly challenging when using time. On Jan. 25, 2014, two claiming races at Gulfstream were run at 1 1/16 miles on turf. The official difference in times between the races was 3.11 seconds. Factoring in the time the horses recorded during the run-up, the difference is cut to 1.61 seconds.

Given the class difference between horses in the two races, it is easily predictable that more expensive and accomplished horses in the first race would be faster than cheaper, less-accomplished ones in the 11th race. But by 3.11 seconds? The actual delta between the two sets of times is 1.50 seconds, or 48 percent less when considering the varied run-ups.

On the correct timing of races, the Daily Racing Form of July 7, 1921 offered this assessment: “It deserves to be taken seriously as the basis of worth in the horse and the foundation of handicapping.”

How did American racing get into this mess?

The past

The exact origins of American timing practices are not always completely clear through cursory research, but can be inferred from various references over the first four decades of the 1900s.

The Kentuckiana Digital Library, hosted by the University of Kentucky, provides a peerless resource, allowing one to search the archives of the Daily Racing Form dating back to 1896. Amongst an overwhelming amount of information are periodic references to the history of American race timing.

The space we now know as the run-up began before the formal starting gate was instituted. Horses were given a space to walk or run to the line where the race was officially started, along with the timing, a practice that is still used in jumps racing. 

Sectional or fractional times in America, depending on your choice of adjective, are at least as old as the Form’s archives. On June 11, 1896, the first race at the Cincinnati Jockey Club’s Oakley Park was a five-furlong sprint, and amazingly, the post-race chart reported times for the first eighth, quarter, half-mile, and a final time.

“Starting and timing races, two things that have caused no end of controversy and trouble in this country, have been worked out successfully in the antipodes [Australia and New Zealand]. Australia tracks have the starting gate, the same as in this country, but the barrier is stretched right across the starting point instead of twelve to fifteen yards back, as is our practice…In this country the race-goers rely on the times with a stopwatch, catching the horses in their flying start as they dash from the barrier past the starting point”

-Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle of July 7, 1916 in the Daily Racing Form, July 14, 1916 

Most of the references to race timing in the Form archives from the 1910s and 1920s identify various countries making attempts to time races with a series of contraptions. It seems the first electric timing conducted in the U.S. was at Hawthorne in the 1930s. Take note of two descriptions that appeared in the Daily Racing Form from 1934. Published four days apart, there was, even then, ambiguity regarding the run-up distance [underline added for emphasis].

“Veterans will recall that several seasons back, when Hawthorne initiated the electric chronometer for timing races, it became necessary to move the stall gate up to the actual starting point of races. At other tracks, where timing is still done by stop watch, races are started from a point some seventy feet back of the actual distance run, and the clockers snap their watches when the flag man dips his red flag as the field passes the starting point.” (Daily Racing Form, July 13, 1934) 

“When the electric chronometer was installed at the west side course several years ago it was found necessary to start it by the breaking of a contact in the starting gate. For this reason the starting gate had to be moved up to the actual starting point of races, instead of being set up sixty feet back of the starting point, as is the custom elsewhere. The change made the time at Hawthorne much slower than at other tracks, for it was being registered from a standing start, instead of from a running start, common at other race courses.” (Daily Racing Form, July 17, 1934) 

Both excerpts leave the reader with the impression that Hawthorne’s being on the leading edge of race timing was, basically, criticized by “veterans” who had trouble differentiating Hawthorne’s slower times from other tracks. The Chicago area played host to a number of tracks at the time, including Washington Park, Sportsmen’s Park, Lincoln Fields, and Arlington.

In 1934, Hawthorne adopted an enhancement to their existing timing with the introduction of the “electric eye.” 

“The starting ray crosses the track at the starting point of the race – some sixty feet in front of the starting gate – and when the first horse in the field crosses the invisible beam a contact is broken that starts the electric chronometer on the stewards’ stand. When the first horse crosses the invisible ray that marks the finish line, another contact is broken that stops the clock…The change in timing method will likewise have the effect of lining up the time figures registered at Hawthorne with those at other tracks.” (Daily Racing Form, July 17, 1934)

And there you have the origin of race timing standards in North America.

While a technology existed to normalize race timing and eliminate run-up, Hawthorne went out of their way to modify it for the sake of aligning with hand-timing.

Why does run-up, which has grown amorphously as modern-day considerations and developments have evolved, still exist? Because even in 1934, racing “veterans” weren’t tolerant of change. 

The path

The options for righting this multi-generational wrong are clear: Publish the actual distance horses are running based on the gate placement and start timing the full race.

At Del Mar, races currently run at a distance published as “one mile” would be published as “1 mile 67 yards.” At Churchill Downs, races at six furlongs, starting from the spot where they do now, could be considered 6 furlongs 73 yards. An all-out switch to metric distances could make advances in accuracy also. 

The gates for these races are placed in a safer position for the race’s human and equine participants. Providing the most accurate information possible would be a great show of respect for the bettors. 

Some objections are likely. 

“It will be difficult to understand. It makes all our horses look slower.”

It always takes time to get used to the change, and once you do, a new normal will take hold. The horses didn’t change speeds, or get slower. Races will seem slower because we are accurately timing them. Maintaining inaccuracy to benefit consistency is a fool’s errand in the long run.

 “Speed in man or beast is universally admired. In racing it is one of the essential qualities of a truly great horse. Nowhere in the world has the development of speed in thoroughbreds been as pronounced as in this country. Americans, accustomed to do everything with as much speed and dispatch as is possible, have acquired a mania for speed in their sports and recreations. The faster they go the better they like it.”

-Daily Racing Form, Jan. 14, 1919 

“It ruins all of our old track records.”

Ignore for a moment that the track record is one of the most misunderstood and faux-meaningful statistics in racing considering the conditions in which many are set. My blog post on America’s Best Racing covered this topic in July, inspired in part by a crazy series of circumstances last year at Jebel Ali Racecourse in Dubai, when a whipping tailwind in excess of 40 miles-per-hour aided horses up the steeply inclined homestretch and resulted in almost every record on the dirt course falling that day. Changing the way we time races in America would preserve all the old track records, freezing them in time. Secretariat’s 1 ½ miles at Belmont Park, timed in 2:24, would stand forever.

The future

Aside from the short-term stumbles related with acclimating to a new method of timing, where opening quarters in, say, 23.53 seconds for G1 six-furlong dirt sprints are lightning quick, future generations of American racing bettors will appreciate the decisions to modernize race timing.

Access to more accurate and intricate data is a hallmark of sports in the 21st century. There are many charming elements of yesteryear in this sport, traditions horse racing maintains that harken back to a simpler time. Adhering to a truly bygone method of race timing would be a mistake. Tolerated by some for decades, and mostly unknown by many, the time to accept the fact that improvements are available, and that they should be made, is now. In the interim, racetracks should identify the true distances of their races, not just the timed portions.

The future of analytics and global integration in horse racing will be bigger and bolder, and that should excite handicappers. The longer we wait to make these adjustments, the less accurate the sport remains.


Pat Cummings is the director of racing information for Trakus. The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.

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