GET READY FOR THE RACE MEET OF THE YEAR - SARATOGA!
The summer racing season at Saratoga is all about the top horses, trainers and jockeys in horseracing, and the top-notch handicapping and betting opportunities that go along with it. The fields will be huge, the competition will be stiff and evenly-matched, and the payoffs will often be pricey and loaded with good value for horseplayers who are willing to put in the necessary effort.
Saratoga is the ideal meet for horseplayers who follow track trends and do their homework, because you know that so many novice handicappers and tourists will be pumping so much money into the pools at the highly-anticipated 40-day Saratoga racing season lasts throughout the heart of the summer, running six days a week (every day except Tuesday) from Friday, July 24 until Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 7.
The 2015 Saratoga meet will feature $18.7 million in stakes purses including the country's most tightly-packed Graded stakes program loaded with Grade 1s.
Saratoga's biggest weekend, of course, is Travers weekend on Aug. 29-30. The Travers Stakes, a.k.a "The Midsummer Derby" unfortunately is not expected to draw American Pharoah. Don't fret, however, because Travers Day has been upgraded and supercharged into a mini-Breeders' Cup preview day, with a total of 6 Grade 1 stakes and a Grade 2 with purses for that one day topping $5 million.
The Saratoga meet is non-stop action for handicappers, and it's easy to see why horseplayers look forward to this annual centerpiece race on the annual Thoroughbred racing calendar.
Of course, this meet, or any meet for that matter, can sure be a lot more enjoyable when you are winning, so I have put together a few short and simple tips that can get you started in the right direction and give you a little information edge as you get ready to unleash your bankroll on the races at Saratoga. Read on for some advice on what to look for at "The Spa," and I hope you have an enjoyable and profitable Saratoga meet. Good luck and good racing!
Saratoga Handicapping Guide and Winning Track Profile
Here are some of the top long-term trends to look for at Saratoga to give you the edge.
First off, Saratoga's main track is speed favoring at all distances, no doubt about it. The speed bias is especially prevalent in races at 6 furlongs and shorter, particularly with 2-year-olds. Early speed horses on or within a length of the lead at the first call win nearly 50% of all short dirt sprints. Pressers and the occasional stalker tend to win the rest. Speedsters and pressers both do exceptionally well at the commonly-run distance of 6F.
Second, with the move to Saratoga, the focus in New York racing flip-flops from benefiting one-turn route specialists at Belmont to favoring route horses that do their best running around two turns. Look down the past performances and bet horses whose best route races came on more traditional two-turn layouts such as Aqueduct, Gulfstream, the mid-Atlantic region, or in past races at Saratoga, particularly if those past races were at Saratoga's extended route distance of 1 1/8 miles (Saratoga cards no dirt races at 1 mile and 1 1/16 miles). Give these two-turn distance horses the edge against overbet horses that do their best running in Belmont's one-turn (mainly shorter) routes.
Third, downgrade the three inside posts in turf sprints, particularly the rail, while upgrading horses drawing far outside posts in those races. This is especially important in large fields with more than seven runners.
Fourth, outside posts are negative factors on the Saratoga turf courses in routes to varying degrees. Posts 8 and outward are slight disadvantages on the turf at most distances, while far outside posts 10 and outward are usually poor bets. The inside three posts can offer a good advantage to horses running on the inner turf course at the distances of 1 mile and 1 1/16 miles.
And finally, in Saratoga grass races, speed generally plays a little better on the Mellon course than on the inner course. The pace profile of the average turf winner at Saratoga is a horse that is roughly about 4 lengths off the pace at the first call and 2 1/2 lengths off the pace at the second call. Hold more strict to this pace preference on the Mellon course, where deeper-closing winners happen less frequently than on the inner turf.
If you can get to the paddock for inner track turf races, look for physically small, athletic-looking horses instead of large, long-striding horses. The little guys handle the tight inner course turns nicely, while the big bulky horses generally don't.
Two-Year-Olds and First-Time Starters
Saratoga is home to some of the country's best 2-year-old races, and you are more likely to see next year's Kentucky Derby starters and Grade 1 winners in action there than at any other race meet at any other track at any time of year.
