What About the Rabbit?
By Nicolle Neulist
Arrogate may have the most buzz coming out of Travers Day, but most of the controversy after Saturday’s racing at Saratoga has centered on the Sword Dancer and Inordinate’s role as a rabbit for Flintshire.
The ethical questions of entering and using rabbits have long been debated but have jumped to the forefront of American racing discourse in the last few years, as rabbits have come back into fashion. Some find it disingenuous, arguing either that the rabbit is not entered to win the race, or that the main horse gets an unfair advantage. Others see no problem with it: either because rabbits are a longstanding racing tradition in a game full of lore, or because they even the playing field for horses who have off-pace running styles.
No matter your stance on rabbits, when it comes to handicapping, they fall into a broader category of situations in which the handicapper must ask a few extra questions. Determining the identity of a rabbit typically is not difficult: look for a same-owner, often a same-trainer entry in which one horse is taking a clear class rise from where they have previously been best. Usually, the horse has shown some sharp early speed, but not always. The main entry, almost certainly, will have an off-pace running style.
But, what about the idea of whether or not the rabbit has any legitimate shot to win? Determining whether a rabbit can make an impact on their own merits is no different from asking whether a horse is ready to fire first out or being raced into shape, or asking whether a race is a goal for a horse or just a prep.
That’s why they call it gambling.
Regardless of your stance on the ethics of running a rabbit, or running a horse into shape, or running prep races, asking the right questions can lead to a more accurate picture. Knowledge of a particular circuit, and a particular trainer’s patterns can help a handicapper determine this with better confidence.
If the rabbit is coupled with their more heralded stablemate, ask whether the (likely short) price on the entry – the combined chances of the closer firing and the rabbit stealing the race – provides sufficient value.
In the more typical case of the main horse and a rabbit not being coupled, weigh those odds separately. Consider the effect of the rabbit – likely either positive or neutral – as part of determining the right price on the marquee entry. Has the main horse taken well to the course, distance, surface, and class level before? How pace-dependent are they? Has the horse run with a rabbit before? Has the trainer used rabbits before? In either case, has the rabbit helped?
And, for the rabbit? Ask what chance the rabbit has to steal the race regardless of the class gap. If possible, find out whether the rabbit has outrun their odds in company similar in class to what they face that day, or whether the trainer tends to enter rabbits who can compete on their own merits. Usually, the rabbit can be tossed. Occasionally, good ones provide value.
Consider Shining Copper last year. Going into his first assignment as Big Blue Kitten’s rabbit last year, the United Nations (GI), there were few indications that the horse who was knocking around in allowance company would make any impact. He went off at 129/1. By most information that was available before post, he deserved it. He did the job to make pace for eventual winner Big Blue Kitten – but shocked most by finishing fourth, only a neck out of second.
The next month, in the Arlington Million, Shining Copper returned as Big Blue’s rabbit – but the question of whether he could steal the race was less frivolous. He still went off a long shot at 27/1, but one could argue he merited a play at those odds given the gameness he showed in the United Nations. Those who used him in exotic wagers or WPS contests reaped the benefits: he finished third, beaten only a length.
Like them or not, trainers and owners use rabbits. As a horseplayer and contest player, you can make the best of the situation by asking the right questions.