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The Challenge of Rating the Modern Two-Year-Old


Even ten years ago, if I had been given the task of writing about impressive two-year-olds, I would have jumped at the opportunity.  However, fewer two-year-old races are being carded each year, and juveniles, collectively, are becoming less tried and tested. This reality has helped diminish the importance of two-year-old racing in recent years. 

Indeed, if you took a poll during the Triple Crown series last year and asked fans to name the most significant two-year-old race of 2012, they probably would have pointed to an Aqueduct Maiden Special Weight race run on November 24th. The race took part on the Cigar Mile and Remsen undercard, and it was won by a mediocre fourth-time-starting maiden named Orb, in slow final time of 1:38.73.  The second-place finisher of this slow maiden race, Freedom Child, would eventually dominate the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes by more than 13 lengths over a sloppy and sealed main track at Belmont Park, in a race run one week after Orb won the Kentucky Derby. The third-place finisher, Revolutionary, would later finish third to Orb in the Kentucky Derby as the second choice in the wagering.  

TimeformUS PPs

Think about it. At this exact date last year, that celebrated maiden race at Aqueduct was just having a morning line assigned to it. Not only that, but eventual Preakness winner Oxbow was still a maiden. Meanwhile, Palace Malice had only two maiden races under him, and was being laid off for more than three months at this time. The supposed top-class freshmen who competed in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Juvenile now seem like a case of Shanghai Bobby defeating nobody.  

There was a time in the 1970s when the two-year-old champion had to be respected and feared. From Riva Ridge through Spectacular Bid, the horse voted two-year-old champion went on to win the following year's Kentucky Derby six times in a span of just eight years. Honest Pleasure almost made seven Derby wins in a span of eight years by a champion juvenile, but he had to settle for second behind fellow two-year-old sensation Bold Forbes in the 1976 Derby. Since Spectacular Bid, only one of the next 34 champion two-year-olds would go on to capture the Kentucky Derby the following season. That was Street Sense.

I believe these types of statistical oddities can be explained by the lack of durability of the modern horse, and the shift in training methods used to prepare them.

Here are a couple of old examples demonstrating how much more was asked of young thoroughbreds from previous generations, both in terms of racing and morning workouts:

In the 1935 Kentucky Derby, three different horses entered the race with 37 or more starts already under their belt. The seemingly indefatigable colt Tutticurio had already made 43 career starts, and had a 10-furlong morning workout over the Churchill Downs main track just two days before the race. The three-year-old gelding Blackbirder has already raced 41 times, and he had a nine-furlong morning workout just three days prior to the first Saturday in May. Finally, there was McCarthy, who had won that year's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. He was set to make his 38th career start in the Kentucky Derby.

"The club-footed comet," Assault, won the Triple Crown in 1946. He raced "only" nine times as a two-year-old. However, his worktab from that season was kept by trainer Max Hirsch and handed over to Hall of Fame trainer Preston Burch, who published it on page 60 of "Training Thoroughbred Horses," a fascinating book he authored in 1953.

Assault had 24 workouts between Feb 3rd and March 30th of his three-year-old season. 22 of the 24 workouts came between the distances of four furlongs and a mile.

He won the Wood Memorial on April 20th, finished 4th in the Derby Trial on April 30th, won the Ky Derby on May 4th, and won the Preakness on May 11th.

After four tough races between April 20th and May 11th, Assault was shipped to Belmont Park on May 12th.

He worked four furlongs on May 16th, three furlongs on May 18th, four furlongs on May 20th, a mile on May 22nd, three furlongs on May 24th, ten furlongs on May 25th, four furlongs on May 28th, followed by a 12-furlong work in 2:32 flat on May 29th.

So, after winning the Preakness on May 11th, Assault was put through a series of 8 published workouts before winning the June 1st Belmont by 3 lengths.

After winning the Belmont and sweeping the Triple Crown, Assault was given a rest of just 3 days before he returned to the worktab on June 5th. He worked again on June 7th, and again on June 9th, and again on June 11th, and again on June 13th, before winning the Dwyer by 4.5 lengths on June 15th.

