Juvenile Handicapping: First-time StartersOur panelists share their insights on juvenile debuts
By Dana Byerly, Hello Race Fans Co-founder
From a handicapping perspective, playing juvenile races can be a daunting affair. With so little information available, getting a handle on the race can be difficult. But fear not: we’ve assembled a group of juvenile-race-loving handicappers to help you get started with pedigree and understand ways to factor the information that is available.
As a testament to the complexity of juvenile racing, we started off planning to publish a single post, but we found that by the time we finished discussing first-time starters, we had already created a lengthy tome (see below!).
So, we’ll be publishing two installments: First-time Starters (this post), followed by Second Start and Beyond, in which we’ll discuss trip-capping; things to keep in mind as juveniles progress through their 2-year-old season; and considerations for juveniles transitioning to 3-year-olds.
To help you navigate the waters of first-time juvenile starters, we’ve invited a couple of first-time contributors in addition to three of our all-around great handicappers. From Hello Race Fans we have Jessica Chapel (contributing editor), Ed DeRosa (contributor and Marketing Director of Brisnet, a Hello Race Fans! sponsor) and J.J. Hysell (contributor and Facebook community manager). Contributing to Hello Race Fans! for the first time are Laurie Ross and Christine Wittmer.
Like our two first-time contributors, Hysell actively blogs about juvenile racing at In the Money, where she publishes a weekly watch list. Pedigree consultant Ross also publishes a weekly watch list at her site Iron Maidens as well as doing pedigree analysis for Horse Racing Nation. Wittmer is the blogger behind the frequently published Blood-Horse Maiden Watch blog. Keeping up with these sites alone is a great way to become familiar with juvenile racing!
If you haven’t already, you may want to check out our Pedigree Basics: Terminology post before diving into this post, as pedigree is discussed at length Also be sure to check out our First-time Starters and Juvenile Pedigree post to get a good overview of sires.
Our panel offers tips to get you comfortable and familiar enough to improve your game the next time you pick up a past performance, as well as a road map for diving deeper into pedigree. And pedigree isn’t the only angle! Like all other racing, it’s how you factor all the angles to form your opinion that matters.
Before we get to the “how”, let’s talk about the “why”… not everyone likes juvenile racing, tell us a bit about what you like about it, what drew you to it, etc.? Were you always drawn to it or did you eventually come to love it?
Ed DeRosa: (updated to reflect availability of new tool)
I like 2-year-old racing because I believe I have an edge in understanding two types of information that people use when handicapping such races: Pedigree and speed figures.
As director of marketing of Brisnet.com (a proud Hello Race Fans sponsor!) I actually helped eliminate one of my biggest edges: on-demand access to pedigree information. Used to be if you wanted full pedigree info beyond a statistics summary, you had to look up each entrant one by one, but now that Brisnet.com’s American Produce Records is online as APR Online, that work is done for you.
Of course, Past performance products such as Ultimate PPs from Brisnet.com have made great strides to include pedigree information, but 2yo winners out of a dam and debut statistics for a sire and broodmare sire only tell part of a story. Workouts and trainer angles help as well, but if a juvenile’s pedigree is void of 2-year-old performance (or worse, void of two-year-old success when there is a history of juvenile racing) then this is the type of horse I love to go against—especially if s/he is from a flashy barn that will take money. And it’s the type of info now readily available via APR Online.
I’m more of a multi-race (pick N) wager player, but two-year-old races offer some of my favorite vertical (single race exotics) opportunities because a horse with a solid 2-year-old pedigree who is being overlooked could be a good play underneath in exactas and trifectas–especially if the toteboard indicates that there are more obvious win threats in the group.
Speed figures don’t help as much with maiden races, but they’re invaluable when it comes to allowance and stakes races. The average fan will overvalue open lengths wins–especially from a big-name outfit or with a flashy pedigree, but if the race is slow then the race is slow. Lots of people use figures, so unlike pedigree, it’s rare you’ll find a 10- or 20-to-1 shot that looks enticing, but if you can find a $8 or $10 horse who’s clearly fastest then that’s OK, too. Another good scenario is when a few horses are faster than the favorite. This is a great opportunity in multi-race wagers.
One last note on pedigree, 2-year-old racing typically offers the most changing variables–distance and surface changes galore as horses mature and travel (e.g. Keeneland’s fall meet is on Polytrack and offers two-year-old turf racing), and using pedigree to determine who could benefit from those changes is an important part of one’s success in handicapping two-year-old racing.
Two areas I don’t do as a handicapper are watch workouts and assess physical condition on the track, but I imagine both of those things can help with two-year-old handicapping as well, and I hope some in this discussion address it.
