Here is where John Piesen shows off his inestimable writing skill honed for decades at the DRF and NY Post, about all things racing. In these articles, on handicapping horse races, John looks at races just run and tells you how and why they turned out as it did, and what that means for the future horse races. John also previews the week’s most important and potentially most profitable races, and with his vast set of connections, goes to the trainers and jockeys and others “in the know” to get the real scoop on how the race shapes up.
Make a Seamless Move From Saratoga to Belmont's Fall Meet
The Saratoga racing season continues through its customary closing day on Labor Day, when New York racing once again moves downstate for the start of the Belmont Park Fall Championship Meet, which begins on Friday, Sept. 9 and continues through to October 30. Following Saratoga, there are few race meets as important as the Belmont Fall Championship Meet, which contains all of New York’s key prep races for the Breeders’ Cup. Plus, don’t forget, that besides just stakes races, Belmont Park also offers top-notch racing day-in-and-day-out all throughout the late summer/early fall season.
Every serious horseplayer plays Belmont during the fall of every year, so it will pay quick and important dividends for any horseplayer to keep abreast to the goings-on, tips, trends, and winning track profiles at Belmont in order to be able to win.
By the time the racing season rolls into town for the Belmont Fall Championship Meet, Saratoga, of course, will already have just come and gone. When Saratoga appears in the rear-view mirror, summer racing is gone along with it. Belmont is the beacon that ushers in fall racing, which has its own different flavor than the racing the rest of the year.
Much to the chagrin of racing fans and handicappers who relish the full, giant fields in dirt races and six-day-a-week 10- and 11-race cards that are commonly featured at Saratoga, the racing schedule is more condensed at Belmont. What that means is that even though fall racing at Belmont isn’t Saratoga, it is still the best racing to be found each fall. Belmont is a better meet for horseplayers than Saratoga is, because it is easier to nail down winners at Belmont when you have fewer core handicapping angles to work with, and a smaller more concentrated sample of horses and horsemen.
In reality, with the exception of large crowds in attendance for live racing, the Belmont Fall Championship Meet really isn’t much of a letdown at all from the season up at Saratoga. Belmont features a similar program of stakes races and turf races as Saratoga, and in many ways the Belmont Fall Meet shares even more similarities with the Saratoga meet than it does with the Belmont Spring/Summer Meet. This is because the 2-year-old program is such a big part of racing during the fall at Belmont Park, but virtually non-existent in the spring and summer meet. And not only is there juvenile racing at Belmont in the fall, the track’s 2-year-old racing program happens to be the best juvenile racing in the country at this time of year.
So yes, we all agree that racing at Belmont Park in the fall is not the same as at Saratoga – the field sizes at Belmont can be expected to be somewhat smaller than they were at Saratoga and there will be fewer shippers from other circuits – but nevertheless, Belmont still will have plenty to offer horseplayers including the best 2-year-olds, the best turf racing of the season, and the best and most widely inclusive stakes program of the fall season.
SARATOGA TRENDS – Jockeys. Trainers, and Posts
The discussion of handicapping the Belmont fall meet must begin with a look at the trends from the Saratoga meet directly preceding it.
Many jockeys and trainers enjoyed success – or at least hot streaks – during the course of the Saratoga meet. Chad Brown and below him Todd Pletcher once again ran away on top of the trainers’ standings, and Irad Ortiz and Jose Ortiz continued their reign atop the jockeys’ standings for yet another NY meet with a battle between them to be Saratoga’s winningest rider.
The full human story of the Saratoga meet does not just begin and end with Pletcher and Brown and the Ortiz brothers, however. Many others made their mark.
In terms of trainers, at various times of the Saratoga meet, several horsemen enjoyed blazing hot streaks at one time or another, including guys like Kiaran McLaughlin, and Jason Servis, and Tom Proctor. In the latter stages of the Saratoga meet, Linda Rice seems to be the hottest of all heading into the Belmont fall meet. She upped her win total to 7 as of Aug. 26, including five turf wins. She’ll keep winning at Belmont in the fall, particularly in turf sprints.
The previously-mentioned Jason Servis should be followed at Belmont based on his 31% Saratoga win percentage and 54% in-the-money (ITM) percentage, as should the more low-profile Charlton Baker, who won 32% and was 60% ITM at The Spa with an average win mutual of $12.00.
Remember that while Pletcher and Chad Brown will win the most races at Belmont, their average win prices will be in the $6.00 range, so handicappers will need to find opportunities beyond that pair in order to make any real money.
Other trainers to key on at Belmont also will include David Jacobson, who has had hard times for most of 2016 but quietly racked-up his best Saratoga meet in years (including his years as top trainer in NY). Jacobson won 9 races at Saratoga through Aug. 26 and accumulated a 53% ITM percentage. Also on this list of trainers to watch include Mike Hushion, who only started 14 horses but was in the money 57%, Graham Motion, who won only six races but was in the money 15 times for a 50% ITM percentage, and Mark Casse, who struggled at Saratoga with only a 13% win percentage, but was ITM 52% and has a stable of horses ready to win.
