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Forensic Handicapping - Assuming Mary Cain Runs NXN 2013

Bill Meylan (August 17, 2013)


I'm a horseplayer ... On certain occasions, I wager real money with the intent of making a "big score" ... Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose ... But my criteria and prospects of making a "big score" are directly related to the question - "Are you willing to bet the rent money on this race??" ... Not "fake rent money", your "actual rent money" ... Without pointing fingers at somebody who has done that, let me state that losing "real money" can change your perspective on how to handicap races.

I was lucky when I first started betting horses many years ago ... I was sitting at a clubhouse table with some friends that owned horses at Vernon Downs ... their stable trainer was also sitting at the table (one of the best trainers at Vernon) ... After losing another race and ripping up my tickets, I said "Another race where the best horse didn't win!"... The trainer looked at me with smile and said, "The object is not to bet the "best" horse ... the object is to bet the horse that wins, and the "best" horse does not always win ... Look at each horse's chances of winning and look at the odds ... Bet your money based on that ... Consider "how the race will be run" and what you know about each horse, driver (or jockey), trainer and the track itself" .... That brief discussion saved me LOTS of money.

So What Does That Have To Do With Mary Cain?


Mary Cain is now considered to be the "best" female high school track & field distance runner of all-time in the US ... Mary Cain has set national records from 800 meters (1:59.51) to 1500 meters (4:04.62) to 3000 meters (9:02.10 indoors) to 2-Miles (9:38.68 indoors) to 5000 meters (15:45.46) ... Note - photo courtesy The Oregonian (http://www.oregonlive.com)

Assuming Mary Cain decides to run NXN 2013, it is highly likely that the vast majority of people will consider her to be "much the best" based on her track accomplishments ... Some will believe it is a waste of her time to run in a "high-school only" race since becoming a "world class" runner capable of turning professional at age 17.

But as noted here on multiple occasions, "Track is Not Cross Country".

If track results were the only consideration, Mary Cain is heads-and-shoulders above other female high school runners in the US ... In her current form, I would never consider betting against Mary Cain to win a high school track race at distances between 800 and 5000 meters.

But what about a cross country race?? ... In particular, what about the NXN National Championship Race at Portland Meadows in December??

This article is a brief pre-season evaluation or "forensic" handicapping of Mary Cain competing at NXN Nationals 2013 ... It looks at her past performances at NXN Nationals ... By "forensic", I mean a look at the statistics entering the race as objectively as possible ... and then applying an evaluation to determine "Are you willing to bet the rent money on Mary Cain to win NXN 2013?".

Mary Cain's Cross Country Accomplishments

Mary Cain - Cross Country Highlights to date include:
.. NY State Class C Champion - Two Times (2010, 2011)
.. NY Federation Champion - 2011
.. NXN Nationals - 2nd (2012), 6th (2011)
.. NXN NY Regional - 1st (2012), 3rd (2011)
.. Bowdoin Park - 3rd Fastest All-Time Mark (17:40.0); fastest 17:16.9 (Aisling Cuffe)
.. Van Cortlandt Park 5K - 10th Fastest All-Time Mark (17:26.0); fastest 16:46.0 (Cathy Schiro)
.. Van Cortlandt Park 2.5-Mile - 7th Fastest All-Time Mark (14:03.9); fastest 13:55.27

Bowdoin Park is the site of both the NY Federation and NXN-NY Regional Meets ... Mary Cain has raced at Bowdoin Park on many occasions since it is one of the major courses used by Section1 in which Bronxville HS competes ... Mary Cain has raced on the Van Cortlandt Park 2.5-Mile course on many occasions since it is Bronxville's home course and a main site where Bronxville trains.