Juvenile and turf races are my most preferred wagering opportunities, mainly because I am a student of the pedigree. As we know, pedigree is a main key that can dictate so much for a young horse — how quickly he/she will physically mature, what distances/surfaces he/she will favor, even mannerisms on the track. In my view, this is a distinct advantage and increases the probability of landing on winners.
Following juvenile racing is also a superb way to cite breeding trends. How are new sires faring? Is there a standout broodmare sire that continuously appears in wining pedigrees? What sires trend toward producing turf-favoring runners or early bloomers? Early in the season, it can be unpredictable. It all starts to develop usually around the Saratoga meet and becomes quite intriguing by autumn.
There’s also an emotional side to 2-year-old racing. What’s more exciting than attempting to define racing’s future stars? It’s a wonderful feeling to know you thought the Kentucky Derby winner was something special when you saw him break his maiden in September. The element of hope with young Thoroughbreds is one of the reasons the sport is so appealing.
While I enjoy all facets of racing, the 2-year-olds are unquestionably my favorites and have provided me with the most joyful moments. It takes some studying and research, but finding price winners in the juvenile ranks can be done on a regular basis.
I started my career in racing as an exercise rider. I developed my horse “crushes” and became interested in juvenile racing when the babies of my favorite horses started showing up at the track. I noted that the offspring had the same conformation/body type, personalities, running styles, etc. as their parents. Wanting to know more, I delved into the fascinating world of pedigree and spent ten years reading practically every pedigree book I could get my hands on. At the track, I noted how certain sire lines and distaff (female) families performed over various surfaces and got an idea of the physical traits and quirks attributed to various bloodlines.
Juvenile races are like presents under the tree on Christmas morning, full of exciting potential. There’s nothing like watching a first time maiden winner mature into a classy stakes horse, or even evolve into an old favorite at the track. When one catches the debut of an eventual superstar, bragging rights come into play, “I’ve followed so and so since he/she won their maiden!”
Figuring out which filly or colt has the best shot at winning can be a daunting but well rewarding prospect. The odds are generally longer and if the horseplayer is well versed in how to play a maiden or juvenile race, that handicapper can take home all the marbles.
One of the most enticing aspects of handicapping juveniles is discerning which horse will step up and handle something it has never before tried. Horses that are uncompetitive over one surface or distance find their calling at the opposite end of the spectrum.
With little data available for first time runners, knowledge of pedigree and physical handicapping, which to my mind go hand in hand, are the foremost tools to unlocking the mystery of maiden races. Distinguishing which bloodlines are precocious or do well over certain surfaces/distances is crucial. Also, races aren’t won on paper. Viewing the horses in the paddock or post parade for important clues to demeanor can have you tossing that favorite and considering an overlooked longshot.
A well-rounded horseplayer should familiarize themselves with the basics of pedigree and physical handicapping. There is a ton of information available on the internet, plus books and software that can be utilized. The reward can be a big payoff at the teller window, or keep you alive in your Pick Six.
I’ve enjoyed following juvenile racing for as long as I’ve enjoyed following racing, and for many of the reasons Jen outlined so well. There’s always the possibility that you’re going to spot a star at the start of their career, and now that I’ve been a fan for almost a decade, there’s the fun of watching how first- and second-crop sires — especially those I followed closely during their racing careers — perform when their foals reach the track.
What I love about playing juvenile races — and they are my favorite races to bet — is that so much of the handicapping comes down to breeding (pretty much everything I know about pedigree relates to baby races) and workout patterns, and that juvenile races often offer clear-cut great values — a flashy pedigree or sales history, or an entry from the barn of a trainer with a wow first-time 2-year-old starter stat, attracts money, opening up opportunities on babies who might have more under-the-radar qualities going for them. With juvenile racing, doing the research and paying attention to how young horses develop is consistently rewarding — as a fan and a bettor.
One of the reasons that I enjoy 2-year-old racing, and maiden races in general, is because there is the potential for greatness in every race. You never know when a future champion may be unveiled. Sometimes, it’s the obvious, a million dollar yearling trained by a top trainer, that goes off at 3-5, but sometimes it’s a horse that comes from nowhere, from less humble connections. There is also something special about following the career of a horse from the very beginning. For example, I couldn’t help but feel a small drop of pride after Sum of the Parts won the Red Legend Stakes on June 30, recalling my first word upon seeing him before his 2-year-old debut at Churchill in 2011, “wow.” It helps erase the memory of all of those that you thought were stunning, who never even broke their maidens. The vast majority of horses begin their careers in the maiden ranks, including Horses of the Year, and grade I winners, so if you want to see them from the start, you have to watch the maidens.
