What to Look for When Betting Maiden Claiming Races on Turf

Racing fans enjoy a stretch run during a race earlier this summer. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Maiden claiming races on the turf present a different type of handicapping challenge than most other races.

First of all, they are claiming races, so the horses in them are inherently flawed. Beyond that, they are maiden races, meaning the horses with racing experience are winless and some continually find a way to lose.

And let’s not forget, you also have account for how a horse will handle turf.

Mix all three together and you have a potent brew of unpredictability.

In playing these races, you could rely on form and then live through the frustration of placing win bets on horses who continually finish second or third at low odds.

Or you can get a little bold and take a gamble by looking for a new face at the right odds who can pull off an upset.

What should you search for?

Start with a class change.

If there’s a horse dropping from a maiden special weight race to a claiming race for the first time, that’s a horse to watch.

Yet just betting that angle can lead to a lot of swings and misses. So let’s look for at least another sign that the horse’s connections are serious about notching a victory. There are certainly lots of possibilities, such as a stretching out from a sprint to a two-turn race, or a return from a layoff, or maybe a positive jockey or trainer switch. In a turf race, moving from the far outside post to the rail is a huge change for the better.

Then there’s the matter of turf. If a horse has been running consistently on turf – and keeps on losing – why back it? Instead, a horse switching from dirt to turf or trying turf for the first time offers a better chance of a turnaround.

Finally, there’s the horse’s odds. There’s really no sense in taking low odds on a horse who MIGHT be well meant. Instead, look for a price of 5-1 of better to make the reward worth the risk.

Now after all of these guidelines, how do you put them to use?

Well, by backing a horse like Sunshine Gal in the 11th and final race on Sept. 3, the final day of the Saratoga meet.

Looking at this bail-out special, she was dropping into a claiming race for the first time. She was running in a two-turn race for the first time. She was also returning from a 5-month layoff with a new trainer and jockey.

Oh, and she was racing on turf for the first time.

And amidst all of that change, Sunshine Gal was listed 8-1 on the morning line and went off at an attractive 7.50-1.

If you were looking to take a gamble in that race, finding an option more intriguing than Sunshine Gal was a tall order.

And when she posted 2 ¾-length victory, the payoff was $17 for a $2 win bet, a nice reward for combating the predictable runner-up finishes of some maidens with something unpredictable.

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