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- John Piesen
WATCH AND WAGER THE SEASON'S BEST RACING AT BELMONT PARK
With all the hub-bub in Thoroughbred racing focused on the Triple Crown, it can be easy to forget that at the same time the Kentucky Derby and Oaks were going on, the premier east coast meet of the season was opening at beautiful Belmont Park.
Six long months at Aqueduct are over and New York is once again the epicenter of east coast racing with the opening of the Belmont Park Spring/Summer meet, which will run from April 1 through closing day, November 1. The move to Belmont Park each spring is not just a move from Aqueduct to Belmont, but is also signifies the return of the east's premier race circuit to the Big Apple after winter and spring detours at Gulfstream Park and Keeneland.
At the start of the Belmont Spring/Summer meet, runners will generally come from one of four groups - 1) local Aqueduct horses, 2) horses coming from Keeneland, 3) horses returning to New York directly from Florida, and 4) horses returning from layoffs, often meant for the grass, either immediately or after a prep race or two. These are four importantly different categories of horses, all having their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to betting at Belmont.
BELMONT STAKES FESTIVAL
The biggest day of the Belmont meet, of course, will be the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 6. The third leg of racing Triple Crown will be the centerpiece of a revamped Belmont Stakes Day that will include nine other stakes races including the Grade 1, $1.25 million Metropolitan Mile Handicap, and the $1 million Grade 1 Ogden Phipps and the $1 million Grade 1 Manhattan. Other Graded stakes races like the Grade 1 Grade 1 Just a Game, the Grade 1 Acorn, the Grade 2 Brooklyn, and the Grade 2 Woody Stephens, will push Belmont Stakes Day's purses near $8 million, making it the second-richest event in American racing behind only the Breeders' Cup.
Additionally, this year Belmont will debut the three-day Belmont Stakes Festival, which will be three days of top-class racing from Thursday, June 4 to Belmont Stakes Day, June 6. Thursday and Friday will add seven more stakes races and millions more purse dollars to the mix in what figures to be one of the highlight of the year for Thoroughbred bettors.
First off when trying to approach the Belmont meet, horseplayers should take note of the recent trends from the completed Aqueduct spring main track meet.
The jockey standings at Aqueduct this winter were more or less ruled by brothers Irad Ortiz and Jose Ortiz, who finished 1-2 in the all-encompassing Aqueduct winter jockey standings. Most recently at the Aqueduct spring main track meet, however, the leading rider spot was taken over by hot-riding apprentice Angel Cruz, who led the way with 22 wins and 15 seconds from 93 starts. Irad Ortiz was second at the Big A main track meet with 20 wins and Jose Ortiz was fourth with 18 victories. Manuel Franco rounded out the top four in third place with 19 wins. The next winningest rider was Cornelio Velasquez with 14 victories for a 15% win percentage.
These local riders should be the ones to watch at Belmont along with the main contingent of New York's top riders who will be returning from Florida/Keeneland/Churchill. This group of national top riders includes Javier Castellano, John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, and Luis Saez. Others vying for spots in the top 10 in the Belmont jockey colony could also include Junior Alvarado, wand apprentice Eric Cancel, whose book is being handled by agent Angel Cordero.
The Aqueduct main track mainly played fair at the recently concluded Aqueduct main track meet after a winter of inner track racing that mostly favored outside paths. The main track displayed a few daily track biases, which are detailed below on my Aqueduct bias chart dating all the way back to the beginning of 2015.
Aqueduct Track Biases
Apr. 12 - Speed good, 8 of 9 winners on the pace
Apr. 9 - Inside speed advantage
Mar. 22 - Helped to be on or close to the pace
Mar. 7 - Speed advantage on souped-up stakes day track
Mar. 1 - Rally wide advantage
Feb. 28 - Outside stalk and rally wide bias, slow rail
Feb. 26 - Outside preferred on dead track
Feb. 22 - Outside bias, dead rail on muddy sealed track
Feb. 14 - Speed good, perhaps outside still preferred
Feb. 12 - Had to be on or close, perhaps outside still better
Feb. 11 - Outside advantage
Feb. 8 - Rally wide advantage
Feb. 7 - Helped to be on or close, outside preferred
Feb. 6 - Outside bias, dead rail
Feb. 5 - Outside bias on "good" wet track
Jan. 2 - Outside preferred
There was very little bias in terms of post position draw, especially in sprints, where horses had pretty much equal chances from any part of the starting gate at the recently concluded Aqueduct spring main track meet.
