Evaluating shippers coming into Southern California

Profile Picture: Scott Shapiro

March 14th, 2018

Assessing the chances of horses shipping into the west coast from out of town can often be the difference between a big score and a losing day in Southern California.

Whether it be Arizona based horses shipping in for low level claiming events or East Coast based stars flying in for a graded stakes race, having a method for analyzing these “out of towners” chances of winning races is extremely important.

Here are a few questions I ask myself each time I see a horse ship in from out of town into Southern California in order to assess his or her chances of performing well in their first try out west:

First off, has the trainer had previous success in the region with runners shipping in from out of town?

Often times a conditioner’s ability to win races outside of “The Golden State” does not necessarily equate to success on the west coast. A perfect example of this is Todd Pletcher.

The seven-time Eclipse Award winner for top trainer has had immense success at venues like Gulfstream Park, Saratoga, and Belmont Park, but his accomplishments have not led to victories when he has shipped out to Santa Anita Park recently. In fact, the two-time Kentucky Derby winning conditioner has just one win in 36 starts since the beginning of 2013 at “The Great Race Place.”

On the other hand, has made the most of his opportunities out west over the past several years. The former Bobby Frankel assistant has not quite won at the same rate as he has back in New York, but he has won 3 of his last 19 at Santa Anita, including the 2017 Gamely with Lady Eli. Additionally, Brown has shared success over the past couple of years in winning Del Mar’s most prestigious turf races conducted during the Bing Crosby meeting in late fall. The last to first effort from Off Limits in the 2017 Matriarch comes to mind.

The bottom line is that before assessing a shipper’s form out of town it is worth determining whether that same form can be expected when arriving in Southern California. Knowing a trainer’s strengths and weaknesses will go a long way in forming a conclusion.

From there I begin to evaluate the horse. Not only do I use performance ratings to measure whether a runner is fast enough to win a given event, but I also evaluate whether a horse has shown the capability to win at multiple venues.

Often times you will encounter horses that do all of their best running over a specific surface. These “horses for courses” are certainly capable of winning in their first race in Southern California, but much more frequently they will not put forth their best effort if the majority of their success has come at one venue.

For example, 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah hit the wire first at 8 different racetracks illustrating that he could “take his game” on the road. On the other hand, a horse like 2014 Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist was dominant at Belmont Park, but for the most part failed to bring his “A” game with him when he left “Big Sandy.”

A third thing I look for when possible is how a shipper has worked out or behaved since arriving in California. Often times top level horses do not arrive with enough time to get an official work over the racetrack, but when they do it is advisable to watch that drill or at the very least obtain work out reports from a trusted source. This is far from an exact science, but when used properly can separate contenders from pretenders.

Separating live shippers from those that are unlikely to fire their best shot is invaluable, especially on big days in Southern California. Hopefully answering these few questions when handicapping will help lead you to more winners than losers in the coming months.