By Derek Simon
Newcomers to thoroughbred horse racing are often overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information thrown at them like an Aroldis Chapman fastball. Class, weight, lengths, prices — and that’s just buying a hot dog at the concession stand. There’s also speed and pace figures, past performances, blinkers on, blinkers off… you get the picture.
So, today, I thought I would help newbies (and maybe even a few seasoned racegoers) handle that Chapman heater by discussing one of the most basic, yet most confusing aspects of thoroughbred racing — the races themselves.
MAIDEN SPECIAL WEIGHT RACES
These are races for horses that have never won (at a recognized track). They are unique in that they often feature horses that will go on to win top stakes events, as well as horses that will never win a race.
One of the most famous maidens of all time is Zippy Chippy, who was retired in 2004 after failing to visit the winner’s circle in 100 starts (he was second eight times and finished third in a dozen other races).
What to Look For: Speed, coupled with improvement, is extremely important in maiden special weight (MSW) affairs. In my database testing, horses with the best last-race Equibase speed figure produced a 2.52 impact value (IV) and a 0.89 odds-based impact value (OBIV).
MAIDEN CLAIMING RACES
Same as the above, except that the entrants are eligible to be purchased for the price noted. For example, in a $12,500 maiden claiming race, any horse in the field can be acquired (by a qualified buyer) for — you’ll never guess— $12,500.
What to Look For: Horses that raced well against better have a decided edge in maiden claiming affairs. Animals that finished second for a purse at least 50 percent higher than today’s last time, produced a 2.80 IV and 0.86 OBIV in my database testing.
Entrants are eligible to be purchased for the designated price(s).
What to Look For: This is the most common type of race in America and features numerous sub-classes, or conditions. In fact, it is rare to see a claiming race without a lot of added stipulations — non-winners of two lifetime races, non-winners of a race within the past six months, New York-breds only, etc.
As a result, there is no single factor to look for in claiming affairs. However, along with the ides of March, beware of horses that look to good to be true. My testing revealed that although horses that finished in the money (third or better) last time and are dropping in class today win more often than expected (surprise, surprise), they are greatly over-bet.
Races comprised of horses that competed for the indicated claiming tag during a specified period of time (usually a year or two).
What to Look For: Sharp current form is everything in starter races. My testing indicates that horses that won their last race while recording the best last-race Brisnet speed figure in the field, actually show a positive ROI when bet to win.
Non-claiming contests with a variety of conditions, e.g. non-winners of two races lifetime, non-winners of $10,000 twice, etc.
What to Look For: Like starter-event winners, allowance race victors are often up-and-coming horses in sharp form. In fact, horses that finished in the money last time and possess the best last-race Brisnet speed figure produced a 2.10 IV and 0.88 OBIV in my testing.
These are generally the richest races at the track and draw the best horses.
Back in days of yore, thoroughbreds were often “equalized” via weight — the notion being that “weight can stop a freight train.” Known as “handicaps,” these races were among the most prevalent big-money events on a typical card. Although they still exist today, handicaps have been greatly watered down (hence the reason I’ve combined them with straight stakes races). Whereas, one used to see large spreads in the weights, today it is not uncommon to see a mere five pounds separate the high-weight from the low-weight in a handicap.
Regular stakes races, on the other hand, are added-money events that use various criteria to assign the weights. For example, a stakes race might subtract two pounds from the impost of a horse that hasn’t won at today’s distance or hasn’t won a certain amount of purse money. Some stakes races, like the Kentucky Derby, dictate that every horse carry the same amount of weight, minus a standard break (usually five pounds) given to females when they compete against males.
What to Look For: Just like in claiming races, there is no one single thing to look for in stakes/handicap races — although solid current form in premier events like the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic is definitely important. No horse since Arcangues in 1993 has won the Classic after finishing out of the money (fourth or worse) in its last stat and just one of the past 33 Kentucky Derby winners (Ferdinand, 1986) was beaten by more than five lengths in its final prep.