How Horses for Courses Can Produce Big Payoffs

December 12th, 2017

“Horse for the course” is a phrase frequently heard in the sport of horse racing. Some horses have a preference for the conditions at certain racetracks, whether it’s the type of racing surface installed, the direction or sharpness of the turns, or a variety of other subtle factors.

Needless to say, these facts can be very useful for handicappers, helping them to identify horses that like (or dislike) a particular track and then consider those preferences while planning their bets.

Whenever I think of horses for courses, I think back to a gelding from several years ago named Rezif. He didn’t win very often, but he seemed to have an affinity for the unique, European-style turf course at Kentucky Downs. As a lightly-raced four-year-old in 2009, he ran in the 1 ½-mile Kentucky Cup Turf Stakes (gr. III) at Kentucky Downs, and while it was difficult to make a case for him before the race—he’d never run that far and seemed overmatched—he obviously relished the conditions and produced a huge late run to finish second at 33-1 behind a horse named Cloudy’s Knight.

The following season saw Rezif embark on a lengthy losing streak, but many of his defeats were forgivable since he routinely produced big rallies while running distances much shorter than 1 ½ miles.

Then Rezif was entered as a longshot in the 2010 Kentucky Cup Turf Stakes.

The heavy favorite to win was Cloudy’s Knight, who had followed up his win in the 2009 Kentucky Cup Turf with four huge runs in late-season marathons. But Cloudy’s Knight was now ten years old and coming back from a tendon injury that had kept him on the sidelines for more than eight months. Entering the Kentucky Cup Turf, he had only two workouts under his belt. On class, he was clearly the best horse in the race, but could he be trusted at a short price?

Aside from Cloudy’s Knight, the only other horses that seemed likely to contend were Free Fighter and Coolcullen Times. Under the circumstances—with a vulnerable favorite, a very live longshot, and only two other contenders to consider—it seemed logical to aim for a big score with a trifecta. And since Rezif—the “horse for the course”—was the value in the bet, it made sense to emphasize him in the wagers.

A bold handicapper might have played only Rezif on top and boxed Cloudy’s Knight, Free Fighter, and Coolcullen Times for second and third; a $2 ticket would have cost just $12. A safer strategy would have played two more tickets, one keying Rezif in second (with the other three horses in first and third) and the other keying Rezif in third (with the other three horses in first and second) for a total cost of $36.

In any case, the horse for the course angle worked to perfection. Cloudy’s Knight took the lead with a quarter-mile remaining, but Rezif—apparently delighted to be back at Kentucky Downs—galloped on by and won by 6 ¼ lengths at odds of 18.40-1. Cloudy’s Knight finished a clear second, and Free Fighter rounded out a $2 trifecta that paid $477.80. Not bad!