Stakes histories can identify strong or vulnerable favorites

February 7th, 2024

Not all stakes races are equally kind to favorites. Some regularly churn out short-priced winners, while others toss up longshots more often than not.

These trends are influenced by many factors—typical field size, time of year, the types of horses that tend to enter, whether there’s a dominant trainer on the circuit—and the trends can change over time. But reviewing the last 10 to 12 years of a stakes race’s history can tell you whether favorites tend to perform well or not.

A striking example is the Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita. Prior to its 2024 renewal on Feb. 4, here’s how favorites had performed in the previous 11 editions:

2023: Newgate, first at odds of 1-1
2022: Messier, first at 3-5
2021: Medina Spirit, first at 1-1
2020: Thousand Words, first at 3-5
2019: Mucho Gusto, first at 3-5
2018: Shivermetimbers, seventh at 2-1
2017: Sheer Flattery, third at 7-5
2016: Mor Spirit, first at 7-10
2015: Dortmund, first at 3-5
2014: Midnight Hawk, third at 13-10
2013: Flashback, first at 1-2

That’s eight winning favorites in 11 years, and the eight winning favorites were all trained by Bob Baffert. When Baffert’s Nysos started as the 1-10 favorite in the 2024 Robert B. Lewis, the outcome went according to script: Nysos dominated by 7 1/2 lengths.

There isn’t much money to be made betting odds-on favorites, but when a race has a tendency to produce upset winners, attuned bettors are in line for lucrative payoffs.

Consider the Holy Bull (G3) at Gulfstream Park, which in 2024 took place on the same day as the Robert B. Lewis. Whereas history correctly indicated Nysos would be formidable in the Lewis, a similar review of recent Holy Bull winners pointed to the possibility that 1-5 favorite Fierceness—the reigning champion two-year-old male—would fall to defeat in his first start of 2024.

Here’s how favorites had performed in the Holy Bull since 2012:

2023: Cyclone Mischief, seventh at 6-5
2022: Mo Donegal, third at 17-10
2021: Prime Factor, third at 11-10
2020: Tiz the Law, first at 13-10
2019: Maximus Mischief, third at 9-10
2018: Enticed, fourth at 19-10
2017: Classic Empire, third at 1-2
2016: Mohaymen, first at 3-10
2015: Frosted, second at 3-2
2014: Cairo Prince, first at 2-1
2013: Shanghai Bobby, second at 1-1
2012: Hansen, second at 9-10

The previous dozen editions of the Holy Bull had seen nine favorites fall to defeat at odds lower than 2-1. The losing favorites included reigning champion two-year-olds Hansen, Shanghai Bobby, and Classic Empire, all of whom ran below expectations while making their three-year-old debuts in the Holy Bull.

The same fate befell Fierceness. A troubled start and a wide trip may have compromised his chances, but Fierceness could only finish third behind Hades (9-1) and Domestic Product (14-1).

There will always be exceptions to the overall trends, but getting an idea of whether a favorite is likely to win or lose a given stakes is a helpful start to handicapping.