Assault managed to stay around long enough to win the Brooklyn Handicap at age six and wasn't retired until late December of his 7-year-old season.

If anyone today trained a thoroughbred the way Max Hirsch trained Assault, there would be cries of animal cruelty.

I don't mean to be a weasel about this assignment. I genuinely believe that it is just very treacherous to try and rate the modern two-year-old, but here are the six best I've observed so far this season:

#1: Havana One of the sensations of the two-year-old-in-training sale season, Havana absolutely dazzled in both of his first two starts. For his brilliant debut victory at Saratoga, he owns a share of the best TimeformUS speed figure of any two-year-old in the country at a sprint distance so far this season. In career start number two, he won the Champagne Stakes with a TimeformUS speed figure of 110 after surviving an almost impossibly fast pace.

The only blemish on Havana's resume was a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Trainer Todd Pletcher had a tough Breeders' Cup. He was shut out and his horses produced multiple last-place finishes. But Havana was seemingly on his way to an easy win before tiring badly under a hand-ride in the final half furlong of the Juvenile. That race was without lasix, and a mile appears to be as far as Havana wants to go, but people are kidding themselves if they don't think he's a phenomenal talent. Lightly raced Pletcher two-year-olds usually step way up and dominate once they get to Gulfstream Park in the winter. He's probably not a Derby horse, but look out for Havana this winter.

#2: Honor Code After an extremely impressive debut win that was covered pretty thoroughly on this blog, Honor Code returned to run an excellent second in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont and earn a 105 TimeformUS speed figure in the process. That figure is the second-highest route figure by a two-year-old so far this season, and it came after an extremely wide trip. This son of A. P. Indy will obviously love added ground, and he should be a lot of fun to follow both in his next scheduled engagement in the Remsen Stakes and going forward after that.

#3: Strong Mandate D. Wayne Lukas had a very rough year with two-year-olds, with the exception of this promising son of Tiznow out of the excellent race mare Clear Mandate. Everything about Strong Mandate's pedigree certainly suggests a classic distance. Tiznow won two Breeders' Cup Classics. The dam Clear Mandate was a five-length Grade 1 winner going 10 furlongs on dirt at age five. Both horses improved with experience. Interestingly, because of the extremely fast pace in the Juvenile, Strong Mandate received the best TimeformUS figure of any horse in the race--even though he finished third.

#4: Shared Belief After an eye-catching debut win at Golden Gate, this son of Candy Ride was exceptionally impressive while winning the Hollywood Prevue by almost 8 lengths. He was assigned a TimeformUS speed figure of 102 for the effort, and should only improve with added distance. The big question mark is that he hasn't been tried on dirt yet, and some Candy Rides won't handle the dirt as well as the synthetic. Remember Sidney's Candy? He was also a Candy Ride out of a Storm Cat mare. He dominated the Santa Anita Derby, winning by 4.5 lengths over a synthetic surface which has since been removed. However, in the Kentucky Derby, Sidney's Candy finished 17th, and he never proved himself a top-class dirt horse in subsequent tries over the surface.

#5: New Year's Day This son of Street Cry out of the very good race horse Justwhistledixie made a successful dirt debut with his victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. However, he was aided by an extremely fast pace that collapsed late. New Year's Day was assigned a speed figure of just 95 for his victory. It was tempting to pitch him from the top five, but he does have that running style similar to Honor Code's, and Bob Baffert is the type of trainer who can suddenly get hot.

#6: Cairo Prince This son of freshman stallion Pioneerof the Nile is a perfect two for two lifetime, and I was extremely impressed with his performance in the Grade 2 Nashua Stakes. His TimeformUS speed figure of 103 that day has been exceeded at a route distance by only Havana and Honor Code, our top two horses. Honor Code will have his hands full with this guy in the Remsen stakes on November 30th.

If anyone is looking for a potentially live maiden race that might develop a few serious horses, the recommendation is to look at the 3rd race at Belmont Park on October 27th. The top three finishers were all first-time starters and all received excellent speed figures. Of course, a lot can (and will) change when you're talking about young horses who are fairly untried and untested.


