Subtleties in race grades can produce lucrative payoffs

May 24th, 2023

You might assume that a Grade 1 race is better than a Grade 2, and a Grade 2 is better than a Grade 3. That’s a good rule of thumb, but it doesn’t always hold true.

In any given year, a Grade 1 race can come up weak and look not much better than a Grade 3. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for a Grade 2 to draw a deep field that could easily be mistaken for a Grade 1. Recognizing these year-by-year subtleties is important when handicapping graded stakes.

This was apparent on May 19, 2023, when nine three-year-old fillies squared off in the 1 1/8-mile Black-Eyed Susan (G2) at Pimlico. A strict interpretation of race grades would have identified Faiza as the most likely winner based off her triumphs in the Starlet (G1) and Santa Anita Oaks (G2). In contrast, no one would have been eager to bet Taxed off her runner-up finishes in the Fantasy (G3) and the ungraded Martha Washington S.

But a closer look at the form lines of Faiza and Taxed told a different story. Faiza had never run outside of California, and the best filly she’d beaten—And Tell Me Nolies, runner-up in the Santa Anita Oaks—had faltered to finish 12th when talented three-year-old fillies from around the country faced off in the prestigious Kentucky Oaks (G1). And Tell Me Nolies received a rough trip in the Kentucky Oaks, but her 17-length defeat didn’t flatter Faiza’s form.

In contrast, Taxed’s runner-up efforts in the Fantasy and Martha Washington came against Wet Paint, who finished fourth as the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. Furthermore, in the Martha Washington, Taxed finished ahead of Defining Purpose, who later won the Ashland (G1) and finished seventh in the Kentucky Oaks.

Interpreting the Black-Eyed Susan in this manner also pointed to Hoosier Philly as a live contender. As a two-year-old, she’d dominated the Golden Rod (G2) by five lengths over a field including future Kentucky Oaks winner Pretty Mischievous. Hoosier Philly entered the Black-Eyed Susan with an 0-for-2 record in 2023, but finishing behind Pretty Mischievous when third in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) and fourth in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) gave Hoosier Philly the form lines to factor at Pimlico.

In other words, an analysis of the actual horses participating in all these graded stakes hinted that Faiza’s Grade 1 and Grade 2 wins may have come against weaker competition than the rivals Taxed encountered in a Grade 3 and ungraded stakes, while Hoosier Philly appeared to fit quite well at the Grade 2 level despite her defeats in 2023.

Suffice to say, bettors who reached these conclusions were handsomely rewarded. A sharp rally from midfield carried Taxed to an 11-1 upset victory in the Black-Eyed Susan, and every $20 win bet returned $240. Hoosier Philly started at 6-1 and finished a clear second over 3-5 favorite Faiza, resulting in a $1 exacta that paid $94.80 and a $1 trifecta that returned $270.70.

That’s quite a payday for an outcome that wasn’t surprising to bettors who recognized the quality of competition Taxed and Hoosier Philly had been facing, actual race grades notwithstanding.