To me, cross country course records do not have the same meaning as track records because course conditions are variable and can change over time plus the course itself may change over time ... That said, Mary Cain does not currently have the course records at two major NY courses she has raced at frequently ... I certainly think she is capable of breaking those records if she sets her mind to it (especially the VCP 2.5-Mile record) ... The Van Cortlandt Park 5K record might be a real challenge even for Mary Cain - Cathy Schiro set the record of 16:46.0 at the Footlocker qualifier in 1984 (Schiro went on the win Footlocker Nationals by 16 seconds at Balboa Park) ... the same day at VCP, John Trautmann won the boys Footlocker qualifier in 15:25.7 (Trautmann was 2nd at Footlocker Nationals) ..... I have always wanted to "speed rate" Cathy Schiro's VCP race, but I don't have enough data to do it with certainty ...Schiro's Footlocker National win had a speed rating of roughly 169 and VCP was definitely slower than that Balboa course (my current guess is 12-18 seconds slower which would give a VCP race rating of roughly 173-175).

Quick Comparison to Track Records .... Mary Cain stopped competing for Bronxville HS in mid-October 2012 and began training as an "unattached" high school runner with Alberto Salazar as her coach ... At that time, Mary Cain already held the US National HS record for 1500 meters (4:11.01), three NY State Outdoor records including the Mile (4:39.28), 800m (2:03.34) and 1500m (4:11.01) and the Indoor 1000m record (2:47.29) ... and add in a bunch of "grade" records .... In my opinion, Mary Cain's track accomplishments at that point were significantly superior to her cross country accomplishments.

Since this article focuses on NXN Nationals, here are Mary Cain's results for 2012 and 2011:

NXN Nationals 2012

  Pl    Name                     Affiliation           Time      Speed Rating
  1     SARAH BAXTER             CA INDIV.1            19:17     159.3    159
  2     MARY CAIN                NY INDIV.1            19:21     158.0    158  ***
  3     KATIE KNIGHT             NW GIRLS2             19:32     154.3    154
  4     ALEXA EFRAIMSON          CAMAS                 19:34     153.7    154
  5     KARIS JOCHEN             SO GIRLS1             19:42     151.0    151
  6     COURTNEY ACKERMAN        WILMETTE              19:43     150.7    151
  7     ELISE CRANNY             SW GIRLS1             19:43     150.7    151
  8     AMY-ELOISE NEALE         NW GIRLS1             19:45     150.0    150
  9     TAYLOR DRISCOLL          KINETIC               19:45     150.0    150
  10    SARAH DISANZA            NE GIRLS3             19:48     149.0    149

NXN Nationals 2011

  Place   Name                   Affiliation           Time      Speed Rating
  1       Sarah Baxter           SIMI VALLEY XC CLUB   17:38     154.3    154
  2       Haley Pierce           WILMINGTON XC CLUB    17:42     153.0    153
  3       Katie Knight           NORTHWEST-1           17:45     152.0    152
  4       Jillian Fanning        MANLIUS XC CLUB       17:50     150.3    150
  5       Amy-Eloise Neale       SNOHOMISH XC CLUB     17:54     149.0    149
  6       Mary Cain              NEW YORK-1            17:56     148.3    148  ***
  7       Hagen Reedy            CALIFORNIA-1          17:57     148.0    148
  8       Samantha Nightengale   MIDWEST-2             17:59     147.3    147
  9       Amanda Fox             MIDWEST-1             18:01     146.7    147
  10      Samantha Nadel         GLEN HEAD XC CLUB     18:03     146.0    146		


Handicapping a race is a process of evaluating past performances to determine probabilities of winning the upcoming race ... Since NXN 2013 is the focus race, an evaluation of previous NXN races is a place to start.

Initial Handicapping Stat for NXN 2013:
(1) Mary Cain has run NXN Nationals twice and lost both times
(2) Sarah Baxter won NXN Nationals in both 2012 and 2011

** Note ... For this article, I am assuming Sarah Baxter will run NXN 2013.


NXN 2011

I thought Mary Cain had a good chance of winning NXN 2011 ... Entering NXN 2011, Mary Cain had the highest individual XC speed rating of the  field (159 at Bowdoin Park) ... Sarah Baxter had a higher "overall" speed rating (recent races + seasonal performance) - Baxter's overall speed rating was in the mid-150s to Cain's upper 140s to low-150s which is not much a of difference.

