Oaklawn Park: How scrutinizing race conditions can be beneficial

December 16th, 2022

The first thing bettors should generally do before handicapping a race is read and comprehend its conditions. Most of the time they are pretty straightforward. However, in order to boost field sizes, racing secretaries over the past decade or two have had to get highly creative in writing races for which a wide variety of horses are eligible. This has been especially true in regards to allowance races.

The importance of reading race conditions hit home during the first couple days of the 2022-23 Oaklawn Park meet last week. On both Friday (Dec. 9) and Saturday (Dec. 10) Oaklawn carded what were ostensibly first-level allowances. The conditions, as written, were: THREE YEARS OLD AND UPWARD WHICH HAVE NEVER WON $23,000 OTHER THAN MAIDEN, CLAIMING, STARTER, OR STATE BRED ALLOWANCE OR WHICH HAVE NEVER WON TWO RACES.

Note that amount of $23,000. Using the standard rule of thumb of a 60% winner's share, the race was open to any horse that had previously won an open, non-restricted allowance, provided the total value of that race did not exceed approximately $38,333. These conditions, which we are likely to see more of as the Oaklawn meet progresses, seem designed to benefit horses coming in from certain "feeder" tracks, as we shall see.

The top two choices in Friday's seventh race were the three-year-old fillies Hazy Command (3.00-1) and Hypersport (3.30-1), and each brought a different record into the six-furlong test. Although Hazy Command had recently placed in two N2X allowances, one on Oct. 4 at Horseshoe Indianapolis and the other on Nov. 20 at Churchill Downs, she was eligible for the Oaklawn race because her N1X win, on July 20 at Indianapolis, carried a total purse of only $36,000. In contrast, the multiple stakes-placed Hypersport had never won above maiden level and had finished second and fourth in her two most recent starts, both N1X allowances.

The betting public was right to make Hazy Command a slight favorite over Hypersport, whom she beat by three lengths and paid $8. Finishing third was the 3.40-1 third choice Empire Pass, who had won N1X and N2X allowances at Remington Park in her two most recent starts, though neither race was worth more than $36,300.

Saturday's 10th race, for males going six furlongs, carried similar conditions but brought about a more satisfying pari-mutuel result for those who scooped out the relatively more accomplished horse. The lukewarm favorite at 2.90-1 was the three-year-old Golden Hornet, who had passed his N1X condition at Hawthorne on Oct. 1 in a race which carried a total value of $34,000. The second choice at 4.20-1 was Ben Diesel, who was on the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail earlier this year and had recently run second in two N1X allowances in Kentucky.

Drawing into the race from the also-eligible list was the 4.30-1 third choice, Mrs. Beans, who was more accomplished than the above two, generally speaking. The four-year-old entered having won two allowances since Aug. 26, but was eligible for the Oaklawn race because neither Remington race was worth more than $36,300. In the event, Mrs. Beans rallied to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Golden Hornet and paid $10.60, with Ben Diesel up the track in ninth.

The takeaway from this exercise is not to give a blanket endorsement to all allowance horses shipping in to Oaklawn from feeder tracks with vastly lower purse structures. There are many other factors to consider, and they can vary from race to race. However, when examining the betting market, it's not a bad idea to give extra consideration to a horse who on paper is "over-qualified" relative to the race's ostensible condition, especially compared to a less accomplished rival (or rivals) going off at similar or shorter odds.