JC / Railbird

First Starts

Wise Dan’s Return

The Horse of the Year is set to make his first start of 2014 today, and:

“If he is going to be vulnerable, this is it because the others that are in there have been running,” [trainer Charlie] LoPresti said.

True, but he’s also a returning champion. The odds are good that he’ll win. In 2010, I found that returning champions beat the winning favorites average by a significant margin when they made their first starts of a new season.

The stats for returning champions are now updated through 2012: You can view the numbers and complete spreadsheet via Raceday 360. There are a couple of changes in this year’s version: I restricted the data to only starts made in North American races with wagering (horses who returned in non-wagering exhibition races and foreign races were excluded, as were steeplechase champions). I also broke out the numbers by division and decade this year, as well as by class, which revealed a few interesting tidbits.

One thing I left out of the R360 post, but wanted to make note of, is that all champions, not only the favored, won or finished in the money in 186 out of 228 races (or 82% of starts). Be sure to include them in your exotics.

The original data, including all champions named from 1971-2012, and not only those who returned to race, can be downloaded as an Excel file.

4/12/14 Update: And Wise Dan wins the Maker’s 46 Mile by three-quarters of a length over Kaigun. Here’s the returning Horse of the Year chart, updated:

That brings the returning HOTY record to 18 wins from 23 starts (18 wins from 22 favored), for a total payout of $49.10 on $46 bet.

Returning HOTYs

When Wise Dan makes his first start of the year at Keeneland on April 12, don’t bet against him. Returning Horses of the Year are 16 for 21 since 1972:

Favored returning HOTYs are 16 for 20. With a return of $43.50 on $40 bet, that makes favored returning HOTYs just about the surest bet in racing.

(The chart above is an updated version of one that appeared in a lengthier post about betting returning champions in March 2010.)

1:15 PM Addendum: So, how might you play Wise Dan? Hello Race Fans has some tips on factoring favorites, and singling and spreading.

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.

The Returns of Kelso

Gary West invokes (as I did on Twitter) the record of the great gelding Kelso, the only five-time Horse of the Year, in appraising Rachel Alexandra’s loss in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes last Saturday:

Very few horses could have performed so well returning from a six-month layoff. The effort, in fact, could have been an ideal start, a solid foundation, for an outstanding season. Kelso was named Horse of the Year five consecutive years, 1960-1964, and four times he began the following year’s campaign with a loss.

And in every year but 1964, he followed that first loss with a win. Whether Rachel Alexandra will manage the same remains to be seen, but let’s look back at Kelso, a fine example of an elite horse who was — in keeping with the times — annually raced into form without much second-guessing of either his honors or connections.

How Kelso finished in each of his first starts for the years 1961-1965.

The one year Kelso won his first start back as reigning Horse of the Year was 1961, when he made his 4-year-old debut in a seven-furlong allowance race at Aqueduct, carrying 124 pounds to runner-up Gyro’s 115. “Drew out with ease,” reads the chart note.

His 1962 return in the Metropolitan Handicap was a stiffer test, with 1961 Kentucky Derby winner Carry Back among the nine starters. Carry Back, making his ninth start of the year, won brilliantly, equaling the track record time. It was the “greatest race of his career,” wrote Joseph Nichols in the New York Times of the 4-year-old’s effort. Kelso, however, coming off a lengthy layoff in which he had been recuperating from injuries suffered while finishing second in the 1961 International, was termed no threat. Carrying 133 pounds to Carry Back’s 123, the gelding “showed no inclination to run, even with Willie Shoemaker to urge him.” Of the race, Shoemaker said, “No excuses at all. That 133 pounds on him and his idleness made the difference.” In his next start, Kelso won a Belmont allowance, then finished second in the Suburban. He didn’t win his first stakes race of the year until the Stymie Handicap in September, which he followed with a win ten days later in the Woodward and another win three weeks later in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

In 1963, off a brief eight-week rest, Kelso returned in the seven-furlong Palm Beach Handicap at Hialeah, finishing fourth to the favored Ridan, who was the runner-up to Jaipur in the 1962 Travers and a horse believed best at shorter distances. The results were considered unremarkable all around, and Kelso soundly defeated Ridan by 2 3/4 lengths in his next start two weeks later, the nine-furlong Seminole Handicap at Hialeah.

On his return in 1964, Kelso lost again, this time in the Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood, a race in which he lugged 130 pounds to the 124 carried by winner Cyrano. “Dull effort,” notes the chart. He came back in the Californian two weeks later, finishing sixth by eight lengths as the 1.40-1 favorite.

This was the year that rumblings Kelso might be finished began, as he followed the Californian with a win in a $15,000 handicap at Aqueduct (toting 136 to the runner-up’s 114) and then seconds in the Suburban Handicap and Monmouth Handicap. In the Brooklyn Handicap, won by Gun Bow, he finished fifth by 14 lengths after stumbling badly as he came out of the starting gate. Disappointed, trainer Carl Hanford packed Kelso away for a few weeks on the farm, a respite that seemed to restore the 7-year-old gelding, who came back to win an allowance over the Aqueduct turf, and then — “in the most emotion-packed horse race since the opening of Aqueduct in 1959,” as Nichols wrote in the Times — defeated Gun Bow by three-quarters of a length in the Aqueduct Stakes, paying $6.40 to loyal backers. Second by a nose to Gun Bow in the Woodward, his next start, Kelso came back to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup by four lengths, setting two records — all-time money-earner and a new track time of 3:15 1/5 for two miles — in doing so.

From the Thoroughbred Record, November 7, 1964:

“You really think he won’t run here no more?” the fat man asked. “They said that about Carry Back and all them others, but they run again. Hell, it won’t seem like Saturday without Kelso, will it?”

Kelso was not supposed to run in 1965. The campaign he closed with an annihilating 4 1/2 length victory over Gun Bow in the 1964 International at Laurel was to be his last, but his late-season dominance had Hanford and owner Allaire duPont wavering in their plan to retire the gelding. And so Kelso, Horse of the Year for the fifth consecutive year, came back on June 29, finishing third in an allowance at Monmouth. He returned to win the Diamond State at Delaware, flashing a bit of his old form. Lightly raced that summer, the 8-year-old ended the year with an eight-length win in the Stymie on September 22, and for the first time since 1959, another horse would be named the year’s best. Or rather, two would be — Horse of the Year was shared in 1965, going to the undefeated 2-year-old filly Moccasin and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Roman Brother.

The champion made only one more start, in a six-furlong allowance at Hialeah in March 1966 in which he finished fourth. Suffering a minor sesamoid fracture, Kelso was retired with more than $1.9 million in earnings and a career record of 63-39-12-2, his losses — and perhaps especially those incurred in his intense rivalry with Gun Bow — as much a part the story of his greatness as his many accomplishments.

Video of the 1964 International from the British Pathé archive:

From the archives: Readings: Alexander and Kelso at Aqueduct.