At the Big A's spring meet overall, post position preferences were limited mainly to route races, both in turf and on dirt, and mainly went as expected with inside and middle posts preferred over outside post positions.
On the Aqueduct main track in routes, horses really needed to be drawn in posts 1-6 to have a decent chance of winning. Posts 7 thru 12 rarely won, with only a combined 3 victories from those posts from a total of 51 starters (6% winning percentage).
In turf routes, the story was more or less the same, with the majority of grass winners breaking from posts 1-7. On the grass, however, the big bias was toward the far inside posts 1-3, which afforded horses their very best chances of winning. In 26 total turf routes run at Aqueduct this spring, 14 of them were won from just those three posts 1-3 (won 54% of the turf races).
Because of these post position results at Aqueduct, handicappers should make note of Belmont runners coming out of Aqueduct routes. You should upgrade the chances of any horse coming out of an Aqueduct loss where it was encumbered with a post position anywhere outside of post 7, because horses from the outside posts were at a definite disadvantage in both turf and dirt routes.
Many trainers enjoyed solid and successful winters/springs at Aqueduct, and they will be joined by the best trainers and racing stables in the country who are now back in New York from their winter bases at Gulfstream and their spring stopovers at Keeneland.
The dominant Aqueduct trainer once again this year was leading trainer David Jacobson who ran away with the inner track training title and then did the same at the Aqueduct Spring meet (13 wins and a 35% win percentage. Just because all the big-name national stables are back in town now, don't expect Jacobson (and other local trainers) to stop winning. Yes, the Aqueduct winter crew's win percentages will probably go down and they will win fewer allowance races, but these trainers will continue to win tons of races and probably will finish the Belmont meet high in the trainer standings by the time it's all said and done.
Belmont's training title should again be expected to go to Todd Pletcher, who displayed his usual domination in Florida over the winter while ignoring the Aqueduct winter and spring meets altogether (unlike in past years).
The next trainers you'll want to focus on, besides Pletcher and Jacobson, will be Linda Rice and Chad Brown.
Linda Rice, split her winter stock between New York and Florida, and actually won enough races at Aqueduct to be high in the trainer standings. This spring she was fourth in the Big A standing with 7 wins from 24 starters (29% wins), and it should be noted that win percentage was accomplished with no turf sprints run at the Aqueduct meet (turf sprints are Rice's bread-and-butter).
Rice should win a bunch of turf races at Belmont with horses either coming off winter layoffs, coming from Florida, or who've been racing on the wrong surface in New York all winter. As always, Rice can be counted on to be deadly with turf sprinters at all distances.
Chad Brown has firmly emerged as one of the premier trainers on the national scene year-round the last few years. Brown is lethal on the grass and in routes, and also wins a lot of maiden special weight races. While Chad Brown is always dangerous and must always be respected, you can expect him to do much of his Belmont Park winning early in the Spring/Summer meet. Bet him during the first half of the Belmont meet, because starting in late June, Brown will start to quiet down as be begins ramping-up his stable for his top annual summer push at Saratoga.
Kiaran McLaughlin had his typical high win-percentage seasons in both New York and Florida this winter, and his winning ways should continue at Belmont - the longer the race the better. McLaughlin enjoyed a tremendous Aqueduct spring meet, finishing tied for second in the standings with 8 wins from 19 starters for 42% (Chad Brown tied for second at the Big A, also with 8 wins, but won at a lower but still impressive 30% percentage).
