Horse racing: Finding an edge in claiming conditions

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Jeremy Balan

June 14th, 2020

It is often said that horse racing's biggest drop in class is from the maiden special weight level to the maiden claiming ranks.

That may be true, but the fact that it is often said takes away pretty much any edge, because everyone knows it, and everyone sees it. 

But class handicapping angles remain vitally important, and edges can be found through experience with conditions.

How much of a difference is an allowance open to all horses at a certain condition, in comparison to a state-bred allowance at the same level? How much of a difference is a maiden special weight race at Finger Lakes, in comparison to a maiden special weight at Delaware Park? If a horse is exiting a race at a place like Gulfstream Park, where competition level can be different depending on the time of year, where do you gauge the level of class at that time? 

These are the types of questions roving handicappers have to answer. 

Over time  — through observation, triumph, and heartbreak  — wagering angles appear. 

My favorite conditions-based angle is the drop in class from an open claiming race, where any horse can enter, to a "have never won 'X' races" condition. 

These are labeled as "n2L" (never won two races lifetime), "n3L," n4L," etc. There are other claiming levels, where drops in class are also useful, like "nXy," "nXx," or "b" conditions, but for the purposes of this discussion, we'll stick with the "nXL" tags, because they are straightforward and deal with total wins, while the others can restrict entries based on victories over a span of time or mix different types of conditions.

My opinion of this drop is anecdotal. I feel it is a profitable angle, but like any piece of wagering strategy, it is not one to be bet blindly. There can be a variety of droppers from other levels in these races, so the ideal scenario is one horse in a field on the drop from open claimers, with the rest a group that has struggled to get out of the race's condition.

It's also not an easy thing to look back in time and study to give return-on-investment statistics — and I'm not sure how valuable those would be, if the idea is to play situationally — but I have some examples from the last week or so, at tracks across North America.

Condition matters more than price

The horse who inspired this column goes by the name of Dave's Baby Girl, a 6-year-old mare who ran in Lone Star Park's fourth race June 10, a 5 1/2-furlong, $7,500 claiming race for fillies and mares age 3 or older who have never won three races (n3L). 

Trained by Joseph Petalino, a low-percentage winner, Dave's Baby Girl was exiting two open $6,250 claiming races at Oaklawn Park. She finished third in the first try at the level (76 Brisnet speed figure, 5 1/2 furlongs), then fourth in a six-furlong try (72 speed figure). She was listed at 20-1 on the morning line at Lone Star, but was bet down to 7-1 at post time.

That price was fine by me, considering the favorites, Champagnerie and Lone Star Lady, both went off at 7-5, and Dave's Baby Girl was the only horse dropping from an open claiming race to the n3L level. Champagnerie won her last start, a $10,000 n2L sprint at Lone Star, and put up a 77 Brisnet speed figure, only a point higher than Dave's Baby Girl's first try at Oaklawn but against significantly weaker competition. Lone Star Lady was completely overmatched in a two-turn turf allowance last time out in February, but in her previous start won an $25,000 n2L event at Sam Houston for a 76 Brisnet speed figure, the same as the figure for Dave's Baby Girl in the first Oaklawn start.

So even though Dave's Baby Girl ran for a cheaper claiming price than the two favorites, to me, the condition of the race matters more. I'll take a $10,000 open claimer over a $25,000 n2L horse any day. To be fair, Dave's Baby Girl won at the n2L level and raced twice at the n3L condition back in 2019, but those were mostly turf sprints and one n3L contest was on a sloppy track. And the n2L win came immediately after she ran in an open claimer over the same grass course and distance.

So what did Dave's Baby Girl do? She pressed the pace set by a longshot, then put away third choice M and M Girl (whose last two races were at the "b" and n3L conditions at Oaklawn), after a duel to the wire, to win by a length. She paid $16.40 to win.

Other winners on this move from the last week include Pataz, who dropped out of four straight open claimers to take an n2L event at Laurel Park June 12 by 3 1/2 lengths at 15-1 odds, and Dream Baby Dream, who easily took an Arapahoe Park n3L race at 5-2 on June 15, after a try against open company at Oaklawn.

Finding value underneath

Even live longshots are going to run against  — and lose to  — favorites. But that doesn't mean they can't lead to profits. In nxL conditional claiming races, there can be all kinds of drops in class, including from stakes and tough allowance levels. In these cases, filling out exotic wagers with high-priced open-to-conditional droppers can lead to quality returns, even if you're against betting them to win.

Take the sixth race at Gulfstream Park on June 10, for example. The 8-5 winner, Remaster, was one of a bunch of optional-claiming allowance horses who dropped into the n2L turf test, and lived up to his price with three-quarter-length victory. 

But guess who filled out the trifecta? Second-place finisher Khozy My Boy (18-1) and third-place Deo Forte (10-1) both ran in a $25,000 open claiming race in their previous start.

A similar result came in Belmont Park's sixth race June 14, an n3L turf mile, when favored Spirit Animal won by 5 1/2 lengths. Spirit Animal dropped into the race out of an allowance, as did second-place finisher Megacity (20-1). 

But 11-1 Ian Glass, who previously raced in an open $50,000 claimer (and finished second), rounded out the tri. The trifecta paid $119.75 for a 50-cent wager.

Don't throw out your handicapping toolbox

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway. No angle comes with a guarantee. Horses who appear to fit a certain situation misfire every day. 

But there can also be hints about when to lay off, like in the fifth race at Golden Gate Fields on June 13.

Two horses  — Diamond Blitz (3-1) and Single Barrel (40-1) — were dropping from open claimers to the n2L level in the one-mile turf race. Single Barrel outfinished Diamond Blitz, but they were in a race for second to last in the stretch.

Diamond Blitz had raced at "b" levels twice before and hadn't run in 11 months. Single Barrel was making his first start on turf, after a non-competitive try in an open claimer on synthetic.

Both presented more than enough reason to stay away.

Give it a try

My case for this angle is simple. If it isn't one you've considered before, try it out.

These cases are relatively rare, but they're not that rare. You can usually find a few each day, if you scan past performances across the country. 

Want to try your hand at betting horse racing? Check out BetAmerica's racebook!