How to Approach Heavy Favorites in Maiden Races

Fans check out the horses in the paddock before a race at Belmont Park. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Last week, we discussed the changing nature of 2-year-old maiden races — races restricted to horses seeking their first-career victory — as fall approaches.

Now, let’s take that a step farther and discuss maiden races in general, especially those with a heavy favorite.

While some people have little interest in odds-on favorites in any type of race, in maiden races you’re playing with more dynamite.

As dominant as a big favorite might seem in a maiden race, the problem is that you’re dealing with a horse that has never won. Something kept it from winning its previous races and that could happen once again, adding to the risk in wagering on that horse.

In some cases, that horse might be making its first start, meaning there’s no telling if it can break from the gate properly or whether it will be a champion or one of those horses no one remembers in the next year.

And, to take odds as low as 1-2 or 3-5 on horses like that? Well, let’s just say if you are going to bet on a 1-2 shot, it makes more sense to accept those odds in races featuring older horses with proven levels of ability as opposed to a maiden race in which so many question marks can be applied to the favorite and everyone else in the race.

A good example of this can be found in the fourth race at Belmont Park on Sept. 11, when Amapola was sent off as a 0.45-1 favorite — that means she would have paid $2.90 for a $2 win bet — in a maiden special weight race for 2-year-old fillies.

Amapola is trained by a Hall of Famer in Bill Mott. She actually won her debut on May 25 at Gulfstream Park — by 9 ¾ lengths no less — but was disqualified and placed sixth.

On Aug. 7 at Saratoga, in her first race for Mott, she was second as a 9-5 second choice.

Next came the Sept. 11 race, a race that included six first-time starters and only one horse that finished better than fifth in her last start among her 11 opponents.

Amapola was certainly a standout against that field, but was she worth the investment at odds of less than 1-2?

Racing fans at Belmont Park. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Boxed in the exacta, yes. But the win pool, no.

In her Saratoga race, Amapola had tired a bit in the final furlong of a 5 ½-furlong race and the same thing happened at six furlongs at Belmont. After opening a two-length lead at the eighth pole, Amapola again tired and wound up second. She was beaten by a half-length by Yellow Agate, a 32-1 shot making her career debut for trainer Christophe Clement.

On paper, Amapola looked much better than Yellow Agate, but Clement’s horse was clearly more talented than she showed in her workouts — something that’s hardly unusual in a maiden race — and those handicappers who backed her instead of the odds-on favorite collected $66 for their $2 win bets, not to mention $168 if they used her in the exacta over Amapola.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should never back an odds-on favorite in a maiden race.

Betting them to win or on top in exactas definitely offers a weak risk/reward ratio. Yet, if you’re betting a Pick 3 or Pick 4 or even a Daily Double with a longshot in the other leg, you would hate to miss out on a decent payoff.

For example, in Amapola’s Saratoga race, she was sent off as the 9-5 second choice in a race won by the 8-5 favorite Cherry Lodge.

Thanks to winners that paid $15.60 and $9.80 ahead of her, Cherry Lodge capped a $343 Pick 3. Rather than miss out on that type of a ticket, using the heavy favorite in a maiden race with one or two other horses makes sense.

What can get a handicapper in trouble in the long run is chasing a favorite like Cherry Lodge in win or exacta bets in that Aug. 7 race when the payoff was $4.90 to win and $14 in the exacta. For payoffs like that, there are far more reliable races with proven runners in which you can wager with more confidence on horses that look like they can’t lose.

Remember those words: can’t lose. In a race in which no one has ever won, they should be very hard to say.

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