Rick Violette has been reloading for what should be a big season, and Jason Servis should also win a ton of races. Graham Motion is always dangerous, especially on grass, and Tony Dutrow can always be counted on for his share of victories at this meet.
Turf ace trainer Christophe Clement's grass string will be as powerful as ever this season at Belmont. Clement will lead the parade of top stables returning full force to New York after spending the winter and spring elsewhere, along with trainers like Bill Mott and Shug McGaughey, who can be counted on for high winning percentages at Belmont.
James Jerkens will be another trainers to watch at Belmont. You can also expect Bruce Levine to be prominent and prolific as always at Belmont. Watch for Levine with first-time Lasix (the "Bruce Juice").
Looking for a few high-percentage trainer angles? Stay away from Bruce Brown first-and second-time starters, and hop onboard the bandwagon Kiaran McLaughlin-trained maiden second-time starters.
SHIPPERS AND LAYOFFS
Evaluating out-of-town and returning-to-town talent is one of the keys to handicapping the Belmont Park meet, because when it comes to figuring out where the winners at Belmont will come from, the local horses who've spent the winter at Aqueduct are not necessarily the horses you want to watch for at Belmont. This is especially true on turf.
A few trends to watch for horses coming in from out of town include some post position angles pertaining to horses coming from Gulfstream. At Gulfstream, horses that drew outside posts in1 1/16-mile dirt races and 1 1/8-mile dirt races were at an enormous disadvantage, and horses who drew inside in one-mile dirt races and in sprints at or beyond 6 1/2 furlongs were often also at a disadvantage. Therefore, if you see a Belmont starter exiting bad efforts in one of those kinds of races at Gulfstream, you should remember to give that horse an excuse for a loss.
Other Belmont entrants to watch for in the spring are the ones who've been given the winter off, and are fresh and ready to roll, particularly on the grass. The best strategy with these sorts of layoff horses is to bet them once they've gotten a prep race or two under their belts, either here or during the Aqueduct spring main track meet. Give horses with a prep the advantage over horses coming back off winter layoffs.
The out-of-town shippers who return to New York from Keeneland often are best suited for winning early at Belmont Park. The big-name trainers at Belmont usually are the same trainers who have been the big names all winter at Gulfstream and then in the spring and fall at Keeneland. This group includes Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Kiaran McLaughlin, Tom Albertrani, Christophe Clement, and Shug McGaughey. These trainers are all going to win a significant percentage of their races at Belmont, because their horses either are fit and ready after running at big meets over the winter, or have been pointed to this Belmont meet all along.
BELMONT WINNING TRACK TRENDS
Of course, nothing beats a good old horse-for-the-course when handicapping Belmont dirt races. Belmont Park's main track, also known by the nickname "Big Sandy," is a dramatically different surface from Aqueduct's main track, and especially the inner track.
Belmont runs almost exclusively one-turn races on dirt at all distances ranging from 5 furlongs to 9 furlongs. A horse's two-turn record is not as important as its one-turn record for the purposes of evaluating Belmont's one-turn miles. So, when handicapping those races, scan the past performances for horses' past one-turn miles at Belmont and on Aqueduct's main track as well as places like Churchill, Arlington, Laurel, and Gulfstream, and weight them as more important than a horse's two-turn past performances in other races and from other tracks such as Monmouth, Pimlico, Philadelphia, Calder, and the Aqueduct inner track.
On the Belmont dirt track, speed is an extremely handy commodity. Other tracks such as Monmouth, Pimlico, and the Aqueduct inner track have more of a reputation as being speed biased tracks, but Belmont Park can be right up there with those other tracks at certain times when it comes to favoring speed. Sure, late runners will have every opportunity to close at Belmont with its wide sweeping turns and long stretch, but you always must be wary of the times when Belmont's main track bias kicks into effect and strongly favors front runners. When those biases appear, they can stay in place for up to a week at time when the weather goes several days without changing.
