Pedigree Handicapping: From Dirt to Turf to the Winner's Circle

February 18th, 2018

Pedigrees, Race Conditions and Racing Surface

When a horse tries a different racing surface for the first time, it can be difficult for handicappers to know what to expect. For example, if the horse has been racing on dirt, how will they react when switching to turf?

Due to the uncertainty involved, there is a tendency for handicappers to dismiss the chances of horses like this and favor runners that are already proven over a particular surface. However, an examination of pedigrees can often reveal overlooked contenders that might enjoy a change in conditions.

A perfect example is a horse named Masked, who races for the Hall of Fame trainer . The three-year-old colt debuted on January 20th in a 6 ½-furlong maiden special weight on dirt at Santa Anita, and since pre-race hype suggested that Masked had the potential to be a good colt, he was sent off as the heavy favorite at odds of 1.90-1.

Surprisingly, Masked was never a serious contender. After settling a couple lengths off the early pace, he steadily retreated to finish fifth out of six starters, beaten 24 lengths.

Three weeks later, the colt returned in another 6 ½-furlong race at Santa Anita… but this time, he would be racing over the downhill turf course instead of the main track. Even the briefest examination of Masked’s pedigree suggested that he had the potential to show huge improvement on grass—his sire, Data Link, was a Grade 1 winner going a mile on turf, and Masked’s half-brother Sky Marshal was a two-time winner turf winner and also runner-up in Woodbine’s important Summer Stakes (gr. II) on grass.

Whether due to his disappointing first start or the fact that Baffert isn’t known for training turf horses, Masked was allowed to start as a 9-1 shot in his turf debut. At those odds, even a win bet would have been an excellent play—as it turned out, Masked relished the switch to turf and won easily in gate-to-wire fashion, with every $2 win bet returning a generous $20.80. But bold handicappers willing to play Masked on top of a trifecta while using the three logical favorites for second and third received an even bigger award—playing that trifecta for $1 (a total cost of $6) would have returned an eye-catching $231.20.

Not bad for a simple pedigree play!