By Jude “Pontiff of the Pick Four” Feld
Spending time at Palm Meadows during the months leading up to the Kentucky Derby (G1) is a wonderful pastime for racing fans. Many of the East Coast’s leading Derby hopefuls are stabled there and you can get an up close and personal view of them as they train towards the first Saturday in May.
If you listen to the trainers, as they banter amongst themselves, the topic of conversation often drifts to “development” and how certain three-year-olds have put on weight, “filled out,” matured and even how their “sheet numbers” (speed figures) have improved.
Even if you are not on the scene, some of this information is available via facebook, twitter, top sports media companies and countless Thoroughbred racing bloggers online. Info on top three-year-olds in the spring is always easy to find, but what about the rank and file, the claimers and allowance horses that haven’t grabbed media attention?
There are a few things handicappers can look for in a horse’s past performance chart that may be harbingers of significant development.
Time is of the essence.
Both calendar time and speed figure time play an important role in a horse’s development. Usually a horse is broken in the late summer or early fall of their yearling year. This project usually takes six weeks to two months depending on the pupil. Many colts and fillies are given a breather after this breaking period and they go through what is called a “growth spurt.” The rest after exercise seems to aid their development and they get stronger in addition to being more aware of their life ahead.
Returning to training early in the year, they begin to get fit and ready to run. After a racing at two, many trainers choose to “put them away,” for a while and then begin to prepare them for their all-important three-year-old season.
This bit of rest also can bring on a growth spurt and paddock watchers often see dramatic differences in a horse’s physical makeup from two to three. This year, Union Rags was a good example. Despite being ahead of the class size and muscle-wise at two, he returned a beast at three, impressive in body and scope, leaving little doubt that he was force to be reckoned with on the Derby trail.
Physical improvement can also happen from three to four, especially with late foals like multiple graded stakes winner Mucho Macho Man, who was very weedy at three and much more filled out at four.
Speed figures too can be a sign of improvement. Horses, like humans, get naturally faster with age and development. The standard rule of thumb from the two-year-old season to the three-year-old season is 20% faster. This is a good thing to know when handicapping.
Three-year-old races all year long have entrants making their sophomore debuts. Many times, especially in maiden claiming races, several slow horses will be entered. Projecting a 20% improvement in two-year-old speed figures for a three-year-old entrant can often point out a tremendous edge. In many instances these horses are overlooked by the wagering public, who take the figures at face value.
The other side of the coin is the three-year-old that returns to the races and runs the same speed figures they did at two. Chances are horses with this pattern have not developed much and may have had the best season of their life in their juvenile year.
Great handicapping begins from the bottom of the past performances up. Follow the schedule the trainer mapped from race to race. See the breaks from racing and look for speed figure improvement. Insight and creativity can lead to buried treasure.
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