History Lesson - 20 September 2003

Okay, I’ve been trying to get to this for some time, but I haven’t had the time until now.

Earlier this summer Connie Merjos, who is now retired and lives most of the year in Puerto Rico, came to town. As some of you may know Connie was Ragozin’s first trackman and worked for Len for 25 years, and the friendship we formed back when I was associated with that office lasted even after I split off and the hostilities broke out.

Anyway, Connie and I were sitting around talking, and the subject of Ragozin’s book came up, a subject which makes Connie even crazier than it does me due to Ragozin’s playing extremely fast and loose with the truth, and basically claiming to have invented virtually everything associated with speed figures. This is especially galling to Connie because he was making his own figures using live wind and ground long before Len ever was ( Len was using hourly wind readings from airports, and estimating ground loss by reading charts), and was the one who showed Len how it was done. He also was clocking races from the gate, which Len was not (and had probably never even thought of), and gave Len his run-up table, which Len had never heard of let alone seen before. They worked out a division of labor where Connie would be the observer at the track, and Len would make the figures using the data Connie supplied. All subsequent trackmen, both TG and Ragozin, have been trained by Connie, either directly or indirectly.

So, in the course of conversation, I asked Connie where he learned how to make figures. There were a few different influences, and then he said “I used to have this book… I might even still have it.” I told him I would love to see it, and sure enough he brought it round to my office the next day. It was falling apart, and when I opened it up it had so much dust I started sneezing. It still had a penciled price of one dollar on the cover—Connie had bought it used, when he was very young. I glanced through it, and it was amazing, but there was a problem in that it was falling apart to the touch. I mentioned it to a friend of mine (who posts as Mandown on this site, and is a lot more internet savvy than I am), and he found a good copy at a bookstore in Seminole, Florida. I have it in my possession, and it is absolutely amazing.

The book is “Consistent Handicapping Profits”, by E.W. Donaldson, published by Montee Publishing of Baltimore. The second edition, which I have, is from 1936. It is apparently a series of articles that first appeared in a publication called Turf and Sport Digest (and if anyone knows any more about them I would love to hear about it). And before I go on, I want to point out that the articles make it clear that individuals other than the author were ALSO making figures at the time, and that one of the ads following the text of the book is for ready made figures that can be purchased by mail on a monthly basis—IN 1936. But the articles assume that the reader will be making his own figures, and discuss how to do so, and to use them, and with one exception do not claim to be discussing anything new.

Among the contents:

1—A pretty good “Parallel Time Chart” (speed chart), and explanation of why beaten length corrections change as the distances do.

2—A ground loss chart (with underlying reasoning) that is pretty close to what we use. Donaldson calls them “widths”, not paths, and says this is the first time anyone has put forward a usable lengths correction for figures.

3—A couple of articles discussing weight, some of which are better than others. The better one uses a weight correction close to ours (he uses 4 pounds = 1 point), and it is worth noting that the horses might have weighed less then (certainly the jocks did), and his correction might work out about the same as the one we use for the average horse today. And it is also worth noting that there is a discussion of weight relative to the size of the individual carrying the weight, a point that seems to escape Friedman to this day. (As a practical matter there is not much we can do about this, unless they start giving us the weights of the individual horses).

4—A brief discussion of how wind affects the time of races, in some cases significantly. Some of his reasoning here is flawed (he sees that a wind behind them on the backstretch is canceled by the headwind in the stretch, but mistakenly thinks a crosswind has no effect in one turn races, missing that it is either helping or hurting them on the turn). He does not discuss how to adjust the figures for wind here, but there is a good chance that happened in later articles, and for sure Connie knows of guys making wind corrections going way back, far before Ragozin.

5—DISCUSSES FIGURE PATTERNS. On Donaldson’s scale higher is better, and in the book he shows two examples (not on a graph)—“Horse A 10-11-12-13”, “Horse B 17-16-15-14.” He recommends betting the improving horse, and says “The handicapper, looking back at the figures for the last race, made the foolish error of taking it for granted that the horses would duplicate their last performance. Although they had been changing up until that race, the worker somehow believed that they would remain stable for him in the next race. He did not figure on the change although his ratings predicted it for him.”

He also uses graphs to compare the FORM CYCLES of “cheaper” horses, who peak suddenly and quickly go out of form, and that of “higher class” horses. The graphs are hand drawn line graphs, and he does not specifically refer to using speed figures on a graph IN THIS ARTICLE, but does anyone think that no one made the logical jump to put the two together? I would very much like to know what was in future articles.

6—A statement that moisture affects track speed (!)

I have to say that it never occurred to me to find out anything about the history of figure making until recently, or that it would be in print. If I have time I’m going to try to find out more , and it turns out that the cousin of someone who used to work here is going for a degree in Library Science at, of all places, University of Kentucky, in Lexington. So stay tuned, and I welcome any additional information.