Why it pays to look beyond a horse's most recent race

February 22nd, 2023

When handicapping a horse race, it’s natural to look at the most recent performance of each horse to gauge their current form and determine their chances of winning.

But while the most recent race is often the most important to consider, it’s usually not the only race on their record, and digging a little further back is important to avoid missing pertinent form clues.

A stark example occurred on Feb. 20, 2023, in the seventh race on a Sunday afternoon at Oaklawn Park. The race in question was a $20,000 starter allowance taking place over 1 1/16 miles on dirt, and bettors who overemphasized the most recent effort of each horse surely underestimated the chances of Disc Jockey.

Disc Jockey entered the $20,000 starter allowance off a less-than-inspiring performance in a $62,500 allowance optional claimer at Oaklawn, in which he never challenged and finished sixth by half a dozen lengths. He’d previously won four straight races, so Disc Jockey’s last-out failure could be interpreted as a sign of regression. Perhaps his hot streak was over.

But Disc Jockey’s poor showing was forgivable. He was competing at a higher class level, and even in defeat he earned an 87 Brisnet Speed rating that looked competitive against his $20,000 starter allowance rivals. For another, Disc Jockey’s misfire came over a muddy track, his first start on anything other than fast dirt. Perhaps the wet footing explained why Disc Jockey ran below his best.

Bettors who dismissed Disc Jockey off his most recent race were likely drawn to Hellorhighwater, a blowout winner of back-to-back $12,500 and $10,000 starter allowances at Oaklawn. But with a fast track on the agenda for the $20,000 starter allowance, bettors willing to look at Disc Jockey’s overall record had good reason to expect a rebound.

So what happened? Disc Jockey started as the favorite at the arguably generous odds of 13-10 and employed pace-tracking tactics to defeat Hellorhighwater (the 5-1 third choice) by 1 1/4 lengths. A $20 win bet on Disc Jockey returned $46, while the $20 exacta paid $184.

The poet Alexander Pope wrote “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” In a roundabout way, this can be applied to horse racing. Horses aren’t machines, and any number of events can trigger a poor performance. Knowing when to forgive a subpar result is often the key to cashing tickets.