Another reason that I enjoy juvenile races, is because it is always interesting to see the first runners from the new crop of stallions; the precocious runners from those expected, and unexpected, and whose offspring do better with time, distance, and/or a change in surface. Who you were right about, and who you were wrong about. And, a part of me loves to see the names given to the new crop. The 22 Midnight horses amongst the Midnight Lutes, all those Kitten offspring of the Kitten Joys, and the more creative names. But I do not ignore the distaff side, as I also like to follow offspring of particular mares. Not only champions, or graded stakes winners, but horses that I remember or followed for various reasons, because they were part of a big betting score, or for reasons more obscure. Everyone is interested to see how the offspring of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta perform, but fewer were interested in Ice Box because he was a son of Spice Island, and even fewer follow Port Stanley because he is a son of Alybeal.
I also enjoy 2-year-old races, because they are often good betting races. Big fields with lots of unknowns, means the potential for longshots. Even when there is a “sure thing” 3-5 from Bob Baffert, or Todd Pletcher, or Wesley Ward (especially in Keeneland in the spring), you can often get high priced horses in second and third. I think physical behavior/appearance amongst 2-year-olds is a little easier to ascertain than older horses, even to this untrained eye. Some 2-year-olds just appear to love every moment of the show. Some will fall apart before their first race (or second), which usually translates to a negative performance. Some will, to put it bluntly, look a bit chunky, and probably will need a race.
Great stuff everyone, assuming that our readers will eventually be well versed in pedigree, what are some pedigree tips with regard to first-time starters? What resources do you recommend? Tell us your thoughts on a sire or two!
With first-time starters, my first question is always, who’s this horse? Meaning, who is its sire? Its dam? Its trainer? Although it can help to know something in depth about a sire’s stats or a dam’s family, even simple, quick pedigree research can be helpful — I use Equibase all the time to look up career records for (especially the more obscure) sires and dams, specifically checking to see if they raced as a 2-year-old (a plus for their offspring) and if they won in their first or second start. I also use Pedigree Query to look up a dam’s progeny — does the juvenile I’m handicapping have siblings, and if so, did they race and win (early) as 2-year-olds?
There are always a few sires who stand out as strong indicators of early juvenile success — either because they’ve established themselves as sources of precocious speed over several years (the pensioned Storm Cat, the still-procreating Smart Strike), or because they emerge with strong first- or second-crop stats (such as recent successful sires Bluegrass Cat, Hard Spun, Scat Daddy). The top-of-the-list names will become familiar quickly if you’re handicapping juvenile races regularly.
In regard to pedigree tips for first-time starters, the very first things I take into account before even looking at the pedigree is the specifics of the race. Distance, surface and time of year, which is early season (April — June), mid-season (July — September), or late season (October — December).
Armed with this information, I examine each contestant’s pedigree to see how well it fits the above parameters.
Certain pedigrees, lend themselves to early precocity while slower maturing types may not start until mid — late season, or even the following year. Sire stats are helpful, but they give only an overall percentage of juvenile winners, not whether they are super precocious or later season runners. For instance, Chapel Royal is noted for win-early types while Bernardini’s babies are better later in the year. Learning this info is a matter of experience. A rule of thumb is that sprinter type sires’ offspring are more precocious than those stallions who raced a route of ground. Miler sires have the most diversity and their offspring’s attributes are determined by the distaff family.
Next, I look at distance and surface. For distance, I note the winning distances/surfaces of the sire, dam, siblings, damsire and second damsire. I look for surface affinities within three generations of the sire and dam’s pedigrees and whether the distaff family had more dirt or turf runners, or a mixture. If the horse’s first start is over synthetics, I research the performance of the sire and his offspring over that particular surface, as well as the dam and her babies. Not all synthetic surfaces play the same, and one should not lump them all together as “synthetics.” Horses who prefer Cushion, may bomb over Polytrack and vice versa. Again, I use horseplayer created spreadsheets to research a particular horse’s affinity for various synthetics.
After determining a horse’s suitability for season, surface and distance, I look at the class/precocity of the distaff family going back two generations. I will also note whether the bloodline cross (between sire/damsire only) have produced winners.
Websites that I have found useful for researching the above include the following:
Equibase for race records.
Equinline’s five-cross pedigree with nicking information.
Although Pedigree Query offers plenty of free information, one needs a subscription to get detailed info, but at $10/month, it is well worth it, but be warned that the information isn’t always correct.
