I noticed an eye-opening trend recently. Since the beginning of 2009, young horses — 2- year-olds and 3-year-olds — making their first lifetime starts at So. California tracks are not winning with the frequency they once did, and almost all of them are unprofitable long-term plays.
Maybe it’s the synthetic tracks, maybe it’s a short-term variance to be fixed by the law of large numbers, or maybe during these tough economic times, owners want some second, third or fourth place purse money before going for the big prize.
In any event, the only young debut horses that are worth a wager these days are those saddled by trainers with an overall win rate of 20 percent or more.
In this study, I looked at first-time starters in maiden sprints for 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds at Southern California tracks that ran from November 1, 2006 to December 31, 2008. Then I compared them to debuters that ran from January 1, 2009 to May 23, 2010. I did not use any first timers in races written for horses 3-year-olds and up or 4-year-olds and up. Those types of debuters are in a whole different world.
I used early foals only — those born in January, February and March — because those are the ones who win most frequently. Then I looked at two trainer groups — the ones whose winning percentages were 20 or more on the day the debuter ran, and those trainers with winning percentages of less than 20.
Finally, I broke it down by odds: Horses that were between 7/2 and 9/1, and those whose post time odds were between 10/1 to 19/1.
This is what I found out: Before 2009, trainers with less than a 20 percent win rate who saddled first-time starters with odds between 10/1 and 19/1 won 29 of 299 races or 9.6 percent. A $1 bet on all 299 runners returned $1.50 for every $1 wagered.
However after 2009, these sub-20 percent trainers won with only 7 of 140, or 5 percent, of their runners in the 10/1 to 19/1 odds range. If someone were to bet $1 on all of them after 2009, they would have gotten back just 65 cents for every $1 bet.
In the sub-20 percent winning trainer group, I also looked at their debuters at odds of between 7/2 and 9/1, who had at least two workouts in the top 20 percent for that day’s distance. Before 2009, the sub-20 percent trainers’ first timers won 26 or 134 races, or 19.4 percent, for an ROI of $1.43 for every $1 wagered.
But after 2009, just 8 of 56 of these 7/2 to 9/1-odds debuters won. The 14 percent win rate gave somebody who wagered $1 on each horse a return of just 90 cents.
For the track’s best horsemen, first-time starters going off at odds between 7/2 and 9/1 with two good works is still an extremely strong bet. But once their odds hit 10/1 to 19/1, it becomes less clear.
Before 2009, trainers with an overall record of at least 20 percent wins, had 9 victories in 37 tries, or 24 percent, with first-time starters between 7/2 and 9/1. Every $1 bet returned $1.61. After 2009, the record of these trainers strengthened with debuters between 7/2 and 9/1 to 34.7 percent with 8 wins in 23 starts for an ROI of $2.26 for every $1 wagered.
Before 2009, at odds of 10/1 to 19/1, these 20-percent-plus trainers won 9 of 61 starts for a win rate of 14.7 percent. Backers got $2.16 for every $1 bet. However, after 2009, these top trainers won just 3 of 32 starts in this odds range for a return of $1.15 for every $1 bet.
In summary, these days, 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds making their first lifetime starts are only strong wagers if the trainer’s win rate is 20 percent or more, the runner has at least two good workouts, and the horse’s odds are between 7/2 and 9/1.
Betting any other first timer is a shaky proposition.