Between the lines

Between The Line: What The Hill shows that 3-year-olds can beat older horses

November 30, 2017

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by Brett Sturman

When imminent 3-year-old Trotter of the Year What The Hill beat older foes in last Saturday’s TVG open for trotters at the Meadowlands, he accomplished a rare feat. So rare in fact, that according to a Harness Racing Communications release from 2015, only twice at that time since 1992 had a 3-year-old trotter defeated older horses in a race for greater than $100,000.

While it’s inarguably difficult for any 3-year-old to beat more seasoned rivals especially at the highest levels of racing, I wouldn’t say it’s once-in-a-decade difficult.

The problem is that it’s hardly ever attempted. Any why should it be? With boatloads of money to race for in a horse’s sophomore season against age-restricted company, there often isn’t an incentive to take on the unnecessary challenge of racing outside of the division.

The relatively new TVG series though, has brought a new and welcomed dynamic into the mix. The series featuring open competition began four years ago. It offers an invitation to the winner of the 3-year-old Breeders Crown that has been accepted on the trot side in three consecutive years (The Bank, Bar Hopping, What The Hill). When you look at it from the standpoint that What The Hill accomplished victory in just the third year of a horse attempting to do it, the task doesn’t seem so impossible after all.

From a betting standpoint, there’s no question that What The Hill went off at the odds he did of 5-1 (fourth choice in a field of six) in large part to the fact he was the lone 3-year-old in the race. He was dismissed by many handicappers on the premise alone that a 3-year-old has no business racing against older horses.

At least on paper, What The Hill rated favorably against all contenders with the exception of stablemate Crazy Wow, but even in that case both horses won their respective Breeders Crowns in near identical times. Of course time is only one factor, but overall the TVG field of only six horses was a far cry from what we have seen over the years in top level trotting.

The problem for some horseplayers with racing 3-year-old’s against older is that it makes it difficult to handicap. Harness racing bettors can be very rigid in their ways and resist things that could throw a wrench into standard handicapping, such as experimenting with different racing distances. It’s much easier to compare horses at the same distance just as it is to compare 3-year-olds to 3-year-olds and older to older at the highest of stakes levels, than it is guess how horses may stack up against one another.

From the perspective of owners and trainers, the reason for not racing a sophomore against older is obvious. Nearly every week of the 3-year-old season presents some type of opportunity for big money (often against easy pickings), so there is no need to test deeper waters elsewhere. There is enough money to be made racing against their own age.

That said, some of the star 3-year-olds shouldn’t be afraid to take chances against older horses when opportunities present themselves. Every day in overnight racing there are non-winners of ‘x’ number of wins conditioned races that pit 3-year-old’s against 4YO’s, and no one complains about the age difference. Even more to the point, there are non-winners of one or two pari-mutuel races all over that allow both 2-year-olds and 3-year-old, where the age discrepancy is even more dramatic.

Particularly when you get into the later months of the year, the difference between 3-year-olds and older horses becomes less pronounced. A number of races from the former Big M winter series would often contain young horses competing of varying ages, and that would have taken place only a month or two from the point of the year.

The point is that for a fan, mixing it up would create some excitement. Everyone loves a girls vs. boys or younger vs. older storyline and the horses are around that could do it. Come the time around the Breeders Crown, it’s been the same horses in the same divisions beating each other up all year and it can get a little stale.

Thursday at Dover featured another matchup between the top two 3-year-old colts Fear The Dragon and Downbytheseaside, but wouldn’t it have been far more interesting of a story had the opportunity arisen for one of those two 3-year-olds to have given it a shot in the pacing side of the TVG race against the likes of Mach It So? Or even better yet, what if there was an incentive to race against older in the Breeders Crown?

In this year’s Breeders Crown on the pacing side, the 3-year-old and the open went for near identical purses of about $525,000. But hypothetically, what if the purse of the open (similar to the Breeders’ Cup Classic in thoroughbreds) went for twice the money that the 3-year-old race went for? In that situation, it’s far more likely that a top 3-year-old may be given a shot against older if there is enough money on the line to justify bypassing the easier race.

In addition to the purse of the race, there are other reasons for connections to give their horses a chance against older horses. For one, it could add to a 3-year-old’s resume in determining year-end honors. I doubt that winning the TVG will propel What The Hill to Horse of the Year honors, but he should at least now be part of the discussion.

On the breeding side, winning a major six-figure race against older horses as a 3-year-old would certainly enhance a horse’s potential as a stallion. For sure this was one of the things in mind when the connections of Captaintreacherous tried in the inaugural TVG won by Foiled Again in 2013.

This year’s older pacing and trotting ranks were okay but not what we have seen in other years and that trend may continue with fewer foals each year and horses retiring at the end of 3 for one reason or another. It’s not asking what it once was for a top 3-year-old to mix it up with the older horses and doing so would create needed interest.

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