If mature enough mentally and physically, racehorses begin their careers at the age of two, sometimes as early as March.
Youngsters negotiate shorter distances to start, and by late summer those who have a routing future begin to stretch out around two turns, often on turf.
Handicapping babies is nothing more than an educated guess. Many of the horses in a given race have never run before, and experience, along with talent, eventually will play a vital role in an individual’s level of success.
With baby races, there are no cut-and-dried past performances at your disposal, so you’ll need to use other bits and pieces of information in order to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the crib.
Some horses are bred to sprint, others to route, and still others eventually will do their best work when they get an opportunity on turf.
Researching a horse’s bloodlines can breed success in races with lots of first-time starters. Knowing which horses hail from families that win early, or those who are sired by a horse that has success with first-time starters and/or 2-year-olds, can give you an advantage.
If a horse is bred to route, chances are they won’t win a 4 ½-furlong sprint first time out of the box. For these kinds of horses, early racing is utilized to improve fitness and to help them gain experience.
Family history can often unveil a diamond in the rough. A horse with an under-the-radar trainer and obscure bloodlines can often have hidden ability uncovered by recognizing the success of the horse’s brothers and sisters.
Some horses are homebreds, meaning they race for their breeders, while others were purchased in a sale.
The sales price and how it compares with the stud fee can clue us in to a horse’s potential. Because of the uncertainty, in most cases, weanlings cost less than yearlings.
Two-year-olds in training are the surest bet for buyers, because they’re much more race-ready.
A horse that cost a bunch of dough as a 2-year-old is easier to evaluate from a handicapping perspective than one that was bought at a much younger age.
EXPENSIVE 2-YEAR-OLDS OFTEN RUN WELL EARLY
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
If you see a horse purchased at a high price in a relatively recent 2-year-olds in training sale, chances are that horse is ready to win early, particularly if they aren’t blessed with royal bloodlines. There are reasons a horse sired by a $15,000 stud sells for $200,000 – early maturity and brilliance of movement in public sales workouts.
If a horse sells for $200,000, chances are he/she is going to debut in a maiden special weight event. If the horse sold for $20,000, it would make sense for him or her to test $40,000 maiden claiming company on debut.
Rarely will you see a claiming price lower than $15,000 for babies, so horses who race for upper-priced tags such as $40,000 probably aren’t worth anywhere close to that much. Those who are, often win.
The speed, number of workouts and the pattern can be good indicators of how race ready an individual might be.
Early in the season, when 2-year-olds are traveling very short distances, the workout times can be important. Early speed is key in 4 ½-furlong events with a very short run into the turn.
If a debuter is bred for speed and has sharp workouts, including a quick move from the gate, chances are he/she will flash early zip in that first start.
Once the distances get farther, bullet workouts can be overrated, and their presence often deflates the price of an individual. With first-time starters, I like to see a variety of distances in their exercise, with gate workouts mixed in. It indicates that the horse is not only getting fit, but is also learning lessons.
What I don't like is too many consecutive gate workouts. To me, it’s a sign that the horse is having problems at the gate, and may have an unprofessional nature leading into a debut. Unless it’s a trainer I greatly respect who sends his/her babies ready to run well first out of the box. Then, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much.
7. Trainer intent
Some trainers send their horses to the track ready to race right out of the box, while others take their time molding the clay. Be very aware of a trainer’s record with first-time starters and 2-year-olds. That information can be conveniently found in the Daily Racing Form underneath a horse’s running lines.
Horses who debut with Blinkers ON often times are very well intended. The trainer has recognized in training that the horse has focus issues, and instead of running them through a lesson-learning experience in the afternoon, they add the blinkers right out of the box.
BLINKERS MAY BODE WELL FOR FIRST-TIME STARTERS
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
In this day and age, any horse can be entered with Lasix (furosemide). They no longer need to present a bleeding certificate. Horses who debut without Lasix may not be as well intended as those that do.
Always watch the toteboard for clues, and remember, early money can be smart money. Horses often take early action for a reason. It means their connections are confident in their horse’s natural ability and believe they will run a big race.
Pay close attention to the post parade. Some 2-year-olds develop more quickly than others, both mentally and physically. Look for a horse who is handling the surroundings professionally.
In sprint races, identify those who appear fit and well-muscled through the chest and hind-end areas. Horses with baby fat need to round into shape and are not quite ready to compete at a high level. Horses with sleeker, more athletic frames are usually built to route, and chances are they’ll need more time to develop.
3. Post position
I tend to steer clear of debuters who are forced to leave from the rail post, unless I think they can flash good enough speed to clear the field. Chances are they are going to be locked in tight most of the trip, and most young horses do not know how to react. It’s even more difficult on traditional dirt tracks, because the kick back is much more prevalent. Because of inexperience, young horses do much better work when they are allowed to race in the clear.
Extremely talented babies can win on ability alone, but experience counts. As time goes on, regardless of their preferred surface and distance, young horses must learn to relax, conserve energy, take cues from the rider and become a professional racehorse.
1. Don’t be fooled
Just because a horse is a superstar 2-year-old it doesn’t mean they will maintain that status at age three and beyond. Horses develop at varying speeds, both mentally and physically.
For example, as a juvenile, California Chrome won just three of seven starts against less-than-stellar competition, but at age three, he’s captured three Grade 1 stakes – the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
CALIFORNIA CHROME WENT THREE-FOR-SEVEN AS A 2-YEAR-OLD
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
On the flip side of the coin, 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day never raced again and runner-up and beaten favorite Havana and third-place finisher Strong Mandate combined are winless from just five starts this season.
If you can figure out what horses are intended to run well first out of the box and which ones are simply using the race as competitive practice, you’ve won half the battle already. Follow their progression and cash tickets down the road!