Never bet a horse on pedigree alone.


“Never” is a strong term in handicapping. Each race is its own puzzle, with its own variables to consider. However, the important thing to take away from this rule is that, while pedigree can play a role in a successful handicapper’s arsenal, it shouldn’t be the only tool in the toolbox.

I worked with Ren Carothers at TVG for a time. You likely know her better as the handicapper who provides video analysis for Tampa Bay Downs. She’s sharp, and listening to her provided a wealth of information as to how to dissect pedigrees. Ren especially likes focusing on the bottom-side of a horse’s sheet and what mares in a horse’s family have produced.

Deep dives in this vein can bear fruit, especially with 2-year-old races, events with many first-time starters, or heats with runners trying something new. If you’re a DRF reader, Tomlinson ratings can provide additional insight into a runner’s off-track or turf potential based on bloodlines. I still remember seeing Public Sector debut at Saratoga with the highest turf Tomlinson I’d ever seen. One vocal handicapper on Twitter said I was crazy for using them, but Public Sector made 2-1 look like a gift and went on to become a multiple graded stakes winner. Even so, keep Public Sector in mind, because we’ll get back to him.

Like anything else, though, pedigree angles are far more successful in some places than others. The more a horse runs, the clearer a horse’s positives and negatives become. As such, pedigrees tend to become less valuable, replaced by the axiom spouted by Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells, “you are what your record says you are.”

Should You Bet a Horse on Pedigree?

Even with how overwhelming Public Sector’s pedigree was ahead of his debut, there were multiple other reasons to like the horse. It was a first-time starter for trainer Chad Brown, who’d ventured overseas and picked him up at the Tattersalls sale. Going two turns on turf was what the horse was bred to do, sure, but would it have matters for another trainer whose stats weren’t as gaudy? Possibly not.

Furthermore, horses may wind up completely different from what they were bred to be. Cigar was supposed to be a turf horse, but he didn’t blossom until Bill Mott tried him on dirt. American Pharoah never ran on turf, and buyers didn’t expect his progeny to be grass horses, but they’ve taken to the lawn like ducks to water. The same can be said for sires like War Front, Hard Spun, and Street Boss. None of them ran on turf or would’ve been pegged as turf sires, but they’ve proven themselves to be just that.

Of course, we also need to throw in a few horses the breeding industry would prefer not exist. These are the thoroughbreds bred “in the purple,” who were supposed to be world-class runners and never lived up to the billing. The Green Monkey is an obvious inclusion here. He hammered for $16 million, ran three times, and hit the board once. Back in the 1980’s, Seattle Dancer fit the same mold. Seattle Slew’s half-brother sold for $13.1 million, but earned only a fraction of that despite winning a pair of Group 2 races.

If pedigree was everything, handicapping 2-year-old races would be awfully easy. We’d look at the purchase prices at auction, single the runners with class on top and bottom, and move on. As any handicapper worth his or her salt will tell you, that’s not how things work.

Bloodlines matter, sure, but they matter less and less with each start a horse makes as its potential and preferences become clearer. Like any other handicapping variable, don’t lean on it in heavy-handed ways. Doing so may cause you to miss important information that might otherwise jump off the page.

ABOUT THIS SERIES: Harvey Pack was one of the greatest ambassadors in the history of horse racing handicapping. As one of the most visible personalities on the New York circuit, Pack spent his career educating the public by spouting words of wisdom easily digested by fans and handicappers of all ages and skill levels.

In this series, called Pack-xioms,” well apply Harveys teachings to modern-day handicapping and wagering strategies. Well use the titles of each chapter of his book, Pack at the Track,” which was co-written by Peter Thomas Fornatale.


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