In the Belmont jock’s room, all of the top mounts from the top barns, of course, will continue to go to Jose Ortiz, Irad Ortiz, John Velazquez, and Javier Castellano. The Ortiz brothers boot home more that 40% of the favorites they’re aboard, but out of the two, Jose Ortiz is far preferred in terms of ROI over Irad. Jose Ortiz’s average win price at Saratoga was $11.00, as opposed to Irad Ortiz’s average win price of only $7.60.
Bet Javier Castellano on the turf at Belmont where he excels the most, and bet John Velazquez in 2-year-old races after the veteran won by far the most juvenile events at Saratoga with 12 wins in 2yo races at Saratoga through Aug. 26.
The other hot rider to watch currently is Jose Lezcano, who caught fire through the second half of the Saratoga meet to total 14 wins from only 88 mounts (16% wins and 44% ITM). Lezcano accomplished this despite riding only 6 favorites among his first 88 mounts while racking-up an average win mutuel of $17.00. Finally, keep an eye on Manny Franco at Belmont. He didn’t have a stellar Saratoga, but he was riding in the top form of his career when last seen at Belmont Park during the spring/summer meet.
When evaluating horses’ form from Saratoga when they show up back at Belmont Park in the fall, one final set of trends to learn from at Saratoga are the post position trends. Many horses racing at Belmont will show up with PPs that look either better, or worse, than they really are based on their favorable or non-favorable post positions from recent starts up at Saratoga.
Saratoga dirt sprint post positions were overwhelming fair overall, with no major advantage or disadvantage gained or lost due to posts. Dirt route races at Saratoga, however, were another story. In Saratoga dirt routes, horses really had to draw posts 1-6 to have a solid chance to win. Horses that started from posts 7-10 in Saratoga dirt routes went just a combined 2-for-33 (6% win percentage). So when you see a horse at Belmont exiting a Saratoga dirt route from a post position 7 or higher, go ahead and upgrade that horse next time out.
On the turf, remember that at Saratoga, just like at Belmont, inside posts, particularly the rail, are bad in turf sprints. The rail won just 3 of 45 such races at Saratoga through Aug. 26, while posts 2 and 3 each yielded only 4 winners apiece. Therefore, upgrade the chances of any horse that was disadvantaged with an inside turf sprint post at Saratoga when they make their next starts at Belmont, unless those horses once again draw inside in a turf sprint at Belmont.
In turf routes run at Saratoga this year, post positions were remarkably fair all the way on out to post 11. No upgrading or downgrading is necessary. The lone exception, however, could be the rail, which was exceptionally good in Saratoga turf routes on both the Mellon course (20% wins) and the Inner course (19% wins). Therefore, you can slightly downgrade turf route wins in horses PPs at Belmont when you see they broke from the highly-favorable post one in their recent victories at Saratoga.
BELMONT MAIN TRACK WINNING PROFILE – PACE AND POSTS
Every meet, no matter where it is, or when it is, or how high-profile it is, can always be made better and more enjoyable for horseplayers if you are winning and cashing tickets. The Belmont Park Fall Championship meet contains all of New York’s key prep races for the Breeders’ Cup, but besides just stakes races, Belmont also offers top notch racing and wagering on all types of races, day-in-and-day-out throughout the season. For this reason, it pays to know and understand the handicapping trends that will work for you at the Belmont fall meet. This knowledge will help you upgrade your winning percentage and earn wagering profits.
Belmont runs almost exclusively one-turn races on dirt at all distances, ranging from 5 furlongs to 9 furlongs. Belmont Park 1 ¼-mile races, and 1 ½-mile dirt races are rare (except the Belmont Stakes, of course). Therefore, a horse’s two-turn record is not as important as its one-turn record for the purposes of evaluating Belmont’s main track route races.
On the Belmont main track, speed is an extremely handy commodity. Sure, late runners will have every opportunity to close at Belmont with its wide sweeping turns and long stretch, but the Belmont Park winning track profile always seems to put a premium on early speed and is known for daily track biases that only strengthen the advantage of speed and pace-pressing horses. When those track biases do appear, they can stay in place for up to a week at time when the weather goes through a long stretch without changing.
On the Belmont main track, always assume the prevailing main track bias at Belmont will favor speed horses, and horses able to stay within 2 1/2 lengths of the early pace in sprints, and within 4 lengths of the early pace in routes.
When it comes to post position angles on the Belmont main track, the track does not always play like you would expect. The fact that Belmont runs almost no two-turn races due to its 1 1/2-mile layout nearly negates any inside bias the track might have in route races (all route races up to 1 1/8 miles are around one turn), and there is really little or no advantage to be gained by "saving ground" at Belmont on the main track.
Six furlong races and all shorter races are most likely to favor inside posts at Belmont, with a slight preference to inside posts also at 6 1/2 furlongs. However, that advantage disappears at 7 furlongs, and actually begins to reverse at 1 mile, 1 1/16th miles, 1 1/8 miles (and the occasional race run at 7 1/2 furlongs). In these races, the inside few posts offer no advantage at all, with some horses actually perhaps at a disadvantage unless they have early speed and can charge out to the front and get off the rail. In general, it is usually a good idea to upgrade outside posts in main track races at a mile or more, especially if the horse in question is an overlay.
