Two-year-old season overview: What to look for as the Breeders' Cup approaches

July 14th, 2023

The opening of the summer meets at Saratoga and Del Mar annually signal the acceleration of the two-year-old racing scene to full speed.

Some of the best juveniles in the country annually compete at Saratoga and Del Mar in the many high-quality stakes and maiden races, which serve as steppingstones toward the five Breeders’ Cup races for two-year-olds contested each November.

You might be wondering, 'What’s the best way to analyze these lightly raced juveniles and find winners as summer and fall progress toward the Breeders’ Cup?' We’ve compiled a few tips to aid your handicapping:

1. Check out leading sire lists

Some stallions consistently sire high-class two-year-olds. Into Mischief, for example, has ranked as North America’s leading sire of juveniles by progeny earnings in 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2022.

But it pays to keep an eye on the list of leading first-crop sires, which includes stallions whose oldest foals are two years old. As the season progresses, a dominant young sire often emerges, and betting his foals in stakes and maiden races alike is often a winning strategy. Such was the case when Gun Runner dominated the first-crop sire rankings in 2021—his 31 winning foals included four graded stakes winners, two Grade 1 winners, and one champion.

As of this writing, champion male sprinter Mitole sits atop the 2023 first-crop sire rankings, having sired four winners led by Debutante S. runner-up V V’s Dream. But the rankings can shift substantially as two-year-olds tackle longer distances and stamina becomes more important than speed.

Bettors are advised to watch out for second-ranked Vino Rosso, a champion dirt male who already counts Bashford Manor S. winner The Wine Steward among his progeny. Vino Rosso is a stoutly bred son of Curlin, whose sons have been performing well as stallions, so look for Vino Rosso to heat up as the year goes on.

Omaha Beach, currently ranked fifth, is also worth watching. The speedy triple-Grade 1 winner has sired three winners from 10 starters and has the pedigree to succeed at stud, so a major winner might be just around the corner for Omaha Beach.

2. Look for horses who finish fast

There’s a reason why two-year-olds don’t compete against older horses—with rare exceptions, they’re not mature enough and fast enough to compete on even terms with their elders. They tend to tire at the end of dirt races and finish slower than older horses in turf races.

That’s why it’s important to sit up and take notice when a two-year-old does display strong finishing speed. In a six-furlong dirt sprint, for example, any two-year-old that runs the final two furlongs around :12 apiece (or even :12.20 apiece) has shown significant talent. Remember Uncle Mo, the spectacular champion two-year-old male of 2010? When he obliterated his debut sprinting six furlongs at Saratoga by 14 1/4 lengths, he ran the final two furlongs in :11.78 and :11.76. Now there’s a mark of talent!

This effect is even more pronounced in races over one mile or longer. If a two-year-old can run a final quarter-mile of a one-mile dirt race around :24.50 or less, or the final five-sixteenths of a mile in less than :31.00, that’s a good sign. In 2015, a two-year-old named Gun Runner won his debut racing one mile at Churchill Downs by running his final quarter-mile in :23.84. In 2017, he won a bevy of Grade 1 races and was voted Horse of the Year.

On turf, which is a faster surface than dirt, even stronger finishing fractions are required in order to be noteworthy. In turf routes, look for a horse who can sprint the final quarter-mile of a one-mile race around :23.80 or less, or the final five-sixteenths in less than :29.60. Remember that all of these times are for fast tracks and firm turf; racing over wet footing can decrease finishing speed (especially on turf), so keep the apparent speed of the track in mind when analyzing finishing fractions.

3. The best juvenile early in the season isn’t always the best by the season’s end

It’s not uncommon for early-maturing juveniles to look like superstars during the spring and early summer, only to falter as the year goes on. Quite often Breeders’ Cup winners get started later in the season, saving their best for autumn when the stakes are high.

Case in point? Seven of the last 10 horses voted champion two-year-old male debuted in August, September, or October, leaving only three who debuted in July or earlier. Some early-maturing standouts maintain their dominance into fall, but as a general rule, it pays to oppose juveniles who stake their reputations in June or July and instead assume the runners who emerge in late summer and fall will soon supersede the early stars.