When American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes in 2015, he did something that had been accomplished just eight times since 1941.
No, I’m not talking about winning the Triple Clown — that’s statistically easy by comparison. I’m talking about annexing the Belmont Stakes as a February foal.
A dozen horses have won the Test of the Champion after first capturing the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, yet only seven thoroughbreds known to be foaled in the month of February have, likewise, passed the Test. Notable February failures at Big Sandy include California Chrome, Orb, Smarty Jones, War Emblem, Silver Charm and Spectacular Bid.
True, Chrome lost to Tonalist, who was also born in the second calendar month of the year, but that’s still only seven February foal winners from 67 editions of the Belmont in which the birth date of the victor was known.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: this guy has flipped his lid — birthdays as a handicapping factor, he must be joking?
Well, all I can say is that many industry insiders believe that foaling dates are very significant.
“At the start of the year, we think of all these horses as three-year-olds,” trainer Todd Pletcher told ESPN, “but some of them might not actually be three for another two or three months. And 60 or 90 days can be very important in a young horse’s development.”
Dave Schwartz, who runs the excellent website Pace Makes The Race, examined over 638,000 horses that ran in North America in 2014 and found that approximately six percent of them were born in January; 19 percent were born in February; 30 percent were born in both March and April; 14 percent were foaled in May; and the remaining one percent entered the world in later months.
And guess what? The Kentucky Derby, which has long stressed precocity — remember that old Dosage-plus-Experimental-Free-Handicap system that made the rounds a few years ago? — has been dominated by early foals. In fact, using the percentages above to establish impact values, we discover the following:
Now, the interesting part: Take a look at a similar table documenting Belmont winners whose birthdates were known.
Notice the shift? Instead of February and March being the most prolific foaling months for Belmont winners (like they were for Derby champs), March and April claim that honor.
I don’t think this is coincidental.
Going back to Pletcher’s comments, it seems reasonable to assume that the greatest detriment to winning a Triple Crown is not the rigors of the campaign (as is so often lamented in the media), but, rather, the very real possibility that, by the time the Belmont rolls around, later foals have caught up to their more mature rivals.
A great example of this was the legendary Forego, who was born on April 30, 1970. The gelded son of Forli won “just” three of his first nine starts before visiting the winner’s circle 29 times in his next 42 trips to post en route to three consecutive Horse of the Year titles from 1974-76.
In fact, a 1997 study by Bertrand Langlois and Christine Blouin seems to suggest that the month of birth plays a role in total earnings and earnings per start up until age five, when the effect dissipates.
So, with this in mind, let’s take a look at the birth months of this year’s probable Belmont entrants:
- CLASSIC EMPIRE (March)
- CONQUEST MO MONEY (February)
- EPICHARIS (March)
- GORMLEY (March)
- HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME (February)
- IRISH WAR CRY (May)
- J BOYS ECHO (April)
- LOOKIN AT LEE (March)
- MASTER PLAN (February)
- MEANTIME (May)
- MULTIPLIER (April)
- PATCH (March)
- SENIOR INVESTMENT (March)
- TAPWRIT (March)
- TIME TO TRAVEL (April)
- TRUE TIMBER (February)
- TWISTED TOM (April)
- WEST COAST (May)