When a horse suddenly improves, is it a new normal?

November 22nd, 2023

When an experienced horse steps up and runs a race far better than any they’ve previously run, it’s fair to wonder if it was a one-time fluke. But if the improvement coincided with an obvious change, it might be a new normal.

History is filled with examples, perhaps none more famous than Cigar. His first two starts (including a maiden win) came on dirt, but then he switched to turf and won only once in 11 grass tries. Cigar ran okay in a couple of graded stakes, finishing third in the Ascot H. (G3) and second in the Volante H. (G3), but he improved dramatically when returning to dirt late in his four-year-old season. Indeed, Cigar won 17 of his remaining 20 races, picking up 11 Grade 1 wins on his way to earning two Horse of the Year titles.

A surface switch can trigger improvement, and so can a distance change. Remember Whitmore? After placing in a trio of Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers and finishing 19th in the 2016 Kentucky Derby (G1), Whitmore cut back from route races to sprint distances and rattled off five consecutive victories, including a pair of graded stakes. He remained a top-tier sprinter for years, most notably winning the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1). Ultimately, Whitmore retired with a 15-for-38 record in sprints and a 0-for-5 record in routes.

Changing trainers can make a big difference in some cases. Backatya was in the midst of an 11-race losing streak when he was claimed by high-percentage trainer Anthony Farrior in August 2023. After taking a couple of months off, Backatya dominated his first start under Farrior’s care, wiring a $5,000 claimer at Laurel Park by 2 3/4 lengths while posting a 91 Brisnet Speed rating—nine points higher than any number he’d posted in his previous nine starts. And it turned out that victory wasn’t a fluke, for Backatya returned one month later to wire an allowance at Mahoning Valley by two lengths.

Not every horse who improves with a change will maintain their elevated level of form; if they did, handicapping would be easy. But you shouldn’t fall into the trap of dismissing as flukes horses who improve dramatically when there’s a seemingly obvious explanation for their improvement.

After all, in Cigar’s second start back on dirt, he dominated the NYRA Mile H. (G1) at odds of 8-1. Wouldn’t that have been a nice payoff to catch?