Track bias is without doubt one of the most hotly debated issues in racing. It’s a dubious and tantalising mystery.
If you believe in, and faithfully factor in track bias in your formwork, week in and week out, it may come as a surprise that some people think it is just a figment of the imagination. In fact, I submit that there is almost no such thing as track bias. Most of it is in the punter’s mind and language use.

Track bias is an expression that didn’t exist in Australian track language two to three decades ago.

The term is heard almost everywhere in Australian racespeak now, due to the global influence of certain landmark books by American writers and the emergence of the Internet. Australians have always had something of a copycat obsession with American culture, and in horse racing TRACK BIAS is a perfect example.

Coming to grips with bias is a nightmare. The word bias is NOT a simple word to define to begin with. As an expression for the state of a track, it is chiefly used to mean “favouring” but has seriously ambiguous interpretation problems.

It’s a word that can be used evaluatively or descriptively. As a descriptor it is possible to use it as a neutral word, but frequently it is muddled by switching meaning to a judgemental sense of the word and back to the descriptive form, often in the same sentence! Even well-known media commentators do it.

Unfortunately, it is TOO easy to slip from using TRACK BIAS in a descriptive sense one moment, to a judgemental one the next.

This leads to the meaning becoming confused and, worse, sometimes being deliberately abused to suit the user. Debate over track bias is often over this subtle misuse of the term.

Because tracks can be judged as well as described, the inability, or unwillingness, to separate the two uses by race followers, has mushroomed a false mystique around TRACK BIAS.

When it is used judgementally, TRACK BIAS tends to offer an excuse for failed performances in races. Expressions like “leader bias” and “swooper bias” are becoming fixtures in Australian racing English, as favouring or hindering forces.

When used descriptively, the term TRACK BIAS literally points out physical facts about tracks, as in stating the track is “off the rail” when the rail turf is slower or more cut up.

However, punters observing patterns of winners coming from the lead, or rail or midfield are sometimes sorely tempted to infer that there is something MORE going for certain TYPES OF RUNNERS.

All that it requires is a few losing bets, observing a pattern and switching the term TRACK BIAS from descriptor to judgement term and, suddenly, the track is blameable (mostly wrongly) for having favouring or hindering intentions that exist to frustrate.

On August 23, 2003, for example, the Caulfield racecourse rail was at the true inside position. A week or so earlier the moveable rail had been 10m wide.

In the days between the shifting of the rail back to the true inside, it rained. Forty-eight hours before the meeting it rained the most. On the Saturday the track was officially declared slow.

The inside racing surface for the day had recovered from not being raced on but was saturated and slow because of the rain. It wasn’t long before midfielders and getbackers were swooping on the leaders and racking up wins.
“Unfair,” cried some pundits. When asked by certain print media what he would do in future about the track bias, the course curator, quite properly asked, “What bias?”

I think he was right and the mob was wrong. Rail movements in or out don’t automatically do anything. Rain (and in summer, watering regimes) is another matter altogether.

What is attributed to being TRACK BIAS is usually no more than an observed pattern of racing.

Patterns of racing are not necessarily due to biases in the track; they are simply patterns. They can develop for many reasons. And while patterns help punters predict more accurately, it is a big presumption, a leap of argument, not faith, to assert an observed pattern is caused MAINLY by the track.

The effect of so-called TRACK BIAS is often the riding of jockeys with a collective mindset. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, either.

In these days of multiple race meetings, keenly competitive jockeys use every small edge they can to gain an advantage. Not only do they track-walk courses in the morning, but they also use sports psychology techniques just as athletes do in other sports.

Track walking is essential if there has been rain about, but in fact only some jockeys do the walking. Come race time, jockeys that haven’t done their homework wing it and follow the leaders looking, or hoping, for opportunities.
Track over-use, moveable rails, changed track configurations and high stakes lead to the playing of mind games, tactics and imagination...and they produce patterns of racing.

In November 2000 I was at Flemington on Emirates day to see Might And Power have one of his last runs. I saw a track that in race after race most runners headed away from the inside rail to the grandstand side or the middle of the track as soon as they turned into the home straight.

