28-1 longshot reiterates the power of changing distances

February 27th, 2024

Everyone knows some horses are better sprinting and others are better running long. Rare is the horse who enjoys equal success in both sprints and routes.

We’ve written about this extensively in the past—how horses cutting back from two-turn races to one-turn races can sharply improve, and how Road to the Kentucky Derby alumni who show early promise over route distances can turn out to be sprinter/milers in the long run.

But it works the other way too. Sometimes horses improve by leaps and bounds when stretching out from sprints to routes, as was vividly apparent when Lemon Muffin upset the 2024 Honeybee (G3) at Oaklawn Park.

Lemon Muffin entered the Honeybee as a 28-1 longshot in part because she’d never won a race. She’d started five times without success in maiden special weight sprints at Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and Oaklawn Park. The gray filly clearly had some ability—she’d finished second four times—but surely entering a Road to the Kentucky Oaks qualifier as a maiden was too much to ask?

It appeared that way to many bettors, but handicappers willing to think outside the box could recognize the possibility of Lemon Muffin improving while stretching out over 1 1/16 miles in the Honeybee. Her sire, Collected, won five graded stakes running long, including the 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic (G1). And Lemon Muffin’s dam, Pelt, had previously foaled a pair of route winners, including the narrowly beaten 1 1/16-mile Charles Taylor Derby runner-up Creative Bid.

Granted, Lemon Muffin was facing tough competition in the Honeybee. Favored West Omaha came in off a runaway victory in the one-mile and 70-yard Silverbulletday S. on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks. Band of Gold boasted a 2 3/4-length triumph in Oaklawn’s 1 1/16-mile Martha Washington S., another Road to the Kentucky Oaks qualifier. And Alys Beach exited a third-place finish in the Alcibiades (G1) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. To back a maiden like Lemon Muffin just because she was stretching out in distance seemed risky.

But then again, Lemon Muffin entered off back-to-back bullet workouts at Oaklawn Park: five furlongs in :59 3/5 and a half-mile in :46 4/5. And her Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas had won several graded stakes at Oaklawn during the previous two years, including the 2022 Honeybee with future Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Secret Oath. In other words, there were things to like about Lemon Muffin beyond the fact she was changing distances.

In the end, Lemon Muffin trounced the Honeybee, rallying smoothly around the far turn before drawing clear with authority to win by 3 1/2 lengths. Every $20 win bet returned $582.

The next time you see a longshot tackling a route race for the first time, keep an open mind to the possibility they’ll improve dramatically. Many won’t, but a few will, and if you can find other reasons to like a longshot you might be looking at a solid upset threat.