When analyzing layoffs, sometimes basic handicapping trumps all

May 10th, 2023

There are many ways handicappers can gauge whether a horse is ready to win off a long layoff. They can analyze trainer stats. They can review workouts. They can check whether the horse has won off layoffs in the past.

All these methods are sound, but there’s another important factor to consider when handicapping a horse returning from a layoff. It’s actually a simple one—has the horse shown the ability to win a race like the one you’re handicapping? Sometimes, regular handicapping logic trumps the layoff factor.

Let’s provide a pair of contrasting examples that showed up on May 6, 2023 at Churchill Downs. The opening race on Kentucky Derby Day was a $100,000 allowance optional claimer for three-year-olds sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs on dirt, and the favorite at 1.11-1 was Extra Anejo. At one time, the Triple Crown nominee had been ranked as an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

But come Derby Day, Extra Anejo hadn’t run in seven months. Indeed, he hadn’t run since dominating his debut in a maiden special weight sprinting at Keeneland, in which he led all the way to win by 9 1/2 lengths.

Though obviously a talented prospect, Extra Anejo’s early reputation as a Kentucky Derby contender arguably drove his odds upon return below fair value. It’s not uncommon for flashy maiden winners to come up short while facing proven winners second-time out, and combined with the question mark of the seven-month layoff, Extra Anejo appeared at least a little vulnerable.

No such uncertainties surrounded Cody’s Wish, the 0.72-1 favorite to win the Churchill Downs (G1) for older horses dashing seven furlongs on dirt. With a 4-for-4 record at Churchill Downs and a five-race win streak under his belt, the five-year-old veteran loomed as a standout in his first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) six months prior.

So what happened? In the allowance optional claimer, Extra Anejo broke a bit slowly before rallying wide down the homestretch. He gained ground in the final furlong, but fell one length short of catching 1.74-1 second choice Federal Judge, a strong alternative contender after trouncing a maiden special weight at Oaklawn Park just one month prior. Betting $20 on the Federal Judge-Extra Anejo exacta would have returned $121.20, a generous payoff for a perfectly logical outcome.

In the Churchill Downs, Cody’s Wish settled in last place early on before roaring past the leaders with authority to win by 4 3/4 lengths. Hoist the Gold, the 10-1 third choice off a narrow defeat in Keeneland’s Commonwealth (G3) one month prior, completed a $20 exacta that returned $250.60.

When a star horse like Cody’s Wish returns from a layoff in a race that’s suited to his strengths, you can be more certain of a strong effort (and thus more willing to accept a short price) than when a largely untested runner like Extra Anejo ends a lengthy break.