It was done often enough by winners of the early races that a clear RIDING pattern was established. The pattern showed, simply, where the track was firmest and easiest to traverse, for all horses. The pattern, as often happens at many tracks that are supposedly running a particular bias that day, was suddenly turned on its ear in the 7th race by a daringly different run, by a horse sticking to the inside rail.

What did this indicate? Certainly not the breaking of the bias! Perhaps there was no bias but just a jockey horde mentality at work in earlier races.

Perhaps the track condition had changed but there was no official notification of that. Besides, isn’t it remarkable how often tracks get “upgraded” after the start of a meeting and not a penetrometer or penetrometer reading ever mentioned to support the decision.

Regardless of whether the track changes or not, patterns of racing do not prove either the existence of TRACK bias, or that TRACK bias is causing the pattern.

Patterns are tricky to interpret because they are invariably a mixture of real track variation as well as tactical strategies by jockeys. The track undoubtedly plays a role in how jockeys race but it is impossible to measure how big a factor it is, in any observed pattern.

In reality, track may have nothing at all to do with the pattern of racing.

Real track bias is not leader bias, rail bias, swooper bias or one of the many other positional varieties.

I believe there is one, and only one form of TRACK bias: it is caused by variation in the firmness and bind of the track surface and it MAY give a “relative advantage” to some horses. Furthermore, I believe it is caused solely by the amount of WATER in the track surface.

It is important to recognise that it is a RELATIVE advantage, not something hidden away like a golden key to unlock the track secret for that day for all runners as the meeting unfolds.

The very idea that a dry track doesn’t give every horse an equal chance just doesn’t stand close scrutiny. Dry tracks have no way of being fair to some horses and unfair to others; but it is possible for some horses to gain an edge in wet track conditions because of unevenly firm going.

Water affects track speed by creating genuine variations in different parts of the track.

However, even track variability that is so wet it is clearly biased can only be of help to runners fit enough and predisposed to exploit softer going. Unevenly firm tracks disadvantage ALL horses, just as a saturated football oval hampers ALL players from exhibiting the skills of the game at their fluent best.

The edge-seeking jockeys spoken of earlier who walk wet tracks to ascertain where water effects are worst, will try to use the track knowledge they pick up in the morning, plus tactics and positioning in the run.

It’s that mixture, and the pressure applied, that decides who wins, not the bias in the track. It’s one thing to know where a track is firmest; it is another altogether to manoeuvre mounts to advantageous spots before other horses in order to exploit firm going to gain a break on opponents.

An analogy I like regards bias like a five-goal breeze “advantage” in a game of football. Having a favouring breeze helps, but doesn’t guarantee a win unless a team produces the right play to exploit it and the ability to do so. The same is true of horses and jockeys in biased going. And some players, like some horses, are able to play wet grounds more adeptly than others. It is a gift maybe due to genetics, acquired skill, fitness, training or other things. Whatever the reason, performance on wet, unevenly firm tracks, depends on more than just knowing where the bias is. Fitness matters. Often forgotten is the effect of wind strength and direction, the size of field and the mix of horses that like to lead or sit and the class of opponents.

One thing that is absolutely clear is that the inability of horses to handle uneven track firmness with equal skill, is NOT a case of the track helping some horses more than others.

Bias simply can NOT help a horse do what the horse hasn’t got the ability to do in the first place. Bias cannot put in what God left out.

There are numerous possible reasons for a horse losing, or winning. Too many, in fact, to be able to point the finger at a single thing like the track and say, “the track bias did that”.

Punters cling onto beliefs of TRACK BIAS mainly because they want predictability in the tough game of selecting winners. No-one likes losing. They want explanations for what happens in one race so they can use it in the next one.

Track bias conveniently does away with the need to explain a lot of otherwise unexplainable things that happen during races. It throws in a pinch of mystique as well as brutal fact. It makes the implausible plausible. It explains both the miracle runs and the disaster runs; it titillates, it tests and teases.

*Tony Acciano is a Perth-based racing fan.

By Tony Acciano