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3yo handicaps: Should you back, lay, or stay away?

Younger horses receive a Weight For Age (WFA) Allowance when up against older horses. The size of the allowance depends on the month of the race, the horse’s age, and the length of the race and it is supposed to make up for a horse’s lack of physical maturity. Horses on the flat are deemed ‘mature’ at the start of the Turf season as 4yos which means they lose their advantage.

In the first half of the year at least, 2yo and 3yo horses receive a significant WFA. Over a mile, for example, a 3yo receives a 20-pound allowance in January! It dwindles to nine pounds by the beginning of July and becomes just one pound in December. As a result of WFA, trainers are more inclined to enter their 3yos in open handicaps as early as possible in the year if they believe the horse has enough to get a few wins.

The problem with 3yo handicaps from our perspective is that determining how fast a horse is progressing is a very tricky skill. Some trainers excel in this category, and of course, horses mature at very different rates. While it is normal, and sometimes advisable, to avoid open handicaps with a lot of 3yo horses, are we ignoring a profitable system or is it best to leave these races alone?

The Handicap Trap

Although handicappers in the UK are exceptional at their job, they are unable to account for trainers taking advantage of the system. There is absolutely nothing illegal about the practice, but for punters, it turns an already difficult situation into a minefield.

For example, a trainer could have a 2yo best suited to mid-distance races, say 1m 6f. He also knows the horse will mature rather quickly and should have good potential as a 3yo. The trainer can run this horse over unsuitable distances, such as 6f and 7f, knowing that the horse will do okay but not threaten a win. After a few runs, he ends up with a handicap rating of 67.

The following season, the trainer runs the now 3yo horse in 1m 6f events and his OR is miles off. Such a horse could win easily, and do so again under a penalty because his true rating is closer to 80. If you can spot such horses as 3yos, profit is there to be taken.

Know Thy Trainer

In any given handicap race, it is hard to tell if a trainer is showing his hand or not. Fortunately, I was able to discover trainers with a very encouraging record in open handicaps with 3yo.

Here is Roger Varian’s record since the start of 2013 in Flat races:

Bets Wins Strike Rate ROI (BF)
489 101 20.65% 5.66%

His record improves if you focus on handicap debutants:

Bets Wins Strike Rate ROI (BF)
152 36 23.68% 9.63%

To be fair, he is a little hit and miss on a yearly basis. Profit was almost 80% in 2017, but 2016 saw a loss of almost 20%.

Ralph Beckett has an even more impressive record in 3yo handicaps, this time in All-Weather races since 2013:

Bets Wins Strike Rate ROI (BF)
191 37 19.37% 48.08%

What’s more, you would have made a least 19% profit in four of the last five years. One thing to note is that he had a terrible 2016 for us with a loss of 63% with only 2 wins from 25.

The stats are even more impressive when you focus on Beckett’s horses moving up in distance:

Bets Wins Strike Rate ROI (BF)
74 17 22.97% 107.07%

Again, 2016 was a bad year, but 2014 and 2017 featured profits of over 200%. Let’s take a look at two more trainers worth looking at in 3yo handicap races.

Michael Appleby is a punter’s friend on the Flat:

Bets Wins Strike Rate ROI (BF)
281 37 13.17% 146.89%

He may have a low strike rate but clearly provides you with big priced winners. While 2016 was an anomaly with a profit of 479%, he would have provided a minimum ROI of 19% in three of the other four years with a slight loss of under 2% in 2015.

David Elsworth is not as spectacular, but he does offer a steady profit on Flat since 2013:

Bets Wins Strike Rate ROI (BF)
145 23 15.86% 13.21%

He has a better strike rate than Appleby but a much lower ROI. You would have lost 45% in 2015, but in the other four years, you would have won at least 12%.

In terms of laying opportunities in 3yo handicap races, look no further than David Evans. Regardless of whether it is Flat or AW, his extremely low strike rate means laying his entries is a profitable venture.

In AW races since 2013, he has won just 12.5% of his entries. Laying all of his horses would earn a 5.13% profit although last year would have resulted in a heavy loss. Flat races are even more promising as he has won just 6.74% of his 386 entries since the start of 2013. Laying all of his horses in 2017 would have yielded a profit of 60%.

You might recall that 3yo horses gradually lose their WFA advantage during the year. For Evans’ horses, it bites hard in June, July, and August where he has a terrible record over the last 5 years:

Bets Wins Strike Rate ROI (BF)
168 8 4.76% -82.92%

The record is ‘bolstered’ with 4 wins in 2017, but in 2016, he had 0 wins in 50 races! Overall, laying his horses in 3yo handicaps in the third quarter of the year would earn you a profit of over 77.5% since 2013 with excellent profit in each of the five years.

Final Thoughts

What I have found in the course of creating these strategy guides is that there is normally a profitable angle of some kind when you dig deep enough. In the case of 3yo handicaps, there are a host of excellent trainers you can back including Michael Appleby. In terms of laying horses, look no further than David Evans who really struggles in this type of race, especially in the months of June, July, and August where he hardly ever wins.

It can be hard to trust trainers because you don’t know when they are playing the handicap system. However, some seem more capable of it than others. In summation, with 3yo handicaps, you should back Appleby and Beckett, lay David Evans, and stay away from ‘mystery’ horses.

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Patrick Lynch

Patrick graduated from the National University of Ireland, Galway with an MA in Literature and Publishing but decided he would rather have the freedom of a freelance writer than be stuck in a publishing house all day. He has enjoyed this freedom since 2009 and has written thousands of articles on a variety of topics but sports betting is his passion. While his specialty is finding mismatches in obscure football leagues, he also likes to use his research skills to provide punters with detailed winning strategies in horse racing. You can check out his personal blog on www.lynchthewriter.com or Twitter @pl1982 where he writes content to help small businesses achieve success.

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