Tbhorsepedigree also has pedigree info and this info is more accurate. Once can also view broodmare sire info that Pedigree Query doesn’t have. A subscription is needed, but it’s only about $50 a year, well worth it.
I like Thoroughbred Daily News’ sire stats and progeny PP’s. This website has a wealth of information. You have to register, but it is free.
I also like the Brisnet PP’s, for general stats if I don’t have access to my usual websites.
There are a few other websites that I use occasionally, but I’m sure others will mention the same ones.
Besides the websites, I rely heavily on my own data that I have collected over the years. I created Crop Analysis spreadsheets for the runners of select first-time sires to determine the optimal time for these babies to race. I research every foal’s pedigree for precocity/class, note when/where they are working, when they are scheduled to race and results. I also keep an offspring distance/surface analysis spreadsheet for each sire. Additionally, I keep synthetic surface spreadsheets noting runners/winners/ITM, percentages and create ratings for each sire during a race meet.
Whew, it’s a lot of tedious work, but I’ve been rewarded with huge payoffs and initial insights that most handicappers don’t see for months. Realizing a trend/pattern before other horseplayers is a key component in pedigree handicapping.
First-time starters are quite the enigma, but they can provide great opportunities for a wagering advantage.
The great thing about first-time starters, especially in the juvenile ranks, is one can become acquainted with the trends that are occurring with each crop. My first recommendation is to consistently check the 2-year-old sire lists — general, first-crop and, if inclined, international — featured on the Internet and in most publications. These are updated daily as sires add winners. If one plays a particular circuit/region with more obscure sires, these are also ranked with winners and earnings listed. This is an excellent, timely way to keep up with which sire is producing early winners and is especially helpful with freshman sires.
Some win-early pedigrees on dirt are rather consistent. For instance, Officer, Flashy Bull and Yes It’s True are three names in particular that stand out for first-time starters with speed. As mentioned, certain circuits have sires known for early-win progeny; for instance, in Texas, Wimbledon and Too Much Bling dominate the juvenile ranks this time of year.
Synthetic and turf debuts can be a different ballgame, and pedigree plays an even bigger role here. Bernstein, English Channel and Songandaprayer are a few sires I note on these surfaces. The English Channel progeny seem to like both, but are especially appealing when debuting at longer distances.
While the debut of siblings to major winners and regally-bred prospects from top trainers is enticing, they aren’t always the best bet. If the pedigree screams route, distance on turf, or late bloomer, they’ll likely need some races to develop. That’s why the time of debut is also crucial. First-time starters in the fall can be a bit behind their counterparts who boast a race or two, and experience at that point in time is a big benefit.
Further research on a first-time starter can be done at Pedigree Query. Finding siblings and researching if they were win-early types is helpful. It’s also interesting how the same broodmare sires will often appear doing this research, and those become keys when playing first-timers as well.
My recommendation for looking at pedigrees of first-time starters is to remember that speed begets speed. Horses that were fast runners often sire horses that win early, especially as many 2-year-old races are won gate-to-wire. It is helpful if the stallion also was a winner at 2, but not absolutely necessary. The highest profile horses, those that win the Classic races, often are not siring the early 2-year-old winners, and may not make a lot of noise until later in the year. It doesn’t mean that they will not be successful sires, only that their babies will probably need more time. Also, remember to look at the bottom (female) side of the pedigree. Even if the dam is unfamiliar, her sire can be a clue to speed.
Sires that indicate early 2-year-old prowess to me include Indian Charlie, Officer, Lion Heart, Henny Hughes, and City Zip. In thinking about these sires, I realized that many of these are deceased or exported. But, they are still valid for a few years, and will still be valid on the bottom side of the pedigree for many more years. There are some stallions like Swiss Yodeler that seem to only sire 2-year-old winners. This is especially true of some California sires.
When I am previewing a race for my blog, I provide stats on first-year stallions when their offspring appear, but for the most part I concentrate on the distaff side of the pedigree. I give information about the mare’s race record, her produce record, and her siblings’ race records. I am especially interested in 2-year-old winners produced by the mare, and if any of her previous offspring were debut winners. There are a couple of reasons why I focus on the mare’s side. First, I think that the stallion statistics are more easily accessed. Second, because mares have fewer offspring, you can look at their entire produce record instead of a sampling.
Fantastic information on how to research and consider pedigree for first-time juvenile starters (and of course some of it will apply to any first-time starter). Let’s move on to some other angles for first-time starters: trainer stats.
