Is American Pharoah’s Date with Destiny Doomed by a Date?
If American Pharoah wins the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, he will do something that has been accomplished just seven times since 1941.
No, I’m not talking about winning the Triple Crown — that’s statistically easy by comparison. I’m talking about annexing the Belmont Stakes as a February foal.
11 horses have won the Test of Champions after first capturing the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, yet only seven horses 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? Next, he’ll be telling us what the Tarot cards reveal about the third leg of the Triple Crown. Well, as it so happens, I drew the “fool” card — but I was inquiring about my Belmont Day betting prospects, so I don’t think it relates to American Pharoah’s chances on Saturday.
In all seriousness, though, many industry insiders believe that foaling dates are of great importance.
“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 Web site TheHorseHandicappingAuthority, 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 other 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 Todd 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 the age of five, when the effect dissipates.
Of course, none of this means that American Pharoah is destined to disappoint in his date with destiny, but it does suggest that later foals like Mubtaahij, Frosted and Materiality might be better today than they were a few weeks ago.
Belmont Entrant (month born)
2-Tale of Verve (April)
5-American Pharoah (February)
7-Keen Ice (March)