When it comes to those expensive spa baby races, speed always helps. Most 2-year-old sprints are either won wire-to-wire, or are won by an early speed horse or pace-presser capable of staying within a couple lengths of the lead at the first call. Sometimes you will see a juvenile and/or a first-time starter win from off the pace in Saratoga sprints, but you can't really rely on these types of horses. When you see one, you might want to take note of him or her, because you might be looking at a next-out winner, and/or a horse destined for next spring's classics.
It's not a surprise that Todd Pletcher wins a lot of 2-year-old races and also wins with a lot of first-time starters. You can expect his numbers in this regard to be between 25-30%. The great thing about Pletcher's Spa babies is that, if they lose their first career race, they will probably graduate in their second race, which often comes at Saratoga. If a Pletcher maiden has not won its first or second start, stop betting it.
In spite of Pletcher's big win percentages, his Saratoga 2-year-olds are so well bet that they often result in a negative return on investment (ROI) overall. Therefore, you'll need to dig a little deeper than Pletcher in order to make money with Spa 2-year-olds. Some of the other Saratoga ROI leaders with 2YO first starters might surprise you. There are several trainers who can reward you with a positive ROI with their 2YO Spa first starters, including Rick Violette, John Kimmel, Barclay Tagg, Chad Brown, and Bob Baffert (the Baffert factor may diminish in non-stakes now that Del Mar has switched back to dirt).
Other dangerous 2-year-old trainers at Saratoga include Linda Rice, Ken McPeek, Mike Hushion, and, James Jerkens. Kiaran McLaughlin, like James Jerkens, is dangerous but much more likely to win with his 2-year-old second-time starters than his first starters. One guy known as a win-early trainer, Steve Asmussen, has been up-and-down in recent years and can burn a whole lot of money when he's down.
Saratoga, when the weather holds, probably runs a higher percentage of turf races than any other major meet of the year thanks to its two turf courses, classy horses, large horse population, and influx of top turf barns from all over the Eastern half of the country. Many of the turf races each year are won by first-time turf starters, which are often some of the most difficult turf winners to handicap - often paying premium mutuel prices.
Some of the top trainers in this regard are certainly no surprise, with Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott leading the way over the course of the last several years. Pletcher leads all trainers recently with Spa first-time turf winners. It is Bill Mott, however, who has been much better in terms of ROI. Other top trainers with first-time turfers at the Spa the last seven years have included Chad Brown, and Linda Rice, who has double-digit wins in this category - if you count turf sprints.
The top ROI trainers with first-time turfers at Saratoga the last ten years, besides Mott, have included Chad Brown, Graham Motion, George Weaver, Christophe Clement, Barclay Tagg, Wesley Ward, and Mike Maker. John Kimmel also has some good numbers with first-time turfers at Saratoga, but doesn't have as many starters in the category as the other trainers mentioned above. Gary Contessa also can spring to life in this category from time-to-time, even though he is not generally known for first-time turf winners, or turf winners in general for that matter. This results in high mutuel payoffs on Contessa's turf winners, so pay attention.
And then there are the turf sprints - which re run at an average rate of more than one per day at Saratoga throughout the season. Saratoga turf sprints are all run at 5 1/2 furlongs. This differs greatly from Belmont, where turf sprints can be either 6 or 7 furlongs - with the 7 furlong Belmont turf sprints being run on the main turf course, and most of Belmont's 6 furlong turf sprints run on the inner turf.
The main thing to understand about New York turf sprints (especially at Saratoga) before anything else, is that outside posts rule. I insist this is still the case in these races despite a much better-than-usual showing at the 2014 meet where inside posts were fair on both the Inner Turf and the Mellon courses. Let some other handicappers give up on this angle. I recommend you stick with it, because it has been too much a part of being able to be a winning handicapper at Saratoga over the course of the last decade. Examples of this were in 2009 when inside gate in turf sprints won just 1-for-43 in 2009, and 2010 when Post 1 went 2-for-45. In 2011, the rail was awful again, going just 1-for-41 (2%).
Larger turf sprint fields make the inside posts nearly impossible. Pass on betting the inside horses in Saratoga turf sprints, and then take note of those horses and bet them back next time out when and if they get off the inside. Besides just the rail, the other far inside posts are often not much better in Saratoga turf sprints.
Also worth mentioning is that dating back to the 2005 meet, Linda Rice has been the undisputed queen of the Saratoga turf sprint races, with no other trainer coming even remotely close to putting up her kinds of numbers.
