JC / Railbird

Returning Champions

March 30, 2019 Update: Hello, and thanks for visiting. If you’ve landed on this page via Horse Racing Datasets, or after reading “The Skeptical Handicapper,” by Barry Meadow, please note that while the post below was published in 2010, the spreadsheets referred to have been updated through 2017. You can view the current Google Doc or download an Excel file.

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Noting that Kelso went to post as the favorite in four out of five of his returns as reigning Horse of the Year, commenter o_crunk remarked:

It makes me wonder if returning champions who go off favored in their return beat the average win percentage of favorites?

It turns out that, yes, favored returning champions do beat the average.

Champions from 1971-2008 (excluding steeplechase horses) made 210 first starts back the year after being honored, going to post favored in 177 of those races (84%) and winning 105 times (59%), a rate well above the standard 33.3% (or the 2009 average of 36.6%) As usual, the public is astute: All returning champions averaged odds of .97-1, but favored returning champions averaged odds of .68-1. Betting $2 to win on each favored champion would have returned $321.10 $285 to $354 wagered.

(View the spreadsheet/download the spreadsheet.)

A few observations based on quick analysis:

Thirty-nine champions returned in ALW/AOC company, winning 26 (66%) of those races. No champion not favored — with the exception of 2008 juvenile champion Midshipman, returning in a 2009 Belmont AOC — won at this level.

Fifty-two champions returned in ungraded stakes, winning 30 (57%) at average odds of .84-1. Only two, out of five, not favored won, but betting $2 to win on those five would have returned $13.20 to $10 wagered.

Most champions returned in graded stakes, winning 49 (41%) of 119 starts. Of the 98 that were favored, 44 won (45%) at average odds of .80-1.

Including Rachel Alexandra, returning Horses of the Year since 1971 (see chart below) made 20 starts. Favored in 19 races, they won 15 (79%) at average odds of .40-1. Betting only favored HOTYs would have returned $41.40* for $38.

*Only with a little luck would a player be on the plus side. John Henry, the highest-priced favored returning Horse of the Year, finished second in the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap and was bumped to first by the disqualification of Perrault. If the results had stood, favored come-back HOTYs would have won 14 (74%) out of 19 starts and returned $36.80 for $38.


Excellent work — comprehensive and enlightening.

Posted by Gary West on March 23, 2010 @ 10:43 am

As visually appealing as these spreadsheets are, it would be more meaningful to me if the data was presented vis-à-vis route vs. sprint.

Always raising the bar higher. ;-)

Posted by The_Knight_Sky racing blog on March 23, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

Thank you, Gary!

Interesting, Knight Sky. As there are several potential angles, I’ve posted the spreadsheet for downloading, so that others can play around with or build on the data. Also available is a spreadsheet with all, not only returning, champions 1971-2008. Both are .xls files; have fun!

Posted by Jessica on March 23, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

It’s cliche for a reason: tough game. Great stuff, lots of fun can be had playing with the data looking for all kinds of funky angles.

Posted by o_crunk on March 23, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

Hi Jessica,

Enjoyed the “Returning Champions “article very much.

FYI I have done very well betting AGAINST returning Graded Horses running in non-gtraded races (except Champions of course).

They are usually way overbet and offtimes they are prepping for a future race.

Betting an even money graded horse coming back in a non-graded race is a losing proposition.

Ed H

Posted by Ed H on March 24, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

Alright I have downloaded the spreadsheet and I will play with it.

BTW if that O’Crunk is Irish, please wish him a belated
St. Paddy’s Day for me. :D

Posted by The_Knight_Sky racing blog on March 24, 2010 @ 4:18 pm