Handicapping the Triple Crown

Triple_Crown_logo.d3010c3f4e1add40a731d7eac22a7e0fOnce, as I reclined on an easy chair, sipping a Michelob Ultra (gotta watch the carbs), with a copy of the Daily Racing Form spread out on my lap, I was asked to explain what I was doing. Smiling, I took another swig of beer and attempted the impossible.

“I’m handicapping — trying to pick the winner of a horse race,” I said. “I love crunching the numbers. The trainer/jockey stats, speed and pace figures — the whole nine yards. It’s a great thrill to select a horse and then watch it win, especially at long odds. Yesterday, for example, I liked…”

I stopped. Clearly, the Wal-Mart security guard was not a racing fan — nor, I gathered, were the majority of passing shoppers, who looked at me like they’d never seen a guy in a bathrobe handicapping races in the furniture department before.

Needless to say, I haven’t been within 100-150 yards of that Wal-Mart since (I can’t remember precisely what the court order mandates), but I still like to relax when I handicap. And, with Nyquist’s quest for the Triple Crown beginning in earnest on Saturday, now seems like a good time to share my bathrobe betting approach to the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Where: Pimlico Racecourse (Baltimore, Maryland).
Race Distance: 1-3/16 miles (9-1/2 furlongs).

The Preakness Stakes is run just two weeks after the Kentucky Derby and often features a large contingent of Derby runners. Not surprisingly, these horses tend to do very well in Maryland, making the Preakness the most formful of the Triple Crown events. The numbers:

  • Since 1932 (when the order of the Triple Crown series was at last set), 32 of 75 Preakness winners (42.7 percent) had previously annexed the Kentucky Derby, good for an 10.87 percent return on investment (ROI). 
  • In the history of the Preakness Stakes (dating back to 1873), favorites have won 71 times (51.1 percent) and returned approximately $2.32 for every $2 wagered, a 16 percent ROI. 
  • Over the last 26 years, 13 horses improved their latest Brisnet speed figure by five points or more while winning the Run for the Roses. Of those, only two — Silver Charm (1997) and I’ll Have Another (2012) — went on to capture the Preakness. 
  • 13 of last 15 Preakness winners paid less than $9 to win.

Bottom Betting Line: In direct contrast to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness is all about established form. Sure, improving horses can win — witness Bernardini in 2006 — but, for the most part, Preakness victors are horses that have already proven their quality. Thus, it is wise to start one’s Preakness handicapping by examining the Derby starters in the field.

Try to determine which of them were helped or hindered by the way the race was run in Louisville, as Preakness history is replete with form reversals — both positive and negative — resulting from a change of tactics from one Triple Crown race to the next. For instance, after many criticized Gary Stevens for moving too soon into hot fractions in the 2001 Kentucky Derby captured by Monarchos, the veteran jockey kept Point Given well off a much slower pace two weeks later and won for fun in Baltimore.

Nyquist (left) takes the lead from Gun Runner (right) as the field turns for home in the 142nd Kentucky Derby.

Nyquist (left) takes the lead from Gun Runner (right) as the field turns for home in the 142nd Kentucky Derby.

Where: Belmont Park (Elmont, New York).
Race Distance: 1-1/2 miles (12 furlongs).

The oldest (it’s been run since 1867) and longest (1-1/2 miles) of the Triple Crown contests, the Belmont Stakes takes place three weeks after the Preakness. In 1973, it provided the backdrop for what was arguably the greatest performance in Thoroughbred racing history, when Secretariat won by 31 lengths in two minutes and 24 seconds — a time that has never been equaled.

Some interesting facts about the Belmont:

  • Although it’s been called “The Test of Champions,” recent winners of the Belmont Stakes haven’t exactly reminded racing fans of Citation or Seattle Slew. Since 1990, Belmont champs have won just 41 of their 158 starts (25.9 percent) after triumphing in the Big Apple. Hansel (1991), Commendable (2000), Sarava (2002), Empire Maker (2003), Jazil (2006), Rags to Riches (2007) and Da’ Tara (2008) were winless post-Belmont, while Afleet Alex (2005) and Union Rags (2013) never raced again.
  • A few recent bombs notwithstanding, the Belmont Stakes has actually been relatively formful, as the post time favorite has won 56 of 133 runnings of the race (42.1 percent).
  • In the past 15 years, only three horses — American Pharoah (4.33), Empire Maker (3.16) and Sarava (4.50) — have won the Belmont with a Dosage Index (DI) in excess of 3.00.
  • Only three of the past 17 Preakness winners who competed in the Belmont posed for pictures again in NY (Point Given in 2001, Afleet Alex in 2005 and American Pharoah last year).

Bottom Betting Line: Value is the name of the wagering game in the Belmont. Though favorites have performed well in the final leg of the Triple Crown, they have, as a rule, been horribly overbet, leading to a loss of about 22 cents on the dollar. Worse yet, odds-on choices are just nine of 27 since 1950 and one for eight since 1980. Hence, it is imperative to look for horses that appear better than their quoted odds, i.e. overlays.

Also, be sure to watch all the contenders’ races leading up to the Belmont and eliminate runners that seem unable to relax or those that are excessively fractious at the gate. Several high-profile Belmont busts, like War Emblem and Smarty Jones, exhibited these toxic traits before attempting to take a bite out of the Big Apple — and all proved rotten to the core.

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.
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