The Freshened Horse Fallacy Revisited

Editor’s Note: This is an update of an article I wrote several years ago.


For years the chorus has been building: Today’s Thoroughbred is simply not as stout or robust as it was in years past. With much weeping and gnashing of teeth — well, actually, the weeping is coming mostly from me; as I was writing this, I narrowly missed a juicy trifecta — veteran horsemen and horse players lament the fragility of the breed and contemplate the reasons for it.

“America’s breeding industry is producing increasingly fragile thoroughbreds,” wrote speed figure guru Andrew Beyer in wake of Eight Belle’s tragic demise in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. “They may not break down, but they have shorter and shorter racing careers before going to stud to beget even more fragile offspring.”

That horses are racing less in modern times is indisputable, Beyer says, noting that, “In 1960, the average U.S. racehorse made 11.3 starts per year. The number has fallen almost every year, and now the average U.S. thoroughbred races a mere 6.3 times per year. Almost every trainer whose career spans the decades will acknowledge that thoroughbreds aren’t as robust as they used to be.”

As a result of this, extended layoffs and unorthodox training regimens have become the norm, as wary conditioners seek to produce the “freshened” horse, a mythical beast said to have the strength of an elephant, the speed of a cheetah, and the stamina of an ox. But does such a steed really exist, or is it merely a capricious concoction born of the ultimate chicken-and-egg argument? I decided to find out.

Of course, the biggest challenge one faces when attempting to prove or disprove a racetrack “fact” is obtaining truly independent variables. The reality is that almost no single factor contributing to the outcome of a horse race can be easily isolated. Take, for example, speed and form — what’s the real difference? Typically, a horse that runs fast also runs well, right? After all, it’s not often that a 30-length loser will post an outstanding Beyer figure.

So, my first hurdle was distinguishing between a “freshening” and layoffs resulting from injury or infirmity. Thus, I decided to concentrate solely on post-time favorites (ignoring entries). That way, I could be reasonably certain that I was appraising only those contestants that had shown at least a semblance of class and form in the recent past. Now, does this ensure an autonomous sample? Of course not. Obviously, the date of a horse’s most recent outing is going to influence the crowd’s betting habits, but at least it helps eliminate those hapless nags that neither racing nor resting will aid.

First, I looked at favorites as a whole (provided they were single betting interests with at least one lifetime start) from assorted races run during 2012-2015:

Races: 53,706
Won: 20,191
Rate: 37.6%
ROI: -15.10%

As you can see, these figures are right in line with long-term national averages. Thus, my database would appear to be “fair.” Next, I looked at favorites that were coming back on less than 15 days rest:

Races: 12,166
Won: 4,831
Rate: 39.7%
ROI: -11.14%

Look at those numbers. They hardly endorse the notion of a deteriorating breed. Quite the contrary, they tend to mirror the results produced by William Quirin in similar studies conducted nearly a decade ago — when the breed was purportedly stout and strong and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Coming Home

OK, I hear someone grumbling, but what about the distance factor? Surely, animals competing in routes (races of one mile or longer) will not fare as well without proper rest.

As the great Martina McBride once said: wrong again.

Races: 3,372
Won: 1,307
Rate: 38.8%
ROI: -11.05%

Note: Statistics reflect sole favorites in races at eight furlongs or greater that last raced within the past two weeks (less than 15 days ago).

Now let’s take a look at the “freshened” favorites. We’ll start with those fancied steeds that have been away from the track for 30 days or more:

Races: 17,736
Won: 6,551
Rate: 36.9%
ROI: -15.86%

Not bad, but still worse than favorites as a whole. So, how did those public choices that had been frolicking in the pasture for 60 days or longer perform?

Races: 5,065
Won: 1,813
Rate: 35.8%
ROI: -16.56%

Anyone sensing a trend here?

Ah, but once again I detect murmurs of discontent. Of course the statistics look bad, some will sneer, a lot of horses in this category were undoubtedly bottom-of-the-barrel, cheap animals that could barely walk, much less run. What about the higher class steeds? How did they fare?

To find out, I used the same criteria as above, but concentrated only on those races offering a purse of $100,000 or greater. Here’s what I discovered:

Races: 236
Won: 87
Rate: 36.9%
ROI: -14.28%

Naturally, the sample size is much, much smaller but the early returns aren’t encouraging, as the numbers resemble those for favorites as a whole.

So, what is one to make of all this? Well, to me, the conclusion seems obvious. There is simply no truth to the theory that longer layoffs produce better results. In fact, just the opposite appears to be true.

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