Discover five ways to determine a vulnerable favorite

Profile Picture: John Mucciolo

February 22nd, 2020

I have a confession. I have not perfected the robust challenge that handicapping a horse race presents. And I never will. But, that will not discourage me from attempting to be the best handicapper I possibly can.

There is no set criteria in breaking down a horse race, as the abundance of variables makes each event its own unique entity. Finding value, whether it’s going with an undervalued competitor or betting against a short-priced entrant, could be the difference in profit or loss at year’s end.

My tips for finding a vulnerable favorite is not a ‘fail safe’ strategy, either, they are merely factors that aid me in my elimination process.

Multiple Class Drops

Horses dropping in class are always something that I look at during my handicapping. Trainers often drop a horse trying to find his or her best spot, others will plunge in hopes of winning a race and a purse. And, on some occasions, the connections have decided to simply ‘let the horse go’ at a low level.

Knowing which is the case for the drop can be a mystery in itself. But my loosely enforced rule is -- if a horse is dropping in class for a third consecutive time, I stay away. I would greatly prefer a contender rising up in class with good form, compared to an off-form runner facing easier foes on the day.

Declining Speed Figures

I do not rely solely on BRIS Speed and Pace figures in my studies, but they are an invaluable tool in my handicapping process. While there are exceptions to every rule, horses that show three or more declining Speed numbers in succession are ones that I tend to avoid.

The ‘Bounce’ Factor

Horses peak at different times during their careers, some early on and others later in the developmental stage. And acknowledging when an animal is in its best form is vital.

We have all witnessed breakthrough, or lifetime-best, performances from thoroughbreds. But I often take them with a grain of salt. Unique surface conditions (muddy, sloppy, yielding, etc.), perfect pace set-ups, traveling on the good part of the track, and being lone speed, are just a few of the ways a horse can register a better-than-usual BRIS Speed number.

If any individual posts a figure substantially better than his or her previous best number, I will often expect regression next time out. Try to avoid being awed by a single performance; look at the bigger picture and deem if the race was expected or if it was an outlier.

Poor Current Trainer Stats

Conditioners and stables often run in streaks. Pat Bryne saddled eight straight winners in 1997 at Churchill Downs, while Joe Woodard topped the mark with a sensational 10 straight victories beneath the Twin Spires in the spring of 2005. Trainer John Kimmel sent out seven straight winners at Saratoga in 2008, a feat that still seems impossible to me to this day.

But it can also go in the wrong direction, as well. Living legend D. Wayke Lukas went on a run from 2009-to-2012 where he lost more than 100 graded stakes races in succession. California-based John Sadler had an 0-for-44 mark in Breeders’ Cup races prior to Accelerate’s well-deserved win in the Classic (G1) in 2018.

It’s not an exact science, of course, but if I find a favorite from a barn that is ice-cold at a particular meeting, I look elsewhere.

Post Position

The post draw can often help dictate the shape of a race. And a horse’s running style paired with his or her starting slot are major factors for me.

For sprint races, I like my speed contenders drawn outside. And for route racing, I greatly prefer horses with early zip to avoid losing ground in the early stages with an outer post slot.

The rail draw could be a blessing or a curse, especially in sprint contests. With the break being a huge factor in one-turn frays, a poor start from inside could greatly diminish the chances of a contender before the opening quarter-mile.

If I find a favorite on the rail in a race with pace to the outside, I will almost always give an edge to the player breaking away from the fence.