Horses debuting in stakes can win and pay nicely

August 22nd, 2023

Once in a while, you’ll see an unraced horse enter a stakes or graded stakes. You might assume an inexperienced first-time starter is overmatched against stakes-caliber rivals, but that isn’t always the case.

When a first-time starter enters a stakes, it can be a sign of confidence from their connections. A maiden race might have been the easier spot, but stakes are more prestigious (and usually richer), so the allure of stakes competition for a promising-but-unraced horse can be enticing.

The move is most often made with two-year-olds, and that’s understandable since none of the runners in a juvenile stakes (particularly early in the season) will have much experience to their credit. A high-profile example occurred on Aug. 5, 2012 at Del Mar in the Best Pal (then a G2) for two-year-olds sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs on synthetic. Know More was the lone first-time starter in an eight-horse field, and the Doug O’Neill trainee rallied gamely from 4 1/2 lengths off the pace to win by half a length. He later ran second in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and FrontRunner (G1), reiterating his talent.

A similar result unfolded more recently at Saratoga. In the six-furlong Schuylerville (G3) on July 13, 2023, Becky’s Joker—the only unraced filly in a seven-horse field—was overlooked at odds of 21-1. But that didn’t stop the well-bred daughter of Practical Joke from drawing off down the homestretch to win by 3 1/4 lengths.

Occasionally, an older horse will successfully debut in a stakes. On July 11, 2022, the Tyson Gilpin S. for Virginia-bred/sired fillies and mares sprinting 5 1/2 furlongs on turf at Colonial Downs drew a five-horse field. Four of them had experience, but the fifth was an unraced five-year-old mare named Chambeau. The daughter of Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) winner Karakontie entered off sharp workouts, and the fact her connections had persevered to get her to the races at age five—and then debut her in a stakes—was intriguing.

Chambeau started as the 44-10 fourth choice, and when she led all the way to beat favored Carolina Sun by 3 1/4 lengths, she paid $10.80 for every $2 win bet and triggered a hefty $2 exacta payoff of $28.20.

Not every first-time starter entered in a stakes will reap the same dividends; many fall to defeat. But the same can be said of any type of horse in any type of race. Bettors shouldn’t automatically dismiss first-time starters entered in stakes, because the rewards when they win are too enticing to pass up.