Handicapping 2-year-olds

By Joe Kristufek

Two-year-old racing is in full swing, and in recent years at Arlington we have had the privilege of watching several of the game's future stars before they become household names - She Be Wild, Dreaming of Anna, Street Sense, War Emblem, Desert Party and Hold Me Back immediately come to mind.

This past Saturday, Arlington ran a pair of Grade III stakes for 2-year-olds, the Lassie for the girls and the Futurity for the boys.

It's tough to tell how good 2-year-old stakes really were until months after they're run, but I was impressed by Lassie winner Wonderlandbynight and Futurity victor Major Gain as well as  several of the horses who cashed checks behind them.

Both winners have pedigrees that suggest they'll do their best work on synthetics, and possibly turf. A trip to Keeneland for the Grade I Darley Alcibiades on Oct. 8 for Wonderlandbynight and for the Grade I Dixiana Futurity on Oct. 9 for Major Gain makes sense. 

Babies begin racing over shorter distances to start, usually 4 ½ furlongs. Recently they've been stretched out to a mile on the main track, and around two turns on turf.

Often times, the basis for selecting or betting on first-time starters is nothing more than an educated guess. Obviously the horses have never run before and experience plays a vital role in the eventual success of a racehorse.

Some horses are bred to sprint, others are bred to route, and still others will eventually do their best work when they get an opportunity to race on turf.

That being said, 2-year-old races loaded with first-time starters can be some of the most intriguing and potentially profitable ones to play. There are no cut and dry past performances at your disposal, so you'll need to use other bits and pieces of information in order to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.

The Breeding
Researching a horse's bloodlines can breed success in races with lots of first timers. Knowing which horses hail from families that win early or those who are sired by a horse that has success with first timers and/or 2-year-olds can give you an advantage.

If you're willing to make the investment, Bloodstock Research (brisnet.com) offers the American and European Produce Records CD-ROM. The disc houses information about each broodmare and the horses they have produced. The research will tell you the strengths of the individual's siblings. Were they at their best sprinting or routing? On turf or dirt? Did they win early?

Often times you can find a diamond in the rough. A horse with an average trainer with obscure bloodlines can often have hidden ability, and this information can only be uncovered by researching family history.

If a horse is bred to route, chances are they won't win a 4 ½-furlong sprint first out of the box. These races are utilized to get a horse fit, and to help them gain experience. If you can figure out which horses are intended to run well first out of the box and which ones are simply using the race as competitive practice, you've won half the battle already.

Certain sires dish out runners that win early. Others' progeny typically takes more time to develop. Using statistics from 2007-10 as a guide, here's a list of some of the top 2-year-old sires.

DAK's List of top 2-year-old sires
Bluegrass Cat, Chapel Royal, Cherokee Run, City Zip, Congrats, Distorted Humor, Dixie Union, El Corredor, Exchange Rate, Giant's Causeway, Grand Slam, Hennessy, Indian Charlie, Johannesburg, Lion Heart, Malibu Moon, Medaglia d'Oro, Officer, Orientate, Peace Rules, Sky Mesa, Smart Strike, Songandaprayer, Speightstown, Stormy Atlantic, Street Cry, Successful Appeal, Tale of the Cat, Tapit, Trippi, Valid Expectations, Vindication, Wildcat Heir and Yes It's True.

The Trainer
Some trainers send their stock to the track ready to race right out the box, while others take their time molding the clay. Be very aware of a trainer's record with first time starters and 2-year-olds. That information can be conveniently found in the Daily Racing Form at the bottom of a horse's lines. DAK Racing also references a trainer's ability in all the applicable categories within the comments of your Daily Racing Guide.

Arlington's most prominent 2-year-old trainers of 2010
Trainer                                     Starts               Wins               

Wayne Catalano                       51                    15 (29%)
Jimmy DiVito                            12                    5 (42%)
Tom Amoss                              8                      3 (38%)
Mike Reavis                             20                    4 (20%)
Jim Gulick                                23                    4 (17%)
Donnie K. Von Hemel  15                    3 (12%)

What did they cost, and when were they bought?
The sales price can clue us in to a horse's potential. Because of the uncertainty, on average, weanlings cost less than yearlings. Two-year-olds in training are the surest bet for buyers, because they're much more race-ready. A horse that cost a bunch of dough as a 2-year-old is easier to evaluate from a handicapping perspective than one that was bought at a much younger age.

If you see a horse purchased at a high price in relatively recent 2-year-old in training sale, chances are that horse is ready to win early, particularly if they aren't blessed with royal bloodlines. There are reasons a horse sired by a $15,000 stud sells for $200,000 - early maturity and brilliance of movement in public sales works.

If a horse sells for $200,000, chances are they're going to debut in a maiden special weight event. If they sold for $20,000, it would make sense for them to test $40,000 company in their debuts. Remember, there are no $10,000 claimers for babies, so horses who race for upper-priced claiming tags probably aren't worth anywhere close to that much. Those who are usually win.

The Workouts
Early in the season, when 2-year-olds are traveling very short distances, the speed of the workouts is important. Early speed is key in 4 ½-furlong events with a very short run into the turn.

Once the distances get farther, bullet workouts can be overrated, and their presence often deflates the price of an individual. With first-time starters, I like to see a variety of distances in their exercise, with gate workouts mixed in. It indicates that the horse is not only getting fit, but is also learning lessons.

What I don't like is too many consecutive gate works. To me, it's a sign that the horse is having problems at the gate, and may have an unprofessional nature leading into their debut. Unless it's a trainer I greatly respect who sends their babies ready to run well first out of the box. Then it doesn't bother me nearly as much.

If a debuter is bred for speed and has sharp works, including a quick move from the gate, chances are he/she will flash early zip in that first start.

In this day and age, any horse can be entered with Lasix. They no longer need to present a bleeding certificate. Horses who debut without Lasix may not be as well intended as those that do.

Horses who debut with Blinkers ON often times are very well intended. The trainer has recognized in training that the horse has focus issues, and instead of running them through a lesson learning experience in the afternoon, they add the blinkers right out of the box.}

Male 2-year-olds who have performed poorly in their first couple of starts may show significant improvement once they are gelded. Since only a small percentage of male horses actually go to stud when their racing careers are over, the vast majority are gelded eventually. "New" geldings can improve without warning, so pay attention!

Post Position
I tend to steer clear of debuters who are forced to leave from the rail post unless I think they can flash good enough speed to clear the field. Chances are they are going to be locked in tight most of the trip and most young horses do not know how to react. It's even more difficult over traditional dirt tracks because the kick back is much more pronounced. Because of their inexperience, young horses do much better work when their allowed to race in the clear.

The Looks
Often times it's the way a baby looks in the post parade that sends me to the window. Some 2-year-olds develop more quickly than others, both mentally and physically. Look for a horse that is handling their surroundings professionally. In sprint races, look for the ones who appear to filled out their frames and those who are well muscled through the chest and hind end areas. Horses with baby fat need to round into shape and are not quite ready to compete at a high level. Horses with sleeker, more athletic frames are usually built to route, and chances are they'll need more time to develop.

The Toteboard
Always watch the board for clues, and remember early money is smart money. Horses take a lot of early action for a reason. It means their connections are confident in their horse's natural ability and believe they will run a big race.