In addition to the actual stats, there’s certainly conventional wisdom about who trains to win first out (Todd Pletcher, Wesley Ward, Bob Baffert) and who is more likely to win in a second or third start (Bill Mott, Claude “Shug” McCaughey). How do you factor trainer stats?
I look at the trainer stats for first-time 2-year-old starters, but I rarely bet a trainer stat. There are some barns that always send out well-prepared 2-year-olds — such as Todd Pletcher’s outfit –and have a terrific first-out win rate, and others that are more likely to strike in the second or third start. Juveniles from high-percentage barns are almost always overbet — and if they’re not, if you see a Pletcher baby for 8-1 or 12-1, it’s rarely a good wager either, because the higher than usual odds often indicate that there’s no chatter about the juvenile that might move money.
The factor with the ultimate variability is the trainer. They are the primary interface between the horse and the track. Like their equine athletes, trainers have hot streaks, and slumps. Some conditioners are superior with dirt sprinters; some with routes; others are turf specialists. Some have a deft hand with the fillies. Each trainer has his or her own routine and beliefs which are transmitted to the horse.
Learn individual trainer’s breeze (workout) patterns. This is a clue to how well their charges will perform. A trainer who normally works his horses in :49 – :51 for 4-furlongs suddenly has a maiden zip a :47 – :48. This is a live horse and is one to watch, especially if the breeze comes within weeks of a start. Occasionally these are flukes. Sometimes an exercise rider can’t hold the horse or the rider doesn’t realize how fast they’re going. This is especially true on a very good horse. Either way, anything counter to the trainer’s Modus operandi is something to key in on.
Get to know the specialty of trainers. For instance, Janet Miller and Ron Ellis hit with over 25% of their maidens making second starts. Other trainers hit above 20% with maiden claimers.
Certain trainer/jockey combos are very profitable. Anything at 20% or higher is live.
This one is easy for me. I don’t really use trainer stats, especially for 2-year-olds. Yes, I am aware of the trainers who win a lot first out, and those that hardly ever win first out. But, there are exceptions to every rule. Usually, it’s easy to find the trainers with the best first-time starter stats; they are training the favorites. In other words, most bettors are already keying in on the trainers with the best first-time starter stats. I do like to bet the higher priced horse when a trainer runs two or more, but that it is hardly a state secret either. I don’t ignore the trainer, but I don’t focus on it either. It’s not my first reason for betting a horse. If a horse I like is trained by a trainer with good first-time stats, great. If the trainer is lousy first-time out, so be it. It most likely will not change my mind.
In ranking of importance, trainer stats are just behind pedigree when it comes to juveniles and especially first-time starters. It is crucial information.
The perfect example of why is trainer Wesley Ward. Ward could be appropriately deemed a 2-year-old debut specialist, so much so that his first-timers are often bet down to even money at Keeneland. Some trainers have a knack for this division in horse racing. Even though there’s often not much value since this information is widely known, it often plays as predicted. Todd Pletcher is another trainer renowned for this angle.
When going against dominating trainer stats, it’s usually because of a pedigree I like — possibly an emerging trend with a new sire that’s under the radar, providing better odds — or because the favorite does not look sharp in the paddock/pre-race warm-up.
I love it when there’s a Pletcher/Ward horse in the field taking a lot of money because it means I might be able to find a nice price elsewhere. But, if I think the favorite can win, one stat I really like to look at Brisnet’s “in the money stat” for trainers.
If there’s a starter that I think can hit the board, and maybe even win, at a juicy price and the trainer has a so-so win percentage but a decent in the money percentage, then I feel like I have some interesting options and even an edge.
I also like the targeted stats like “debuting over a mile” and other distance specific stats as well as surface stats. A trainer stat can certainly sway me or solidify my case but I view them as just another piece in the big, fun puzzle. Which brings me to one of my favorite angles, workouts!
We’ve talked a lot about pedigree related to first-time starters, and that’s obviously important, but I find that trainer patterns mean a lot, too. For instance, I NEVER bet a Todd Pletcher-trained debut runner on turf who has never worked on turf.
Speaking of work patterns, I have specific things I like to see in a pre-debut work pattern, but I’m curious to know what everyone else looks for first-time starters. Perhaps this goes hand in hand with “know the trainers” as they each have their own approach, and once you know that approach you can better read it.
Workouts are also key — although, since workout patterns can vary from barn to barn, it helps to get an idea of what kind of work each trainer does to get a 2-year-old to their first race. In general, I look for steady works on a steady schedule. Gaps in works, or erratically scheduled works in the four to six weeks before a first start are a red flag. Bullets are good — and bullet works from the gate are awesome.
