5 times you should consider opposing the betting favorite

August 23rd, 2022

Just because a horse is favored to win a race doesn’t mean it’s the most likely winner. Favorites do well to win 40% of the time, which means even on a good day they lose more often than not.

How can you tell when a favorite is vulnerable to defeat? The answer varies from one situation to the next, but here are five common examples of when a favorite might not be trustworthy:

1. They’re trying a new distance

A sprinter stretching out over one mile, a route runner cutting back to a sprint, a miler tackling 1 1/4 miles… when a horse tries an unfamiliar distance for the first time (or for the first time in many starts), it comes with a bit of uncertainty. Certainly many horses win their first try over a new distance (particularly young horses), but others struggle, and backing a favorite over an unproven journey can be risky.

Pedigree stats, including those found in Brisnet Ultimate Past Performances, can help you identify which horses are more or less likely to thrive with a distance change.

2. They’re switching surfaces

Even riskier than a distance change is a surface switch, because horses who truly thrive over more than one of the three racing surfaces (dirt, turf, and synthetic) are uncommon. Again, pedigree statistics can help you determine whether a favorite is suited to a new surface, or if the switch introduces vulnerability.

3. They’re facing winners for the first time

When a horse wins a maiden race, by definition they are defeating horses who have never visited the winner’s circle. Impressive winners of quality maiden races frequently go on to win their next start (this is especially true for juveniles), but facing established winners for the first time isn’t an easy jump for every horse. Particularly at lower class levels, making the jump from a maiden race (say, a $10,000 maiden claimer) into a regular race (like a $10,000 claimer) can be challenging. A favorite making this move should be supported with caution.

4. They’re shifting from state-restricted to unrestricted competition

The criteria for eligibility can vary dramatically from one horse race to the next. One significant restriction limits participation to horses bred in a certain state or country—for example, a stakes for horses bred in Indiana.

Races restricted by birthplace tend to be easier than unrestricted races of the same type, and stakes held under these conditions are ineligible for graded status. If you see a favorite switching from a state-restricted race into an otherwise identical unrestricted race, proceed carefully.

5. They’re returning from a long layoff

Some trainers excel at preparing horses to return from long breaks, but if the layoff stretches beyond six months to one year, it’s fair to question if the horse will return in the same form as they left off. Long layoffs can be caused by a setback or injury, and there’s no guarantee the horse will return to its previous form, especially in its first start off the break.

You may still choose to support a favorite under one or more of these circumstances, but acknowledging the challenges they face may lead you to bigger paydays with non-favored runners. Good luck!