"Any time you can avoid a super-stressful race leading to the Breeders' Cup, I think that's a positive."
Do we really believe this statement? What do the statistics have to say about this comment?
Alan Mann of Left At The Gate fame has now been employed by the Breeders Cup to conduct a blog on their site. He looked at this very same issue in an entry called The Classic Two Step which is well worth the read. I do wish, though, that instead of simply raising questions and settling on an opinion that an actual look at the results was done.
With this kind of thing it's fine for us all to have opinions but I think statistics can help us shape, validate or reform our opinions.
In order to try and gather some data on this issue I decided to isolate all the BC starters from the past 11 years (from 1996 to the present) who won their last prep race by 2 lengths or more. I know that winning margin is not directly proportionate to the ease of victory but there is a real correlation. It's not perfect but I feel that it's the most accurate way of measuring. Also why is does this data only include 1996 to the present? The main reason is because I only have complete data from 1996 to the present but also because the shift towards this type of thinking is a relatively new phenomenon. Even the BC run in 1996 contained a lot of horses who were campaigned much harder than is common today. Average layoffs are longer and the desire to have easy last preps is much greater.
A look back over the last 85 BC races contested and the 1,018 starters who contested them revealed 194 horses who won their last prep by 2 lengths or more. Their cumulative record in the ensuing BC races was 194-26-19-13. That is 19% of the starters accounted for 30% of the victories. The Impact Value of 1.57 is fairly strong and seems to give credence to Todd Pletcher's contention.
For those not familiar with Impact Value what it essentially says is that statistically speaking these horses win 1.57 times more than they should be expected to if one assumes that every starter has the same random chance of victory.
When compiling the numbers it really stood out to me that the Juvenile races had both the greatest number of qualifiers for this angle and the greatest amount of success. If one isolates juveniles only you get a total record of 74-13-3-5, that's from 22 races and 258 starters. The Impact Value is extremely strong at 2.06.
Conversely the performance of the open aged horses goes down. They are just 13 for 120 (120-13-16-8 to be exact) but they still managed a positive Impact Value of 1.31.
The statistics do seem to bear out the contention that horses who had easy prep races (or at least did not have too much trouble dispatching the competition) perform better in the Breeders Cup than those who did not.
But here is where the rubber meets the road. How do we capitalize off this factor? Of the 194 horses who won their last prep by 2 lengths or more 44 of them were favorites, and unfortunately for the bargain hunters the favorites won at a 36% clip and a flat bet on all 194 horses would have yielded a -$175.10 loss or a crippling -45.12% ROI. The public certainly loves to bet these horses. Of the 26 winners included in this data only 5 paid more than $10 to win.
I'm not sure that a mechanical method of betting these horses is useful at all. As always it's best to use your judgement, but I would not suggest dropping horses simply because their last prep seemed too easy. I think the two most important factors are still being sharp in their final race and being good enough at their best to compete with the competition.