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Older Comments about The Challenge of Rating the Modern Two-Year-Old...

bookrunner... look out for him
Was looking at Parx race 8.The #1 Awesome Wildcat is coming out of the Nashua Mile.At the 1rst call he was 1 length off of the lead. The bris pace # given to him was average.If you take into consideration it was done on a straightaway and with a little bit of a tail wind.The pace was pedestrian. This makes Noble Moons run,all the more impressive. He picked up horses in the stretch ,that should of had a lot more. What this does for me,is make Cairos Prince a bet against. I am not saying he cannot win. But with the hype and being undefeated in his career. He looks to be the shortest price horse with the most question marks at the distance.
Got two derby picks early. Corfu (Orb's half brother) and Yes I'm Lucky (by Yes It's True). 225/1 lets do this! The first official Derby Future Pool opens Nov. 27 hosted by Churchill.
Strong Mandate, Honor Code and Shared Belief are top three KY Derby thus far...emphasis on Strong Mandate
  • JohnNicoletti1 · It would not surprise me, if, Strong Mandate,Honor Code,and Shared Belief,are not racing sound in May 2014. I will wait for the late bloomers, whose trainers and owners, took their time to develop a promising decently bred two year old. · 1458 days ago
They should limit ANY two year old to 5 starts a yaer
  • JohnNicoletti1 · Better yet. Do not race them at all until they are three, and a little more developed. Bucked shins, and knee problems all statrt when the two year old is forced to race at a such a young age. We still have some very good trainers who feel the way I do, that another year for the horse is well worth the time. I was an owner and lived thru the experience. Unfortunately, some never recover from the two year old racing season. · 1458 days ago
Doug,the reason the front end horses packed it in is that they were sprinters,not the hot pace.You mention the 1rst race,you omit he was a 4/5 kiaran horse who was taken up at the start and was so much the best.The 2nd race,horses laying 1-3 -4 finished 1-2-3. In the 3rd race the winner was right on the lead. the 5th race the winner was on the lead. The 6th race the winner was on the lead.If that was a funny day, i would hate to see a front end track.
Icyhotboo, pace and weight carried are factored into the speed ratings. Troubled trips aren't, because it is way too subjective. Ground loss isn't, at the moment, either. The handicapper can always subtract points for ground saving trips and add points for wide trips, if they wish to. For a general overview of our speed figures, here is a link:
@TimeformUS, since you're taking the time and effort to account for pace why not incorporate more? Possibly you do and I'm not aware of it. If so please advise, thanks.
If you look at a result chart of the Nashua, the horses who raced 1st, 2nd, and 3rd early on, went on to finish 10th beaten 16 lengths as the post time favorite, 11th beaten 38.5 lengths, and 12th beaten 51, the result chart seems to agree with our pace algorithim. Generally, in slow paced races, the three pace setters all don't stop to a walk. Meanwhile, the horses who raced 10th, 11th, and 12th early on finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th at odds of 13/1, 16/1, and 9/2. All of them supposedly disadvantaged by a pace the computers say was actually pretty fast. That was a funny day, in the opener, a 6 furlong race, the winner rallied wide behind a 48 flat half mile. Basically, We disagree on the pace of the Nashua, and you agree with my boss on ground loss. We can leave it at that, Amigo. It was nice chatting with you, and hopefully we can do this more in future blog posts.
Just like you say there are faults with ground loss,there are faults with pace adjusted numbers.For example,you thought the fractions in the Nashua were legitimate.To me they were pedestrian.That in my mind makes Noble Moons race even more impressive.Using your logic with pace adjusted numbers,in my mind they were basically crawling and he almost caught him.Doug let us leave it at that,i do use sheets.I do my homework intensely,i monitor the tracks i play bias for individual days.Be it inside or outside. Front end or closers.I go as far as monitoring wind speeds and directions.Gives me the knowledge that it might not be the surface that is effecting the runners.Comes in handy at Aqueduct on those windy winter days.
