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Aug 21, 2003

The Race After the Cut-Back Yields Value

By: Andy Plattner

A frequent dilemma for handicappers is how to deal with a horse that is cutting back in distance from its last race. There are two main schools of thought here: one is that any horse racing at a shorter distance will be more than fit enough to negotiate this distance; the other view suggests that a horse cutting back in distance is, in fact, at a disadvantage because it will negatively affect the horse’s usual style of running.

Shorter races usually have faster fractions, and Thoroughbreds, especially older ones, have a way of becoming one-dimensional in their running styles. A racehorse that has adopted a pace-pressing style going seven furlongs isn’t likely to be as close early when it’s asked to run six. As a result, this horse might find itself further behind early in a race. It might be inclined to give up the fight earlier as well.

No matter on which side of the fence you stand in this debate, make sure you don’t overlook the real moneymaking angle: The best time to bet the cutting-back-in-distance horse might not be today but the next time it runs.

There are a couple of strong positives that will be in your favor if you do. The first is the horse will be physically sharpened by the cut-back race, regardless of how well it performs in it. Because of the faster fractions in a shorter race, a horse running in one will have to work harder to keep up. Even if it fades late or its stretch run falls short, this animal will emerge from the race with a quicker turn of foot for its next engagement.

If you prescribe to the theory that a cutting-back horse is always at a disadvantage, then you probably already understand you should not hold a horse accountable for its subpar finish in a cut-back race. Most handicapping angles contain a strong dose of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? So, when an aging Thoroughbred turns in a subpar effort, there is always the question of whether or not this horse is going bad. However, if you believe a horse is at a disadvantage when cutting back in distance, then you aren’t going to hold that mediocre finish against the animal.

The race after the cut-back can offer great value, but as with all other handicapping angles, you must choose your spots wisely. Younger racehorses, ages two and three, are frequently moved around in distance because their trainers want to know what it is these horses do best. Because these animals are still learning their trade, it is unwise to think of them as already one-dimensional. Some might be able to handle a cut-back in distance with aplomb, so their race after the cut-back will offer no value whatsoever. On the other hand, a young horse that loses badly at a mile and then the next time out loses badly at six furlongs might just be a very slow racehorse, period. The race after the cut-back might provide this plodder with an all-time best chance for winning, but, as they say, you can’t make silk out of burlap.

The race-after-the-cut-back angle is best applied to older horses. It is constructed on the idea that as horses age, their adaptability fades, and asking them to do something a little different comes as an unwanted surprise. This isn’t an insult to my equine pals, it’s just the way life works. (Same happens to most people I know.) If you pick up any edition of Daily Racing Form you will discover plenty of evidence of this, but if you follow the sport closely, you’ll also find particular horses that respond beautifully to the race after the cut-back.

The five-year-old graded stakes winner Windsor Castle has executed a couple of these moves this year. He closed out 2002 with three losses, two in stakes company at a mile and an eighth and the last in the Cigar Mile. Cutting back to a flat mile gave him no chance whatsoever for victory, and Windsor Castle delivered a flat effort, racing in sixth position all the way around. The race, however, set him up perfectly for the mile and a sixteenth Hal’s Hope Handicap six weeks later. Windsor Castle’s late rally drove him clear of Saint Verre and returned a very square $11.40 win mutuel.

Windsor Castle was subsequently stretched out to longer distances and ran worse than his odds in both the Donn (mile and an eighth) and Gulfstream Park (mile and a quarter) handicaps. Shortened again for the one-mile Fort Marcy Handicap at Aqueduct — a turf race that was moved to the main track after heavy rains — a 7–1 Windsor Castle gave futile chase to the same Saint Verre, again flattening out in the stretch drive to finish second, 8½ lengths behind.

The effort, however, was better than it looked on paper. Faced with a runaway leader, jockey Eibar Coa put Windsor Castle into the race earlier than he was accustomed, so the late fade was to be expected. What the Fort Marcy insured was that this horse would be razor sharp for his next try — as long as it was in a race equal or longer in distance.

That subsequent event was the W.D. Schaefer Handicap, run three weeks later at Pimlico. Contested at a mile and an eighth, the Schaefer contained a field of solid runners, though nothing like the class Windsor Castle had been facing all winter and spring. Under red-hot jockey Jose Santos, the Frank Alexander trainee stayed closer than usual to the early pace, then quickly kicked clear of Changeintheweather turning for home. Windsor Castle led every step of the stretch drive and won by 1¾ lengths. The $2 return was $11.40, exactly as it had been in the Hal’s Hope Handicap.

The payoff wasn’t a king’s ransom, but it probably felt generous to those who understood this horse was set up perfectly to win.

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