When it comes to post position angles on the Belmont main track, remember that Belmont runs almost no two-turn races due to its 1 1/2-mile circumference. This nearly negates any inside bias the track might have in route races, which are all one-turn affairs up to 1 1/8 miles.
BELMONT TURF RACES
On the Belmont turf courses, both the inner turf and the outer turf tracks are big, wide, fair courses with long stretch runs. Outside turf posts are a concern, however, between one mile and 1 1/8 miles. Horses breaking from the far outside in one-mile races and 1 1/16-mile races can be most negatively affected by outside posts. At one mile on the Widener turf course at the Spring/Summer meet, posts 8-12 should win for about a combined 5%, while posts 9-12 should win about 6% at 1 1/16-miles. On the inner turf course at 1 1/16-miles, horses from posts 8-10 can be expected to win only about 5% at a time. At 1 1/8-miles, posts 8-11 may win only about 7%.
Notably, weather has a big impact on Belmont turf racing, and it's something worth looking out for. For the first half of the Belmont Spring/Summer Meet, temperatures can still be chilly at times and the area is often affected by spring showers which keep the courses a bit moist, even under "firm" conditions. Belmont firm turf in May and early June is far different from Belmont firm turf for the second half of the meet after the Belmont stakes when heat, lack of rain, and heavy use usually begin to take their toll on the turf courses by baking them into rock-hard, grassy paved highways. Because of these course conditions, handicappers should upgrade turf closers during the first half of the meet, and then begin to downgrade those horses in favor of turf speedsters during the second half of the meet.
This angle is a particularly effective moneymaker when you see late-running horses that benefited from the course conditions early in the meet that you can downgrade as likely underlays during the second-half of the meet when the turf plays kinder to speed. At the same time, you can also catch overlay prices on live turf front runners and up-close pace-pressers who win later in the meet after flopping earlier in the meet in May and early June.
As a side note, when it rains, the inner turf typically dries out faster than the outer course, so always try to keep that in mind when evaluating horses that prefer good, yielding, or soft turf.
In the increasingly popular turf sprint department, Linda Rice and Anthony Dutrow do particularly well, as does Kiaran McLaughlin.
Logic would dictate that inside posts would be preferential in turf sprints, due to the short run-up to the first turn and the fact that ground-saving trips always seem to work well in the longer turf races. However, not only aren't inside posts better in New York turf sprints, but, in fact, the OPPOSITE is actually true. Outside posts (often the far outside post) are the best post position draws in Belmont turf sprints. Inside posts are the worst. This is not just a short-term trend either. The outside posts have always done better than the inside posts at each and every Belmont spring and fall meet since turf sprints became a big part of the local racing landscape a few years ago.
The anti-rail bias is particularly prevalent in Belmont turf sprints on the Widener course, where the rail Post 1 customarily wins at only 4-5% at both 6 furlongs and 7 furlongs on the Widener (outer) turf.
On the inner turf course, the turf sprint inside vs. outside bias is still there, but it just works a little differently than on the outer turf. In inner turf sprints at Belmont, the rail post itself is not bad, but instead it is all of the other inside posts that are terrible including posts 2-5. Post position seems to mean more in these kinds of races than in any other locally, so bet the large amount of Belmont turf sprint races accordingly.
I have been the number one advocate of this angle for several years, but for some reason, people just don't get it - including people who should know better such as the turf writers and handicappers from mainstream publications like the Daily Racing Form. Since the betting public evidently still has not caught on to this reality (thanks in part to the mis-information spread by the handicappers at aforementioned publication), this angle still produces solid overlays and plenty of winners meet after meet. Remember, in Belmont turf sprints on both courses, downgrade horses breaking from posts 1-3, and upgrade horses breaking from posts 8 and outward, especially the far outside post in any given race.
Spring racing is now revved up to full throttle on the New York circuit, and Belmont is always the place to be at this time of year as world class racing returns along with the attention of most of the country's serious horseplayers. Enjoy the annual renaissance of New York racing with the return to racing Belmont Park. Best of luck, and enjoy the show.