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 the dirt track at Saratoga, or the Aqueduct’s main track, and especially the Aqueduct inner track.
Certain horses love the Belmont dirt surface and others cannot do their best running there. Part of this preference for the local oval has to do with the track layout as well, with Belmont’s wide sweeping turns helping some horses and hurting others. The horse for the course angle is always a big handicapping positive, but it seems even more potent as a betting angle at Belmont Park.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF BELMONT’S ONE-TURN DIRT ROUTE RACES
With the move from Saratoga to Belmont, handicappers deal with one of those times of the year in New York racing where the difference between one-turn and two-turn races is of utmost importance to horseplayers. Pay attention to this one important difference, and you will have a distinct edge over the majority of the betting public.
It’s not that the average handicapper doesn’t realize this quirk at Belmont – we all know that Belmont’s routes are almost all run around one turn. The problem for many horseplayers is that they don’t assign enough importance to this key difference between Belmont and all other racetracks. If you overlook this key factor in your day-to-day handicapping at Belmont, it will be difficult for you to win with any consistency.
One of Saratoga’s long-standing nicknames is "The Graveyard of Favorites," and the Spa has that reputation for a number of reasons. Much of it has to do with the fact that bettors get the odds all wrong in route races by misinterpreting horses’ one-turn route form from Belmont – either better than it really is, or worse – when handicapping races on Saratoga’s totally different two-turn layout.
Well, the same is true in reverse at Belmont Park, where a lot of route favorites go down in flames because their odds are all wrong due to players putting too much importance on results in different kinds of route races run at Saratoga. Two-turn route races have always been a big element of handicapping at Saratoga, but they are non-factors at New York’s bookend race meets at Belmont Park.
Oftentimes the New York horses that arrive back at Belmont in the fall with the best form up at Saratoga are horses that were excelling, in part, thanks to their preference for two-turn dirt route races at Saratoga. However, this factor flip-flops at Belmont, away from the two-turn specialists who excelled at Saratoga and towards the one-turn horses who like the routes at Belmont, and who like the distances of 1 mile and 1 1/16 miles better than the 1 1/8-mile routes run at Saratoga (there are no 1 mile and 1 1/16-mile dirt races run at Saratoga).
This adds an interesting handicapping wrinkle when the meets in New York switch to- and-from Belmont Park. This move in New York from racing at Saratoga to racing at Belmont is one of those pertinent times of year.
In order to figure out if a horse prefers one turn or two turns, 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" and could be a key horse to bet at Belmont. However, if you see a horse whose best route races came on more traditional layouts such as Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Monmouth, the mid-Atlantic region, or especially in races at Saratoga, then you have a potential bet-against horse at Belmont that prefers two-turn routes.
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 Saratoga 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. At Saratoga, those horses must either stretchout to 1 1/8 miles (perhaps too long), or cutback to seven furlongs around one turn (too short).
When those horses return to Belmont in the fall, they often come off a bad recent race or two, and they are ready for a positive turnaround, often at a good price, back at their preferred distances at Belmont.
This distance angle goes beyond just Belmont and Saratoga handicapping at this time of year and actually extends to horses running in dirt routes all over the eastern region including, most notably, Monmouth Park, Parx, and Delaware Park. Many of the better New York barns are well aware of this distance-change angle, and instead choose to ship-off their one mile and 1 1/16-mile dirt specialists to other tracks during the Saratoga meet, because they just can’t win at either 7F or 1 1/8 miles. When racing returns to Belmont Park, watch for the horses returning to Belmont Park off of 1 mile and 1 1/16-mile dirt races at lesser tracks. They are often prime bets despite the fact that they’ve run at lesser circuits.
Trainers with lot of resources, and/or out-of-town operations, have the advantage in this regard. These trainers include Todd Pletcher, Jason Servis, Bruce Levine, Tony Dutrow and Steve Asmussen. These guys will pick-out their mis-matched distance horses ahead of the Saratoga meet and ship those horses to races at Monmouth, Parx, Delaware, or elsewhere, with varying degrees of success. When these horses return to Belmont, however, they often become some of the best winning longshots of the meet.
Other trainers with smaller operations, who are without the resources to run strings of horses out of town, stick around at Saratoga and lose races all season long with these types of runners at 7F and 1 1/8 miles with horses that should be entered at 1 mile or 1 1/16 miles. Back at Belmont, those horses are also some of the best longshot plays, because you can usually expect a positive turnaround from them in the fall.
Therefore, during the Belmont fall meet, bet horses that were stuck at the wrong distances at Saratoga, especially if they hail from the smaller and/or New York-only stables. Also bet on the horses from the barns like Pletcher, Servis, Levine, Dutrow, Asmussen, and others, who shipped out of town to tracks like Monmouth or Parx or Delaware, to enter races at 1 mile and 1 1/16 miles over the summer. They can surprise a lot of people when they come back to Belmont Park for the fall meet.
I hope these tips and trends give you an edge at the betting windows for a successful and enjoyable 2016 Belmont Fall Championship meet. Best of luck!