Tuley's Takes on levels of horse racing

Over the years, the walls of the Tuley’s Takes home office have been lined with inspiring quotes from famous sportswriters. My favorite is from Red Smith: “Any sportswriter who thinks the world is no bigger than the outfield fence is not only a bad citizen but also a lousy sportswriter.”

I’ve been thinking about that often during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown of most of the sports and sports betting world, and even more with the civil unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. But while covering sports can seem trivial in such times, it’s what we do and what our readers are interested in as we await our lives returning to normal — or the new normal.

In that way, this is an exciting week. The NBA and NHL continue to make progress in plans to conduct playoffs to complete their 2019-20 seasons. And we keep getting positive signs for college and pro football about beginning their 2020-21 seasons on time. Baseball is another matter, and we hope they get things sorted out.

Of more immediate importance, most Las Vegas casinos and — for our preferred purposes here — sportsbooks are reopening Thursday with social-distancing protocols in place. We’ve been grateful to Caesars, MGM Resorts, Circa Sports and William Hill continuing to operate their sports betting mobile apps nonstop during the casino shutdown and for the South Point and Westgate opening theirs in May. But it will be great to have everything available again, especially for futures-book bets to win championships in all sports but also for season-long college and pro football bets that also include Over/Under season win totals, conference and division odds and props.

For those interested in football handicapping contest updates, the Circa Sports books at The D and Golden Gate will be back open Thursday to take entries for Circa Sports Million II and Circa Survivor. Circa has been taking sign-ups at its soon-to-be-obsolete drive-up window at the Golden Gate valet, but the big push begins anew leading up to the September start of the season.

As for the SuperContest at the Westgate, those entries are still on hold until the superbook reopens. As of Tuesday, the Westgate was taking hotel reservations for June 18, so sign-ups will have to wait until then for the SuperContest Classic, SuperContest Gold and SuperContest Reboot.

I’m still on a personal high after giving out not one but two long shots in my “Tuley’s Thoroughbred Takes” column on VSiN.com and the Ron Flatter Racing Pod on Saturday at Churchill Downs. I had Bell’s the One (13/1) in the Grade 3 Winning Colors Stakes and Secret Message (25/1) in the Grade 3 Mint Julep. It felt good to carry the TTT team for a change.

I had been mired in a lengthy losing streak, which can certainly happen when playing long shots as I do. My style of handicapping also has always seemed to work better with high-quality horses running in stakes races that are usually on weekends. This was really driven home with me when I participated in a media/handicapper promotion at the Orleans about 15 years ago when we all had to give out $100 in bets a day during the Del Mar meet. Like clockwork, I would lose $100 every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday by betting a bunch of maidens and claimers, then do great on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes I would make back all my losses, other times not, but I was definitely way up if just playing the weekend stakes races.

That’s why, when I was asked to post my “Tuley’s Thoroughbred Takes” column for races every Wednesday through Sunday, I chose to include my stable of handicapping friends to help find some winners on the cards that were tougher for me. But now I’m hoping to contribute even more with Belmont Park slating 40 stakes for its 25-day meet opening Wednesday, highlighted of course by the Belmont Stakes on June 20.

In addition to four graded stakes Saturday at Belmont, we have a huge Santa Anita card with the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, Grade 2 Santa Anita Oaks and Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup.

All this talk about the different classes of horse racing reminds me of a recent series of emails we received from reader Fritz Leuter (paraphrased slightly): “A good subject for ‘PSW’ and Dave Tuley’s Horse Racing 101 series ... I enjoy his write-ups but don’t always understand the terminology, things like explaining grade moves up and down, claiming race, does winner get entire purse, etc.”

Since I like to have something educational in each week’s column, this is a good way to close, even if it’s elementary for regular horseplayers. There are basically four classes or levels of horse racing with which you need to familiarize yourself: stakes races, allowance races, claiming races and maiden races.

Maiden races are for horses that have never won a race, and they race only against other maidens. In claiming races, horses can be claimed by other owners for the price listed in the race conditions. Allowance races are for better horses that can’t be claimed. Stakes races are the highest level of racing and are for higher stakes.

You might hear me say a horse is moving through its conditions, and this is where we talk about horses stepping up or dropping down in class. Horses will usually start in maiden races, but it’s important to point out that different levels exist within the levels. Just as there is a difference between claiming horses and allowance horses, there are maiden claiming races, in which horses can be claimed, and maiden special weight, for better prospects that can’t be claimed. If a horse doesn’t win at the maiden special weight, the trainer might drop him into a claiming race to try to get that first win, though he risks losing the horse if someone puts in a claim.

When a horse graduates with its first win, also called breaking its maiden, the trainer will usually move it up to the claiming level — or to the allowance level if it’s a better horse and the connections don’t want it claimed. Many claiming levels exist, from $5,000 or even lower at smaller tracks for cheap claimers up to $100,000 for much better horses.

The allowance level can be even more confusing and often comes with conditions such as “nonwinners of one race other than maiden or claiming,” “nonwinners of two,” “nonwinners of three” and so on. These separate the contenders so they have more evenly matched races against similar competition. Again, you can see how the horses move through their conditions and up and down in class.

Stakes races are for the very best horses but again are split into levels. Some restricted stakes might be open only to state-breds or certain age groups. Then you have open stakes races, Grade 3, Grade 2 and then Grade 1 for the best of the best.

The toughest part of handicapping is judging how the horses coming from different levels of competition will fare against the new level they’re facing today. For instance, an allowance race might contain a horse that has been dominating claiming races and is taking a step up in class. But is that horse any better than the stakes also-ran taking a step down in class? And you might have a full field of horses racing at different allowance levels and trying to assess their chances against each other.

But that’s the essence — and fun — of handicapping.

As for stakes distribution, about 60% usually goes to the winning owner, 20% to second, 10% to third, 5% to fourth and lower percentages after that, depending on how many places are paid. Even at the lowest levels of racing, owners hope to collect a check to at least pay for their stable fees, feed bills and other operating expenses.

Happy handicapping, and don’t forget to check out the new “Tuley’s Thoroughbred Takes” file at VSiN.com. It will be updated every Wednesday through Sunday morning, and check back in the noon ET/9 a.m. PT hour for changes or additions after the early scratches from East Coast tracks.

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