Horse racing: What happens when no one is fast enough to win?

April 13th, 2020

What do you do when you’re handicapping a horse race and you come to the conclusion none of the runners are fast enough to win?

It’s a strange and multi-faceted quandary, because no matter how unremarkable a field appears on paper, someone has to wind up in the winner’s circle.

Many bettors choose to skip playing such races. Why wager on an event where you don’t like any of the participants? But in some cases, the weakest races on paper can be the most lucrative to play.

Strong races, featuring two or three clearly superior runners, are rarely won in upset fashion. Imagine a race where the two favorites have consistently posted Brisnet Speed ratings in the ~100 range, while their rivals have struggled to reach the 90 mark. It’s unlikely both of the fast favorites will be defeated — the longshots would have to improve too much to vie for victory. And even if one of the favorites misfired, the other would probably pull through to win at a short price, which will trigger small payoffs across the board.

Races involving fan favorite California Chrome rarely ended with major upsets. The few horses capable of beating the two-time Horse of the Year were talented runners, bet down to short prices in the wagering. (Benoit Photo)

Now imagine a race where every runner has earned Brisnet Speed ratings in the ~85 range, but the typical winning figure for the class level and distance (easily viewable under the “pars” section of Brisnet Ultimate Past Performances) is 90.

None of the runners are fast enough to win of that caliber, so even the longest shot on the board could win with a small step forward.

Races like these can reward thinking outside the box. I recently handicapped a maiden special weight at Oaklawn Park, with a dozen horses in the field. Eleven were experienced runners who appeared too slow to win.

The par winning Brisnet Speed rating for the class and distance was 88, but only one runner had ever reached that plateau, with an 89 nearly two years earlier. And none seemed poised for substantial improvement.

So rather than choose among slow runners I didn’t particularly care for, I favored the field’s lone first-time starter, a 4-year-old named Don Vito Corleone. Since he’d never run, he’d yet to prove he was too slow to win. His workouts were quick and a hot jockey was listed to ride, so I took a chance at 25-1.

I must admit I felt a little guilty when Don Vito Corleone surged to the front in the homestretch and held on to win by 1 1/4 lengths, paying $52.60 for every $2 win bet. The only reason I played him is because I didn’t like anyone else, but once in a while, that’s as good a reason as any.