Comparison of track performances entering NXN 2011:
  Mary Cain:
     400   - 0:55.5 
     800   - 2:03.74 (relay split)
     1500m - 4:17.84
     1600m - 4:35.1 (converted 1500m)
     1600m - 4:41.8 (relay split)
     3000m - 9:28.6
     3200m - 10:07.0 (converted 3000m)

  Sarah Baxter:
     800   - not available
     1500m - 4:32.4 (converted 1600m)
     1600m - 4:53.23
     3000m - 9:31.2 (converted 3200m)
     3200m - 10:13.00 

At NXN 2011, Mary Cain had already demonstrated a major performance advantage at track distances of 1600 meters or shorter ... Mary Cain ran only one 3000 meter race during her freshman track year (that was her only race at a distance greater than 1 mile), and she ran that 3000m at a small five team meet as a training exercise ... As can be seen above, the converted 3200m time was better than Sarah Baxter's best 3200m (a distance Baxter ran on multiple occasions).

Side-note on Converted Track Times ... Converting track times from one distance to another can be done by several methods ... Track & Field News typically uses a specific multiplier based on distances ... Many people use on-line converters such as the converter on the Run-Down Stat web-site (http://run-down.com/statistics/calc.php) ... These converters are generally decent in most cases, but are based on averages which includes potentially significant margins-of-error ... Personally, when I have sufficient data on a runner's split times, especially splits at the end of race, I use that data for the conversion ... I did not have split data for Sarah Baxter, so I used the on-line converter ... I did have split times for Mary Cain's 1500m time of  4:17.68 (final 400m in 64.02 FAT, final 200m in 31.2 hand-time) and she was not slowing down when she crossed the finish-line ... based of her negative splits, an approximate "next" 200m rate of 34.4 seconds for another 100 meters seems reasonable (maybe conservative) which yields the 4:35.1 converted 1600m time (the on-line converter estimates a 4:36 to 4:37 range) ... I was told Mary Cain negative split her 3000m race in typical fashion, so I approximated the 3200m conversion of 10:07 shown above (the on-line converter estimates a 10:08 to 10:10 range).

The Portland Meadow course condition at NXN 2011 was relatively good for Port Meadows in December ... Only marginal areas of mud & muck ... Mary Cain had a distinct performance advantage based on track times and her cross country performances were close to Sarah Baxter's ... Sarah Baxter beat Mary Cain by 18 seconds at NXN 2011.

NXN 2012

I thought Mary Cain had a real good chance of winning NXN 2012 ... Sarah Baxter had lowered her track PRs  at 1600m (4:49.33) and 3200m (10:08.11), but Mary Cain had set a US National record at 1500m (4:11.01) and NY State records at 1-Mile (4:39.28) and 800m (2:03.34) ... Once again, track performances indicated Mary Cain was the "best" runner ... Since training under Alberto Salazar, Mary Cain had two cross country speed ratings in the upper 150s (one at Bowdoin Park and one at Van Cortlandt Park) ... Sarah Baxter had two cross country speed ratings in the low to mid-160s (one at CA States and a higher rating when smashing the Mt. Sac course record).

Sarah Baxter beat Mary Cain by 4 seconds at NXN 2012 ... the Portland Meadows course condition was awful ... Mary Cain was "best" based on track data ... Sarah Baxter had a slight advantage based on cross country speed ratings.

NXN 2013 ??

Mary Cain's track ability makes her "much-the-best" based on track performances ... She just finished 10th in the 1500 meter final at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow (4:07.19) and said after the race "I thought I could have won a medal" ... I assume Mary Cain would be a huge "odds-on" favorite if betting was permitted at NXN Portland Meadows (assuming she has no physical problems, etc. at race time).

As a handicapper wanting to make a large wager, I ask the question "Why has Mary Cain lost twice at Portland Meadows?".

I could start by saying Sarah Baxter is really good ... But that's already known and just a start ... In 2011, Mary Cain had already demonstrated a significant advantage based on track speed and she had the highest individual XC speed rating of anybody entering the race ... Five runners beat Mary Cain at NXN 2011 (not just Sarah Baxter).