Works can be your only clue to how the maidens will run. Pedigree and the rest of the stats will tell you how that maiden should fare in the race, but the works will tell you if that promising baby’s feet are all going in the same direction.
Get to know what the “superior” breeze times are for a particular track. Works over the deep Saratoga track will be different than those over the speed favoring Monmouth surface. Breeze times in California tend to be faster than those in the east. Review the overall works for the day; see what the average times are and if the track was noted as fast, good or sloppy. Weather also plays a part. It is hot and humid or particularly windy? This can affect the breeze times.
A horse that has fired a current or second current 4-furlong bullet when there are at least five or more works at that distance is live, especially if they are gate works. I also like to see a bullet work of 4F or farther followed by two moderate works. It shows that the horse is fit, fast and has not left his race on the track. This is especially true of horses from conservative barns that normally don’t win first time out. If their horses are working in the top five, it’s a good bet the horse will finish in the money. Often these horses go off at attractive odds.
Stamina Breezes – a horse adding two or more furlongs against contenders with previous experience at the race’s distance is suspect unless the horse has several solid stamina works of at least 5-furlongs or longer. That just sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many trainers don’t give their horses stamina works and prefer to rely on long gallops to get their horses fit. Yes, it works in England, but the race fractions are typically slower and their horses only sprint the final three furlongs.
Review the daily works to see if your maiden worked in company, did he pair up with a stakes winner or other well-regarded horse? Look for Clocker’s Notes. Keeneland posts them and I wish other tracks would follow suit. As mentioned previously, get to know a trainer’s average breeze times for their horses. Pay attention to anything out of the norm.
If you are really serious about using works as your main handicapping tool, you should probably subscribe to one of the paid Clocker services. However, if you are cheap like most of us, you have to rely on the published works on Equibase or DRF, or comments posted by track websites, which are rare.
I don’t pay much attention to time when I am looking at works for first-time starters. I know that there are some trainers who like to work them fast, like Bob Baffert, and others who almost never work them fast, like Steve Asmussen. I also know that certain venues produce faster works. California works are almost always faster than the rest of the country. Works at tracks are usually faster than training facilities; training tracks are faster than farms, etc. What I do look for in a work pattern is consistency. Three or four works of the same time usually indicates that that is exactly what the trainer wanted. If there are a couple faster or slower thrown in, that’s ok, but I don’t like them all over the place. I also like them evenly spaced. Healthy, sound horses work regularly. Any interruption probably indicates an issue. Another thing I like is when a 2-year-old has at least one work beyond the length of his first start. For example, a 5-furlong work for a 4.5-furlong race, or a 6-furlong race for a 5-furlong race. However, this seems to be becoming rarer. I also like a turf work or two before a turf debut, although this is not an absolute requirement for me to play a horse, especially since some tracks don’t allow unraced horses to work on the turf.
It is generally considered a negative if a horse has a plethora of works, especially gate works, before their first start, because it indicates a slow learner. However, sometimes a light bulb goes off and they suddenly get it. Watch the board on these types. On the other hand, sometimes horses appear with only a single gate work showing. If you like them otherwise, no need to be scared away, they have just been working somewhere without an official timer. You can often get good prices on these, because some people will avoid them.
I also find it interesting how soon a horse works after his first start, but I guess that’s a topic for another day.
I wasn’t aware of the belief about “a plethora of works” being viewed as negative. I would rather see a lot of published works than a few because it gives me a sense of a progression, or not, and as Laurie suggested it’s one of the only real clues about how the horse might perform.
I really like to see a pattern that shows a horse getting progressively faster with each work at a given distance with works at multiple distances. For example a few works at 3-furlongs, a few works at 4-furlongs and a few works at 5-fulongs. As everyone has already mentioned, not all trainers will work their horses that way.
I also like to see at least one gated work and one handled work because it can give a sense in the context of the other works of how the horse might respond in a racing scenario (e.g., starting from the gate and being asked for run).
Now it’s race day… what do you look for in the paddock and the warm-up? What do you consider to be a good or bad sign specifically for a first-time starter?
In the paddock, I look for juveniles who seem engaged with what’s going on, but not afraid. They might be looking around, or on their toes a little bit, but they’re not ducking from the crowd (if they’re near a fence) or trying to tuck themselves into the sides of their grooms (putting their heads down and turned toward the groom, as if for reassurance). Unless the juvenile is by a sire known for high-spirited or nervous offspring (say, Pulpit), I discount first-time starters for sweating anywhere but between their hind legs on a hot day (and if they’re really sweaty there, to the point of foamy rivulets running down to their legs, I toss them out), or any balky behavior (resisting saddling, resisting the jockey, rearing more than once). A lot of juveniles are light — they’re like kids that way, not filled out — so physically, I mostly just look for a bright coat and a well-balanced and athletic appearance — there should be muscle definition, but not necessarily bulk.
