How trainer stats can point toward future stakes winners

December 27th, 2022

Not every trainer wins at a lofty percentage with first-time starters. If a trainer’s win rate drops from 16% overall to 4% with debuting runners, betting those unraced horses probably isn’t the best strategy.

But there’s an inverse to statistics like these. A trainer who wins 4% of the time with first-time starters may win at a significantly higher rate with second-time starters. And when you come across a horse who defies the stats and wins at first asking for a low-percentage debut trainer, you might be looking at a special horse. Maybe even a stakes winner.

An interesting example comes from Brad Cox, winner of the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer in both 2020 and 2021. Cox is one of the most successful trainers in North America, and his lifetime win rate stands at a lofty 25%. Across the board, Cox wins at high percentages in almost every category… but not with first-time starters.

To be fair, Cox’s lifetime win rate saddling debut runners is a solid 19%. It’s only by Cox’s own 25% standard that 19% seems low.

But these stats point to a powerful truth. Even though 19% is an admirable win rate, Cox’s runners often improve off their debuts. So when a Cox runner wins at first asking, it’s wise to sit up and take notice, because they likely have upside for improvement.

On Dec. 26, 2022, Cox saddled a bevy of talented horses on a stakes-packed card at Fair Grounds. Two of the most interesting were Corona Bolt, the 1-2 favorite to win the Sugar Bowl S., and 1-2 Dazzling Blue, the top choice in the Letellier Memorial S.

Both Corona Bolt and Dazzling Blue arrived at Fair Grounds off promising debut victories at Churchill Downs. It was hardly a stretch to think they would improve in their second starts. Just as encouraging was the fact they would race on Lasix for the first time, a powerful 38% winning move for Cox.

So what happened? Corona Bolt left no doubt about his superiority in the Sugar Bowl, leading all the way to win by 6 3/4 lengths. Dazzling Blue was similarly dominant in the Letellier Memorial, wiring the field by three lengths.

Later in the afternoon, Cox saddled Jace’s Road in the Gun Runner S. on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Previously third in the Iroquois (G3) and eighth in the Street Sense (G3), Jace’s Road had broken his maiden first time out during the summer at Ellis Park, triumphing by 6 1/4 lengths in an exciting performance.

The Gun Runner marked Jace’s Road’s fourth start, and he finally lived up to the promise he displayed on debut, leading all the way to score by 5 1/2 lengths at odds of 12-5.

The takeaway? When a trainer wins at a lower-than-expected win rate with first-time starters, it’s worth paying attention when the trainer does saddle a winning debut runner. As the Cox example vividly illustrates, you might be looking at a future stakes winner.