Two-Turn Route Racing Returns to New York at Saratoga
Oftentimes the New York horses that come to Saratoga with the best form from Belmont are horses that have been excelling, in part, thanks to their preference for one-turn races. At Saratoga, this factor flip-flops away from the one-turn specialists who've excelled at Belmont, and instead favors two-turn horses that like the routes at Saratoga, and other more traditional track layouts including at Aqueduct.
This adds an interesting handicapping wrinkle in this track change situations to- and away from- Belmont Park. This upcoming move in New York racing from Belmont to Saratoga is one of those pertinent times of year.
In order to figure out if a horse prefers one turn or two turns, handicappers need to scan down a horse's past performances and see where its past route wins and/or highest route speed figures have come from. If you see a horse that has demonstrated its best route form at Belmont going 1 mile, 1-1/16 miles, or 1-1/8 miles, then that horse can probably be termed a "one-turn router." However, if you see a horse whose best route races came on more traditional layouts such as Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Monmouth, the mid-Atlantic region, Churchill Downs, Keeneland, or in past races at Saratoga, then you have a potential key play or wake-up horse at Saratoga, particularly if the horse's past good two-turn efforts came at or near 1-1/8 miles.
Remember also, that at Saratoga, because of the track layout, there are no one-mile races and no 1 1/16-mile races. The vast majority of all main track routes are run at 1-1/8 miles. This creates lots of problems for horses whose best distances are one mile and/or 1-1/16 miles. Those horses must either stretchout to 1-1/8 miles (perhaps too long), or cutback to seven furlongs around one turn (too short).
In addition to looking for two-turn-type horses, you need to work on eliminating horses that just-plain don't want to go 1-1/8 miles on the dirt. Many horses are much the best at one mile and/or 1-1/16 miles, but those options are closed to them at Saratoga. Bet against those horses that prefer the shorter dirt route distances, and upgrade the chances of horses that are proven at 1-1/8 miles and beyond.
Belmont Dirt Trends to Use in Your Saratoga Handicapping
There were plenty of track biases to note this past season on the Belmont Park dirt track. These notes will be helpful for handicappers to know when handicapping at Saratoga, especially early in the meet with many of the horses exiting outings at Belmont in their last races.
There were several track bias days at Belmont, but if there was one prevailing bias that affected racing the most throughout the recently concluded season, it was that outside running paths seemed to be better than inside paths on a few different occasions. This means that perhaps you should think about upgrading horses exiting sub-par efforts in Belmont dirt races if they suffered from inside trips. This is especially relevant if the horse is not entered to be claimed at The Spa.
Here are my noted track biases at the Belmont 2015 Spring/Summer meet:
Belmont Track Biases 2015
July 16 - Outside good, the wider the better, slow rail
July 4 - Outside advantage
July 3 - Outside preferred
June 24 - Outside preferred
June 11 - Helped to be on or close to the pace
June 6 - Speed bias on Belmont Stakes Day
May 31 - Outside preferred
May 30 - Outside good
May 29 - Outside good
May 21 - Outside good
May 20 - Closers won 3-of-4 races
May 6 - Outside good, slow rail
When it comes to post position angles on the Belmont main track, it was the inside and middle posts that were by far the best at the 2015 Spring/Summer meet. Outside posts were bad at Belmont this year starting with post 7 (i.e. you needed to be in posts 1-6 in Belmont dirt routes at have your best chance). Combined with the way the track played better on the outside some days at Belmont, the best trips in Belmont routes were by horses breaking from inside posts that were able to work-out off-the-rail trips.
Outside posts in Belmont dirt routes were downright awful at Belmont. Based on the raw post position figures, you truly needed a post 1-6 in order to have you best chance in a Belmont dirt route at this year's meet.
The summer at Saratoga is not only about the top horses, trainers and top jockeys, it's also about the top-notch betting and handicapping. The races are loaded with good value for horseplayers who are willing to put in the effort. Saratoga is also the ideal meet to do your homework and follow track trends, because so many novice handicappers and tourists pump so much money into the pools. Opportunities always abound for serious horseplayers to get their share of the pie over the course of the seven-week meet.
I hope you can benefit from this Saratoga handicapping primer and use the information to your best advantage. Best of luck.
By Noel Michaels: OTBLearningLabs.com