In 2012, Alberto Salazar was already Mary Cain's coach leading up to her prep race at Van Cortlandt Park and the NXN-New York qualifier at Bowdoin Park ... Only 6 weeks after NXN 2012, Mary Cain shattered the high school 3000 meter record with a 9:02.10 clocking at the University of Washington's oversize indoor track and within the following 4 or 5 weeks Mary Cain set high school records in the Mile (4:28.25) and 2-Mile (9:38.68).

Mary Cain did not magically get that much better in terms of talent during the next couple of months following NXN 2012 ... In my opinion, she was already that talented at NXN 2012 ... Alberto Salazar and Mary Cain did a great job in sharpening Mary's speed with appropriate track workouts and were able to focus on running fast track times in ways regular high school runners can not do if they run for their schools ... Bottom-Line in retrospect - Mary Cain was "much-the-best" entering NXN 2012 and she lost ... WHY? ... Inquiring handicappers betting serious money want to know.

Watching Video Replays

Current horseplayers have the luxury of watching race replays on demand ... In olden days, I use to hand-write notes during a horse race and then more notes when watching the TV replay afterwards (you had to be at the track to do that) ... The Internet changed things.

I know how mud affects some horses ... ALL serious horseplayers know it is a major factor in determining the outcome of some races ... With Internet replays, it is possible to watch side-by-side replays of the same horse running on  a fast track surface versus a muddy track surface ... Often there are only minor differences ... But sometimes the differences are significant.

To make a long story short, I watched side-by-side videos of Mary Cain at NXN 2011, NXN2012, Bowdoin Park and various track videos ... Suffice to say, I would find it problematic to bet the rent money on Mary Cain to win NXN 2013 after watching that ...... Outstanding track runners with efficient speed and stride can have that efficiency negated by a surface that disrupts the efficiency ... The running surface at Portland Meadows in December can be an "equalizer" ... The XC course designers at Portland Meadows wanted to include some features to intentionally disrupt the stride of the runners (e.g. hay bales and whoop-dee-doos) ... I doubt they planned on the disruptive effect of slippery mud, sticky mud, shoe-sucking mud and more mud.

So why did Mary Cain lose at NXN? ... In my opinion, her significant track speed advantage was "equalized" by the disruptive running conditions at Portland Meadows and Sarah Baxter is really good .... and other runners who are really good will be at NXN 2013.

Remember ... This article was written in mid-August 2013 ... Only 8.5 months have passed since Mary Cain lost her last high school race at NXN 2012 ... She has achieved unprecedented success on the track since NXN 2012 ... In my opinion, her track ability was already evident from her freshmen accomplishments ... As I noted in a previous article, Bronxville Coach Jim Mitchell used the analogy "Mary Decker-Slaney" and "Olympic-caliber potential" before she smashed the National Freshmen Record at 1500m (4:17.84), and in that race, Mary Cain ran away from Footlocker Champion Aisling Cuffe who would go on to win the 2-Mile race at New Balance Nationals the following week in 9:54.22 ... that was 15-year old Mary Cain.

After winning the Horseracing Triple Crown in 1973, the super horse Secretariat lost to a horse named Onion in the 1973 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga ... Experienced handicappers could foresee a possibility ... Steven Davidowitz wrote a section about it in his book "Betting Thoroughbreds" (he bet on Onion but rooted like crazy for Secretariat to win because super horses are not suppose to lose) ... Races are run for a reason ... The "best" horse does not always win ... Good horses can beat super horses when the conditions are right.

Mary Cain is a world class track runner ... The high school runners she will face at NXN 2013 are not world class track runners (not yet, but maybe) ... I would not classify Portland Meadows in December as a "world class track and field facility" ... Nobody will be surprised if Mary Cain wins NXN 2013 if she runs (me included) ... But let the bettor beware! .... Racing at NXN Portland Meadows is very different than a 5000 meter track race ... It is also very different than a cross country race at Mt. Sac or Bowdoin Park.

I can already hear the Mary Cain track fans yelling at me .. "She's so much better now than she was last December" ...... That depends on what the fans mean by "so much better" ... I think she is "better" ... I also think other high school girls will be at NXN 2013 who are "better" than they were last December.

Would you bet the rent money on Mary Cain to win NXN 2013?