Recognizing Horses That Can’t Win

There is a quote, attributed to the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, that goes: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

Horse players should take heed, for often handicapping is nothing more than eliminating horses that can’t or, more accurately, most likely can’t win.

Take, for example the sixth race at Louisiana Downs on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015:

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The first thing I noticed about this race was the abundance of frontrunners.

Now, this is not that unusual in a 5 ½-furlong affair for cheap claimers, but it is noteworthy when one of the morning-line favorites (and the eventual even-odds public choice) is among those frontrunners — and he’s not very quick.

Fifty-Acres

I’m talking, of course, about Fifty Acres, who came into Wednesday’s event off of two straight wire-to-wire scores — in blistering times (for the level) — at nearby Evangeline Downs. Trained by Karl Broberg, who led the nation in wins in 2014 and was visiting the winner’s circle at a 32 percent clip at that point in 2015, it’s no surprise that Fifty Acres would be favored against the same kind of field he faced a little more than a month ago… only Wednesday’s field wasn’t the same.

EVDconditions080715To begin with, there was only one other confirmed frontrunner in the second race at Evangeline Downs on Aug. 7. At Louisiana Downs on Sept. 9, there were four (five if you include Fifty Acres himself).

Secondly, the projected pace was slower at EVD (-8 early speed ration vs. a -9 at LAD). Granted, this is a minor point, but it takes on added significance when one notes that Fifty Acres has never exerted that much energy in the early going (for an explanation of my speed rations, click HERE). Hence, we are left with the logical conclusion that the eight-year-old son of West Acre is likely to be relegated to pressing the pace wide.

Who would take even odds on his chances of winning with that kind of trip?

But Fifty Acres was not the only high-profile entrant with holes in its form. Take a look at Night Patrol:

Night-Patrol

This guy was a well-regarded 4-1 on both the morning line and my computerized fair odds line (Win Factor Report)… and he stood no chance.

Sure he has back class — he once won an open allowance affair at Ellis Park — and a stellar winning record (5-of-12 lifetime), but let us begin our analysis with a simple proposition: Owners and trainers are in the game to win money (or at least not to get fleeced), right?

So, why in the world would one claim a horse for $10K, sit it on the sidelines for nearly six months and, then, enter it for half its purchase price? The answer is obvious: Night Patrol has issues. And when he subsequently put in the worst performance of his career on July 31 it should have been obvious to bettors that something was horribly amiss and that his prior form was as irrelevant as that other guy in Wham!

Likewise, I was less than enamored with My Man Parker, who was another Broberg-trained wannabe frontrunner with subpar speed and pace figures.

My-Man-Parker

Thus, in a seven-horse field, I was left with three horses that I thought could win (Side’s Song, Dance Caller and One True Sun) and one (Boston Salt) that I thought was too slow, but that might hit the board. Given the odds, I bet accordingly… and I’m still cursing My Man Parker for costing me a monster trifecta, although the super payoff ($234.81 for a dime) eased my pain somewhat.

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Side’s Song recorded a -13 ESR, cooking the other speed and setting the table for One True Sun to nail him in the final strides (reducing my superfecta payoff by a considerable amount, I’m sure).

Another example of a horse that couldn’t win — or couldn’t be bet at the odds — occurred on the same day in the sixth race at Mountaineer Park:

Cobra-Katrina

Cobra Katrina was 1-5 on the tote board, yet showed a couple of very troubling signs in her past performances. To start with, her ESRs were headed in the wrong direction — a potential indicator of deteriorating form, especially when coupled with the fact that the daughter of Good Reward had bid and hung in each of her last two starts following a dominant win on June 24.

Then there was the death knell: She was entered for a tag in an optional claiming affair. In a recent study I did, I found that horses eligible to be claimed in an optional claiming event produced a 0.83 impact value (IV) and a meager 0.70 odds-based impact value (OBIV).

OBIV Key

What’s more, horses running for a tag for the first time that had previously shown success in non-claiming events (as judged by a 35 percent winning rate or greater) produced a 0.90 IV and a 0.68 OBIV.

In other words, there was simply no getting around the fact that Katrina’s drop in class was a negative sign — and negative signs on 1-5 shots are a value bettor’s dream.

Unfortunately, my dream almost turned into a nightmare when only one of my three show bets cashed, but, luckily, Cobra Katrina hung badly after looming boldly in the stretch and Predictable gave me a 150 percent return on my investment.

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Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.