Handicapping Juveniles

Whether you call them babies, juveniles or just plain two-year-olds, you better handicap them differently than you do older horses or you’re likely to tear your hair out in frustration. The time-honored factors of class, pace and even speed don’t apply when dealing with the freshman class.

Here are some of things that happen on a regular basis with babies:

  • Maidens beat winners in stakes races.
  • First-time-starters beat experienced runners.
  • Fillies beat colts if they’re given a chance and they’re good enough.

The first two-year-olds start showing up in early April typically with a string of pretty meaningless two-furlong heats but the season really starts when the babies begin running around a turn in May.

In order to succeed in handicapping juveniles, handicappers should keep the following thoughts in mind:

Just about every time a two-year-old runs, it’s stepping up in class no matter what the race level may suggest. Trainers who start their youngsters in those quarter-mile dashes are pretty much telling you that they don’t think much of them. However, there is money to be made and a straightway may be the best chance to recoup any of the investment capital that’s already been sunk into certain two-year-olds. Once they begin to run around a turn, better horses will be unveiled to make the juvenile pool just that much tougher. If you lose going two furlongs, you’re probably going to lose going longer.

Good races at two furlongs rarely translate to good races at 4-1/2 furlongs. It’s about the same as judging how a proven miler will perform when asked to go 10 furlongs. In other words, it’s apples and oranges. The same can be said when they move from 4-1/2 panels to 5-1/2 furlongs. A horse may have romped on the lead against maidens at the shorter trip but when they face more pace pressure at a longer distance, they often spit the bit. If you don’t believe this, check out Belleofthebridle’s performance in the Proctor when she was 1/5 on the board, got hooked early and had no response as the winner sailed on by to win by nearly five lengths. Yes, she was a filly against colts but that didn’t get her beat. The difference between 4-1/2 and 5-1/2 plus the pace pressure got her beat.

The longer it takes a two-year-old to win, the less likely it’s going to happen. Any youngster that fails to graduate in a maiden heat in their first, second or, perhaps, third start, probably isn’t going anywhere on this circuit. It just stands to reason. If they repeatedly fail in early races, things are only going to get tougher as they move on. Many will have a negative response to their “experience” and will run even worse in subsequent efforts. They will fear going to the track rather than embracing it. Others will mentally become conditioned to losing, an occurrence that afflicts horses of all ages. Remember, all of these “losers” are likely to be facing a stronger group next time out, even if dropped in class.

There is no concept of class in baby racing, not in the spring anyway. That’s why maidens can win stakes races. Experience is not always a bad thing but too much of it (without success) is. Down the road, it’s very possible that some added-money affairs will go to first-time-starters being unveiled in stakes. It happens every year and it happens because the proven element in the race are distanced challenged and/or aren’t that good to start with.

Beware of high figures posted in races run at a significantly shorter distances than today’s trip.  Ratings earned in uncontested fashion on the front end are particularly shaky on the stretch when there appears to be anything else in the field that can test the high-fig horse early.

Two-year-olds are very fragile and none of them really should be running competitively at this stage of their career. Many will “shin buck” or suffer other relatively minor injuries that prevent them from running as well as they did in earlier performances. In other words, watch out for those seemingly “gift-horse” types at low odds.

Youngsters running in the spring often either cost a little or cost a lot. The connections for those that came cheap are generally trying to make a score while they can. The connections for those that required higher investments are just trying to “get out” while hoping for the best.