Can a Horse be Too Rested for the Breeders’ Cup? A Statistical Analysis

Racing
Breeders' Cup contenders Stellar Wind, Finest City, and Mor Spirit each enter with at least 14 weeks since their most recent races. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Breeders’ Cup owners and trainers all want a fresh horse in peak condition for the championship event, and sometimes this involves giving a horse a break from racing for a few weeks. This year, however, it seems there is a higher than usual number of top Breeders’ Cup contenders entering the race off of several weeks of training alone.

In fact, by my count, there are at least 22 notable contenders that haven’t raced since at least Labor Day (nine weeks prior to the Breeders’ Cup), and 19 of them last raced in August or earlier. Breeders’ Cup Las Vegas Dirt Mile contender Mor Spirit, for instance, hasn’t raced since winning the June 10 Metropolitan Handicap. Last year’s Filly and Mare Sprint winner, Finest City, has gone unraced the last 17 weeks, and top Longines Distaff contender Stellar Wind hasn’t raced since her Clement L. Hirsch Stakes win on July 30, 14 weeks ago.

What does this mean for their chances of success at the Breeders’ Cup? Let’s dive into the data to find out.

In recent years there is a definite trend toward more time between a horse’s races, including the time between a horse’s final Breeders’ Cup prep race and the Breeders’ Cup itself. Last year, the Breeders’ Cup winners hadn’t raced in an average of 5.6 weeks, compared with 5.3 weeks in 2007 and 4.1 in 1997. That’s an increase of 36.6 percent in that 20-year time frame, and an increase of 55.6 percent since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984, when the average Breeders’ Cup winner had raced 3.6 weeks prior.

While it’s now more common to have a longer break, there have only been 24 horses in the last 20 years of the Breeders’ Cup to win after a nine or more week layoff. However, a remarkable 16 of those winners came in the last five years.

Year

Avg wks Since Winners' Last Race

BC Winners

Winners with >8 wks off

Percent >8 wks off

2016

5.6

13

3

23.1%

2015

5.9

13

3

23.1%

2014

6.2

13

3

23.1%

2013

7.8

14

5

35.7%

2012

7.3

15

2

13.3%

2011

4.9

15

0

0.0%

2010

5.6

14

1

7.1%

2009

4.6

14

0

0.0%

2008

4.8

14

1

7.1%

2007

5.3

11

1

9.1%

2006

6.5

8

1

12.5%

2005

5.2

8

0

0.0%

2004

4.8

8

0

0.0%

2003

5

9

1

11.1%

2002

4.2

8

0

0.0%

2001

5

8

1

12.5%

2000

3.4

8

0

0.0%

1999

4.1

8

0

0.0%

1998

5

7

1

14.3%

1997

4.1

7

1

14.3%

Cumulative

215

24

11.2%

Race Analysis

Overall odds at success are slim but they have increased recently, and there are a few factors that seem to correlate to higher success. Certain races have notably higher share of such winners, including all three sprint races. Excluding the defunct Marathon, in the last 20 years, 10.7 percent of Breeders’ Cup winners had a break of eight weeks or more, but the Filly and Mare Sprint winner had such a break 30 percent of the time. This could bode well for the large contingent of 2017 contenders that have had at least nine weeks off this year, including By the Moon, Constellation, Finest City, Paulassilverlining, and Skye Diamonds. The Twinspires Breeders’ Cup Sprint has seen 30 percent of winners with at least a six-week break and 15 percent with at least eight weeks off, a good sign for 2017 contenders Calculator, Drefong, Imperial Hint, and Mind Your Biscuits. Twenty-two percent of Turf Sprint winners had a long break, however both of those wins were by the exceptional downhill sprinter Mizdirection on her favorite course.

Conversely, the Filly and Mare Turf has had 94.4 percent of winners with less than a nine-week break, which could be a bad sign for Lady Eli (10 weeks off) and Cambodia (9 weeks off). Accelerate (11 weeks off), Mor Spirit (21 weeks off), and Practical Joke (10 weeks) also appear to be up against it in the Dirt Mile, as there has never been a winner off more than an eight-week break.

Three of the four juvenile races have also had marked success with recency (95 percent or more raced within eight weeks), which makes sense since many juveniles don’t get their career started until at least midyear, and often late summer. In fact, if you exclude the juvenile races, the percent of Breeders’ Cup winners that had a long layoff increases to 13.1 percent. Check out the table below for race-by-race analysis.

Race

Winners in last 20 yrs

Winners >6 weeks off

Percent >6 weeks off

Winners >8 wks off

Percent >8 wks off

Classic

20

5

25.0%

3

15.0%

Distaff

20

2

10.0%

2

10.0%

Dirt Mile

10

3

30.0%

0

0.0%

F&M Sprint

10

4

40.0%

3

30.0%

F&M Turf

18

5

27.8%

1

5.6%

Mile

20

4

20.0%

2

10.0%

Sprint

20

6

30.0%

3

15.0%

Turf

21

6

28.6%

2

9.5%

Turf Sprint

9

3

33.3%

2

22.2%

Juvenile

20

2

10.0%

1

5.0%

Juv Fillies

20

2

10.0%

1

5.0%

Juv Fillies Turf

9

1

11.1%

0

0.0%

Juv Turf

10

3

30.0%

2

20.0%

Cumulative

206

46

22.3%

22

10.7%

Trainer Analysis

Certain trainers also seem to be better at getting a horse to fire its best shot off of training alone, though the list of trainers who have won a Breeders’ Cup race off of a nine-week or more layoff is short. Bob Baffert is known as being such a trainer. Four of Baffert’s seven Breeders’ Cup wins since 2010 had a break of more than eight weeks, and three of those were in the last two years. Not surprisingly, five of his major contenders this year enter off of at least a 10-week break: Arrogate and Collected, plus the aforementioned Drefong, Constellation, and Mor Spirit.

Wesley Ward (Keeneland/Coady Photography)

Wesley Ward is also successful off of a break, with both of his Breeders’ Cup wins coming after his horses had more than eight weeks off. This year he brings Lady Aurelia into the Turf Sprint after a 10-week layoff.

Finest City’s 2016 Filly and Mare Sprint win was trainer Ian Kruljac’s first Breeders’ Cup victory, and it was off of a nine-week layoff. This year the race is her first in 17 weeks.

Steve Asmussen, trainer of leading Classic contender Gun Runner (10 weeks off), has trained just one horse to Breeders’ Cup victory off of a lengthy break: 2012 Dirt Mile winner Tapizar, who had about 7.5 weeks off. His other four winners raced within six weeks of the Breeders’ Cup

Trainer Chad Brown is entering several notable contenders off of lengthy breaks this year, including Lady Eli, Practical Joke, and Paulassilverlining, but none of his seven Breeders’ Cup wins since 2010 was off of a layoff. Three of those wins were in juvenile races, which one might not expect to have a layoff winner, but the other four were older horses. Further, both Practical Joke and Lady Eli are in races with notably low layoff success rate: 0 percent for the Dirt Mile and 5.4 percent for the Filly and Mare Turf.

Conclusions

The trend is toward less racing and more training leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, but race and trainer are important. Layoffs in sprint races seem to be less detrimental, while in juvenile races, the Filly and Mare Turf, and the Dirt Mile recency is key. Baffert and Ward are two trainers who seem to be successful at training a horse up to the Breeders’ Cup, while Asmussen and Brown haven’t shown the same knack yet. Many others who will train horses up to the Breeders’ Cup this year have no similar results to consider. Of course, a great horse can show that none of these stats really matter by winning no matter the circumstances, and we await some exciting performances at the championships on Nov. 3-4.

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