Returning Champions
By Jessica Chapel

Originally published at Railbird

When two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan makes his 2014 return at Keeneland today, he’ll do so at short odds. The public likes returning champions, and for good reason: They’re good bets.

Since 1971, 22 of 42 Horses of the Year have come back to race the following year. With one exception — All Along in in her late-season 1984 return — the Horse of the Year was the post-time favorite in those races, winning 17. Betting $2 to win on every returning Horse of the Year from 1972-2012 would have cost $44 and returned $46.30.

While a returning Horse of the Year may be one of the most certain wagers in racing, all champions — and especially favored returning champions — win at a rate above the average for favorites in all races. Excluding steeplechase horses, 372 have been named champions since 1971. Leaving out the small number (eight) who made their first starts back in either non-wagering or foreign races, 228 have returned to race the following year.

As a group, champions have gone to post as favorites in 198 races (87%) and won 114 (50%) at average odds of 1.00 ($4.00 to win). Favored champions won 106 races (54%) — a slightly higher percentage than all champions — but at lower odds, with bettors making their average price 0.65 ($3.30 to win). That’s the same average price of favored champions returning in graded stakes:

View the complete spreadsheet.

Unsurprisingly, most champions (58%) come back in graded stakes, and because those are usually the toughest races, their win average, when favored, is 46%. The rate for all champions returning in ungraded stakes goes up to 55%, and at the allowance level, 66%. The average odds, as you might expect, get lower with the class.

What is surprising is the differences among divisions. Male and female juvenile champions return to race, are favored, and win at roughly the same rate. But the numbers dramatically diverge for 3-year-old male and female champions, with male champions returning to win at a 74% clip, and female champions at 32%. Fewer 3-year-old male champions come back than female champions, which could account for the difference (there may be less competition in the races they’re likely to start in), but horseplayers bet both sexes at the same average odds.

If there’s a bet on a returning champion that should be avoided, it’s a wager on a champion who is not favored. There have been only 30 champions not favored in their first starts of the year, and of those, only eight won, at average odds of 2.00 ($6.00).

Good luck to Wise Dan today as he begins his 2014 campaign. Welcome back, champ!

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