Sheet style figures have ground loss baked into them, but they don't take pace into account. For instance, Orb was 3 wide on the first turn and 5 wide on the second turn in the Kentucky Derby. Oxbow broke from the rail and saved ground throughout in the Derby. Orb ended up defeating Oxbow by a mere 10 lengths, but with ground loss factored in, he earned a sheet style figure 16 lengths faster than Oxbow. Taking pace, but not ground loss into account, Oxbow's figure is much closer to Orb than the 10 length margin of defeat suggests because Oxbow raced close--up chasing the supersonic pace set by Palice Malice. I would recommend Trakus for ground loss data, but there are still a lot of tracks who don't have it yet. I know my boss at TimeformUS is, like you, a fan of incorporating ground loss into a speed figure. "It has some flaws, but overall it is a net gain and something we might be considering in the future." If I'm betting 20 tracks, I'd much rather have pace adjusted figures than ground loss adjusted figures, maybe we'll have both one day soon, but that's just my opinion. - Doug
Has nothing to do with who wins or not.That is always speculative,you are basically telling me that 1 length =3 timeform numbers.I am trying to give you an opportunity to sell me on your product,but what you are telling me is that Timeform only gives me a speed number. If i am betting 20 races in a day,does that mean i have to watch so many replays ,or refer to other products to get a true bearing of the race. Like i said,winning or losing is irrelevant,but if you thought that a 23 quarter and a .47 half on a straightaway,over a track that played speed the entire day makes it a respectable pace.Then we agree to disagree. Yet something tells me that if i am proven wrong,i will be reminded-tom
tmallios1, Noble Moon ran a 94 speed figure in the Nashua. Our speed figures do not take into acoount ground loss on the turns. The general rule of thumb is that racing one path wider on turn = 1 length, however, you have your dead rails where racing wide is actually an avantage. Best to let the player determine watch a replay and determine the importantance of variables like ground loss, for themselves. In my personal opinion, even with trip and gate trouble factored in, Cario Prince raced much closer to a very legit early pace and I prefer him over Noble Moon in the Remsen. Time will tell which of us is proven correct, feel free to remind me if I'm wrong. -Doug
I stalked the example horse. Apparently, he was made a gift to the Canadian National Bureau of Breeding in 1909. I suppose his earnings were a fortune all of those years ago.
Mike, Good points, period. And yes, nameless, I checked out the myspace link. Looks like a race trained horse that earned its keep, had time off a couple of years. Don't worry. No one snatched the needle away, yet.
Allow me to ask you a question.In the Nashua Cairo Prince received a speed figure of 103. Question #1,what speed figure did Noble Moon get? His extremely wide ,wide trip probably had him running maybe 5 lengths longer than Cairos Prince. I am assuming that Timeform does not take this into consideration when assigning numbers. In reality,Noble Moon probably ran maybe 5 pts faster than Cairo ,when the smoke eventually clears. I also doubt that you take into consideration a horse getting left at the gate.That i can buy,you cannot quantify the loss of ground.So if i were using Timeform,and did not see the Nashua, i would think that Cairo ran the better race,which is far from the truth.
Mike in SB, you make reasonable points about race day medications like lasix being contributing factors, however, it is borderline lunacy to suggest that the modern thoroughbred is as hardy as past generations. Selective breeding focusing on speed and precocity is probably the greatest factor. Here is the race record of a popular thoroughbred from the late 1800's who made 341 starts between the ages of 4 through age 9.
I still like Bond Holder.
I have to disagree about the modern thoroughbred being less durable than horses in the past. I believe it is because of race day medication, primarly Lasix, and how they are trained as a result. Another factor is the Breeders Cup Juvenile, which has also changed how two year olds are campaigned and trained. The average Thoroughbred today might be more suited to shorter distances, but I think that if they ran medication free and were trained for fitness and stamina they would have records comparable to horses of the past, and the sport would be better for it.
Would like to see Gary Steven on Strong Mandate in his 3 yr old campaign

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