Why forgiving a disappointing second start can reap rewards

February 21st, 2024

When a horse wins impressively on debut, but follows up with a disappointing defeat second-time out, it can be tempting to dismiss them as a flash in the pan.

But jumping off the bandwagon too soon can be a mistake. Sometimes those impressive debuts are legitimate, and it’s the disappointing second starts that should be overlooked.

Consider Forte, the champion two-year-old male of 2022. When he debuted in a five-furlong maiden special weight at Belmont Park, he dominated by 7 3/4 lengths and looked like a budding stakes star. Some bettors jumped ship after Forte faltered to fourth place as favorite in his second start, the Sanford (G3) at Saratoga, but that proved to be Forte’s only poor run of the year. He subsequently crossed the wire first in three straight top-tier prizes: the Hopeful (G1), the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). Forte wasn’t favored in any of those contests, and $20 win bets returned $158, $108.60, and $120.40.

Forte wasn’t the only flashy debut winner to falter in the 2022 Sanford. Boppy O won his debut sprinting five furlongs at Gulfstream Park in a sharp performance, then finished 10th in the Sanford. He subsequently switched to turf for the With Anticipation (G3) at Saratoga and bounced back to win by a neck at 23-1, paying $482 for every $20 win bet.

And how about Curly Jack? After dominating a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill Downs by four lengths, he made his second start in the 2022 Sanford and finished fifth, a head behind Forte. In Curly Jack’s third start, he bounced back to finish second by a head in the Ellis Park Juvenile S., and his fourth try produced a 10-1 upset victory in the Iroquois (G3) at Churchill Downs. A $20 win bet returned $236.60.

A more recent example is Tarifa. She looked like something special when trouncing her debut at Keeneland by six lengths, so it was surprising to see her falter to fourth place as the favorite in her second start, a $100,000 allowance optional claimer at Churchill Downs. It turns out that defeat was the fluke, as Tarifa’s third start yielded victory in a $100,000 allowance optional claimer at Fair Grounds, and her fourth run saw her join the graded stakes ranks with a decisive victory in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) at Fair Grounds. In the latter race, she started at 5-2 and every $20 win bet paid $70.

There are certainly instances where impressive debut winners never replicate their first performance, but forgiving a second-start defeat can be the path to enticing payoffs in third and fourth starts, as the above examples illustrate.