Keys to Handicapping Fall 2-Year-Old Races

Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing

With Saratoga and Del Mar in the rearview mirror, the 2016 racing season is moving into a new phase.

Especially for 2-year-olds.

While there are still hundreds of 2-year-olds poised to make their career debut at major tracks across the country, juvenile runners were among star attractions at the Spa and Del Mar and a number of highly promising young colts and fillies graced the winner’s circle at both tracks.

There could be stakes races in those horses’ futures, but for handicappers a 2-year-old’s debut need not be a winning one to arouse some interest about that horse’s potential.

Just look at last Saturday’s Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante. The favorite was American Pharoah’s full sister, American Cleopatra, who was coming off an impressive two-length win in her career debut. The Debutante winner, however, was Union Strike, who got off to a slow start and finished second behind American Cleopatra in that race.

Union Strike (Eclipse Sportswire)
The Debutante illustrated a point that should be kept in mind throughout the coming weeks. Just because a horse was victorious in its debut, it does not mean that runner will maintain its advantage over those rivals down the road.

Some horses simply need more time to develop than others. Sometimes the shorter distances for juvenile races in the spring and early summer leave horses with little time to overcome any kind of a problem. Put it all together and there could be some nice bets to cash by picking out those horses who had useful debuts that bode well for their subsequent starts.

A key element in finding them involves resisting the obvious.

Horses who finish second in their debut logically are the ones most likely to win their next race, but for that very reason they are usually overbet – unless they are entered in stakes, such as Union Strike, who was victorious at 7-1 after going off at 7-2 in her debut.

More than where a young horse finished, what matters is what it did in the stretch.

Remember, a pacesetter who tires and finishes second at five furlongs, might shorten stride again in the final yards at six furlongs.

With races for 2-year-olds being contested at longer distances now, there could be a nice reward for finding a young horse who has gained ground at the end of shorter races. In particular, juveniles who rally wide on the final turn, losing ground in the process, might benefit from that experience in their debut and turn in a stronger effort at a longer distance – sometimes at a nice price.

As important as a maiden special weight race at Saratoga or Del Mar can be, putting too much stock in the result of a five-furlong race in July or August could be costly in September when 2-year-olds are more seasoned and are asked to cover longer six- or seven-furlong distances.

More so than with older horses, 2-year-olds will be undergoing rapid change in the coming months and taking far bigger steps forward than one might assume from perusing their past performances.

And there’s nothing really surprising about that. It’s that time of the year. Saratoga and Del Mar are closed and experience is an increasingly important element in handicapping 2-year-old races.

Get ready to say hello to fall, folks.

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