Aside from all the usual signs, I like to see a first-time starter who is alert but not nervous (which can be a fine line!). Jessica points out some good tips on how to spot a nervous baby with regard to avoidance. Just recently there was a first-time starter at Belmont that I liked on paper (a very nice work pattern and good trainer stats) but she looked very quiet and nervous, giving the side-glance with her head down as we walked by the crowd, as if she was scared to look but wanted to catch a glance. If you’re not familiar with horses but are familiar with dogs, it’s very similar to the same kind of avoidance an unsure dog will display. Long story short: the unsure filly ended up running last.
In the world of internet gambling, you are at the mercy of the cameraman and can’t always to see the horses in the paddock or post parade, but when one bets a maiden race, it is crucial to see how the horses are behaving. Or not. You can figure that all the horses start with a full tank of energy, but not only races take away their energy. Horses are skittish animals and are afraid or suspicious of the unknown. Any misbehavior in the paddock, post parade or at/in the gate is cause for concern. A little sweat never hurt anyone, especially on a hot, humid day, but a first-time runner looking like a shampoo commercial can be tossed. So can the horse with the rolling eyeballs that looks like he’d rather be anywhere but here. Look for a horse that has a bounce in his step, he’s eager, on the muscle (dragging his groom all over the place) yet not kicking, rearing or causing general havoc. There’s a shine to his coat and you can tell he’s having a good day. On the track his neck may be bowed and he has a spring to his step. Think Zenyatta.
A horse trying to bury his face in the mane of the lead pony is not a good sign. The contender who looks like his afternoon nap was interrupted and he’s in serious need of a wakeup call can also be a poor bet. Watch for sour horses. Their ears flatten, the tail starts to swish and it may try to bite the handler, outrider or pony. Resentment can be seen in every line of its body. These horses don’t want to run.
Watch for changes in behavior when it starts to rain, some horses like it, others hate it. Many times when horses lose in the slop, it wasn’t the slop that bothered them, it was the rain.
Certain sires, such as Storm Cat and many of his sons, Pulpit and his sons sire hot-tempered horses. Also some horses, such as Shackleford naturally get hot before a race, so it’s good to learn which sires produce these types of horses.
Races aren’t won on paper. Learn the language of the horse and how to use physical handicapping to your advantage. Go with your gut – does something just not seem right? Then stay away, because more times than not you were right.
After handicapping a race, I go to the paddock or watch the post parade on TV at home. I look closely at each contender. If one is a stand out, I’ll add the horse to my selections. If one of my handicapping picks looks like an ad for Head and Shoulders or has other negative behavior, I won’t bet on it, even it, on paper, that horse is much the best. More often than not, I’m rewarded with a payoff.
I recommend if you know very little about horses or haven’t been around them, that you purchase, “The Body Language of Horses,” by Tom Ainslie and Bonnie Ledbetter. It’s an excellent book for handicappers and can be found on Amazon for $15. “Horse Profiling,” by Kerry Thomas is a new book that also discusses horse behavior from a racing standpoint. It’s available on Amazon for around $25.
Pre-race and paddock behavior analysis is tricky. It takes practice, a solid knowledge of conformation and a very keen eye. Many times I’ve abandoned a horse I liked on paper because of something in the paddock and switched — and my original pick won. The reason for this is some horses have particular behaviors or characteristics — such as sweating or rebelliousness — that do not reflect on their ability to run the race. Even conformation can lie; a good example is Trinniberg.
I proceed with caution in paddock analysis. I’ve found some have a knack for it, and that is their strength. I don’t dismiss a runner if he or she is a little sweaty, unless it’s profuse. I’m more concerned with horses who show a total lack of interest, look lazy or dormant than those who might be a bit high-strung.
Another issue with 2-year-olds, especially first-time starters, is many of them are going to be a bit disoriented and tense. Some have pedigrees that lean to this type of temperament, as with the renowned Storm Cat line.
I’ve found the best way to learn about what to look for pre-race is best acquired through dedicated practice. Watching on simulcast or at the track — even when one isn’t wagering on the race — and taking notes about the outcome is beneficial. This helps identify what pedigrees have certain characteristics, as well as which horses have particular traits that are either dismissible or a detraction.
