The Triple Crown is the most elusive prize in sports.
Baseball has its own Triple Crown. It happens when a player leads the league in three statistical categories and since baseball began in 1838, there have been 17 batters and 38 pitchers that have accomplished this amazing feat.
In terms of other horsepower, to win the Triple Crown of motorsport is to capture Formula 1’s most important races: the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Monaco Grand Prix. Only 17 drivers have won a single event while competing in all three, and just 1 – Graham Hill – has pulled off the near impossible.
This year will see horse racing celebrate the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby, the 140th Preakness Stakes, and 147th Belmont Stakes: and just 11 horses have captured all three. Unlike any other sport where an athlete can try for a Triple Crown over and over, a horse only has one chance to be three-years-old on the first Saturday in May.
But just as herculean a feat it is for a horse to capture all three jewels of the Triple Crown, horseplayers face the same tough task. As much as we want to think “it’s just another race…” It isn’t. None of them are.
There were 48,580 races run in North America last year. While that number represents a lot of betting opportunities, consider that there were only 463 graded stakes races and only 110 Grade Ones. Plus, while it is common for mid-level races around the globe to feature fields of 20-some-odd horses, the average field size in the United States is just under eight horses per race: making the Kentucky Derby the largest single-run field in America.
What most people don’t realize is how truly difficult it is for a horse to make the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. According to statistics from the Jockey Club, 21,016 foals were born in the United States in 2012, which means the chance of one being the 2015 Kentucky Derby winner is 0.0048%.
Just because a Thoroughbred is born with the right pedigree and looks, doesn’t mean they will automatically make it to the races. Let’s say an owner is lucky and his horse has ability: no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without having a juvenile race record. So he’s looking at a seven-month campaign (at least) at racing’s highest levels to qualify as one of the nation’s best before he steps foot into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
So how are bettors supposed to make decisions in a full field of evenly-matched horses? Well, there are experts out there who can – and will – help you ~ some for a fee, some not. The problem is that unlike used cars, racing experts don’t come with a Carfax report. You have to handicap them too, pedigree and records aren’t just for horses. You need to find people who have specialist knowledge of racing circuits and patterns, not just information on specific entrants. It’s important to remember that access to Twitter and an opinion doesn’t automatically give someone ‘Expert’ status.
Clocking services are readily available as well. If you have never handicapped with one, it will change the way you play the game. Be sure to find a service that has workout analysts, not just clockers, anyone can click a stopwatch. Analysts provide context behind the number printed on the bottom of your Racing Form with the goal of gauging how a horse will perform in his next start.
Also be sure to look at the overall workout pattern, whether a horse worked in company (and the caliber of the workmate), the quality of the workout (Ie. Was the horse under pressure from the rider or moving easily), was any new equipment used, and what was the actual distance of the workout (some trainers will send a horse to work a published 5furlongs but have the rider keep them going at racespeed to work an extra furlong or more).
To find the Kentucky Derby winner, you need to analyze more than just a race record. You want to find a horse who is mentally and physically able to overcome trouble if the field size gets the better of him. A horse with the ability to get the longest distance he’s ever had to run whether his style is to set the pace (can he stay?) or come from behind (How long can he sit back before pouncing? Will he have a clear shot at daylight?); and lastly remember the Derby winner is not necessarily the best horse in the country. It is the best three-year-old on that Saturday when the gates break open.
When you’re playing the Preakness, it’s important to remember that most topnotch horses would get two weeks off after a big race before they even come back to work out. With the schedule of the races, though, a horse must be resilient enough to bounce back and perform at their best on short rest.
What was most impressive about California Chrome’s win last year was the way he scooted off the turn and drew off: that had been his style all year and Pimlico is also the perfect track for that. Look for a horse that you think will be sitting in the first flight of runners, two- or three-paths off the rail at the quarter pole.
If the two weeks rest between the first jewels is tough for horses, the three weeks rest to the Belmont is the true test of a trainer. A horseman will balance whether to let the horse have a workout (which could drain their energy reserves or prime them to peak performance) or just allow slow-and-steady gallops to preserve fitness.
Not only do we start the Triple Crown by throwing the largest field these horses will ever face at them, we then end it with the longest distance most will ever run. The 1-1/2 miles marathon distance is truly the test of a champion. Not only does the horse have to have the fitness and stamina, but the jockey has to correctly gauge the depth and breadth of the turns. More than one Triple Crown has been lost by a misjudged millisecond.
No matter what angles you develop over the years, the single biggest betting trick is to Trust Your Gut. Some of the best scores come from looking over at the TV, seeing a horse, and thinking “he looks ready to run today.” For all the angles and studying you do, if your gut gets tingly looking at a Thoroughbred: put a few bucks across the board on it- the worst that happens is you’re out a few bucks.
Lady Luck may have a very unladylike way of running out at times, but you can limit the doubt when playing the Triple Crown races with a few simple tips and tricks.
by Molly Jo Rosen