Visual handicapping is best done on site, when you can see the horses in the paddock, in the post parade, and in the warm up, without being at the mercy of the people running the cameras. However, that doesn’t stop me from trying when viewing on the small screen (computer) or slightly larger screen (television). Some tracks are better than others at showing the prelims. My favorite track for visual handicapping is Woodbine. Calder is probably my least favorite. They barely show the horses in the paddock, and when they do it’s often an aerial view. Some tracks show the post parade from the wrong side, so mostly all you see is the lead ponies.
I like to see a horse with a little spring in his step, who looks like he’s having fun out there. Horses perform better when they are happy. Some may think this is too anthropomorphic, but if you’ve ridden horses, you know that perform better when they are feeling good. Too much bouncing pre-race, however, may be an indication of early speed, which may or may not translate into winning. Another sign that a horse is going to the lead is when he gets a strong pre-race warm-up.
A horse that goes to the post with his neck bowed is a great sign. I have a photo of Street Sense going to the post of the Kentucky Derby, which is a good illustration of this (I’ll try to find a link to something similar). Interestingly, his son Motor City displayed similar behavior before breaking his maiden last year at Ellis Park at two. He then went on to win the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes.
Obviously, it is a negative for a horse to freak out pre-race, but I also don’t like 2-year-olds to be too calm. He should be a little excited. I don’t like a horse that appears to be carrying extra weight, or more politically correct, “looks like he needs a race.” Sweating profusely is usually a negative, unless it’s 100 degrees. Some horses just sweat more than others (think Shackleford), but that’s impossible to know first out unless you know the horse personally or have seen him work.
There are certain sires whose offspring always look good to me. Chief among these is Harlan’s Holiday. I don’t think I ever met a Harlan’s Holiday that I didn’t like. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as most can run. Most Bernardinis and Giants Causeways are beautiful, both those that can run and those that can’t run. I have to remind myself to look past the beauty for other signs. There are also particular horses that always look good to me. The gelding El Commodore is one of those. I thought he was a stand out in all 5 of his 2-year-old starts in 2009, and each time, he failed to menace. However, he is graded stakes-placed this year, so maybe I was just foreseeing the future. On the other hand, Silver Charm was a horse that always looked dull to me pre-race. Obviously, looks can be deceiving.
I am definitely not an expert at visual handicapping. I know what I like, and I know what I don’t like, but I can’t always explain why. I also pay attention to people who are at the track, whose opinion I trust. Maggie Wolfendale who tweets for NYRA is very good. She gives detailed information about appearance, and whether she thinks the horse might need a race, or added distance, or be better on the turf, etc. I also respect Jill Byrne’s observations at Churchill Downs, as well as others. I don’t blindly follow them, but I do think it’s a positive when they mention a horse that has already caught my eye!
I don’t know enough about husbandry or physical handicapping to discern tips from a horse’s presence in the paddock or while warming up, but I have no qualms suggesting that NYRA players pay attention to Maggie Wolfendale on that score and follow people like Dana and Larry Zap on Twitter for such information.
One last question… any wagering suggestions? Or any other considerations about first-time starters that we didn’t cover? Freestyle!
I wager differently on maidens than I do other classes because the babies have so much potential for trouble and they tend to be inconsistent because they’re just getting the hang of things. Nobody knows what’s going to happen during a race. That promising second time starter could blow the turn or maybe the barn will try to rate him next time out. With maiden races, I lean more towards betting longshots. Plus I spread my bets over more horses and I don’t bet as much as I would in say, a strong allowance or stakes race.
I too play maidens and non-maiden juveniles differently than I play other races for all the same reasons that Laurie outlined. Aside from covering more longshot horses, I tend to play more dime superfecta boxes or include longshots underneath if I feel strongly about a winner.
One tip that we haven’t covered is that you can easily track juveniles (or any horse that catches your eye) with a notification service. Find out more about notification services in our handy overview!
There you have it, a plethora of tips and considerations for factoring first-time juvenile starters. In our next installment we’ll discuss how to interpret a debut performance, what to look for as a horse tries new things (distances and surfaces) and what to consider throughout the 2-year-old season into the the 3-year-old season. Until then, have fun!
Excellent read. Valuable information for players and fans alike.
Thanks Ed! I’m looking forward to putting some of this into practice right away.
LOVE betting 1st and 2nd time starters! Once you develop an eye for them, the ROI can be really rewarding. Most of my big hits have been these angles. Hit an 18-1 firster at Gulfstream, a 2nd-timer at Parx at 39-1 and a 2nd-timer at Pimlico at 52-1!
Right on Eric, that’s great!