5 GOLD STAR TIPS AND TRENDS TO MAKE YOU A WINNER AT 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 them. 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.

The 40-day Saratoga racing season lasts throughout the heart of the summer, running six days a week (every day except Tuesday) from Friday, July 21 until Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 4.  The 2017 Saratoga meet will feature 69 stakes races worth $18.7 million, including the country's most tightly-packed Graded stakes program loaded with Grade 1s.

While the Saratoga stakes program is certainly great, the real money for horseplayers will be won and lost in Saratoga's daily meat-and-potatoes racing, which is still unrivaled by any other track at this or any other time of year.

Opportunities always abound for serious horseplayers to get their share of the pie over the course of the summer. So many novice handicappers and tourists pump so much money into the pools over the course of the Saratoga meet, that there is always a lot of bad money being bet into the pools. This is there for the taking by sharper, more informed handicappers to scoop up and run away with straight to the bank. How do you take advantage of this positive money-making situation?  One way I have found that works is by playing certain key tips and trends that can make you a winner over the long haul of the Spa season.  There's no doubt about it: Saratoga is the ideal meet for horseplayers who follow track trends.

Here are five of the top long-term trends to look for when handicapping at Saratoga, meant 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 (5 1/2F and shorter), while pace pressers and the occasional stalker tend to win the rest. Also, 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 traditional two-turn layouts 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) route races.

* 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 or eight 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 fifth, 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 route 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 strictly 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.

HERE IS A CLOSER LOOK AT THE CATEGORIES MENTIONED ABOVE:

1) Dirt Sprints

The most commonly run races at Saratoga, by category, are dirt sprints, in spite of the fact that Saratoga regularly cards as many or more turf races than anyone else.  Just like any other track, the dirt sprints are the backbone of daily racing at Saratoga.

The cheaper the race, the more speed-favoring it probably will be. 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 or two of the lead at the first call win nearly 50% of all short sprints.

Saratoga cards much fewer five furlong sprints than it used to, and in fact, they've become so rare that only a few of these races are carded each year, mainly for 2-year-olds. These 5 furlong sprints might be rare, but they are still worth keeping an eye out for when you can find one, because the 5F distance at Saratoga is one of the most speed biased trips in all of horseracing. Five furlong races at Saratoga are carded almost exclusively for juveniles, so often the entrants in these races will be first starters. In lieu of any past performances to go on, instead try to focus on horses with fast and/or bullet blowouts at 3 or 4 furlongs leading up to the race, and key exclusively on "win-early" trainers.

Looking at the post position stats for 5 ½ furlongs from Saratoga, we see very little favoritism for any particular post. Posts outside post 9 seem to account for the lone disadvantage. The rail generally is little or no benefit.

One interesting note in five-and-a-half furlong races at Saratoga is that the rail and the inside posts do not enjoy the same advantage at this distance as they do at other sprint distances.

Six furlongs is the most frequently run distance at Saratoga (as with all tracks), and therefore the sample size is the best when trying to decipher which posts are the most advantageous.

While the inside posts are the best at six furlongs, no posts could really be considered death sentences. When in doubt, give the horses from the inside posts an advantage over the outside at 6 furlongs.

At 6 ½ furlongs on Saratoga's main track, once again, the rail seems like the best place to be. The sample size at 6 ½ furlongs is smaller than at 6 furlongs, so therefore statistical anomalies can happen. Based on the figures, it seems that there is little or no post position bias at 6 ½ furlongs at Saratoga, with a good amount of winners regularly coming from inside, middle, and outside posts.

Finally, a good amount of races are run at 7 furlongs at Saratoga, and the numbers seem to suggest two things: First, that the inside two posts are the best post positions, and second, that it's difficult to win from a draw anywhere outside post 9.

 

2) Dirt Routes

Dirt route races are just one of the many facets of handicapping in New York that are challenging at this time of the year. Horseplayers who understand the differences between horses that excel in two-turn races at Saratoga as opposed to one-turn races at Belmont will enjoy a strong betting advantage in those races throughout July and August. The others out there who fail to notice this enormously important difference between Belmont Park and Saratoga, on the other hand, are doomed to struggle.

One of Saratoga's long-standing nicknames is "The Graveyard of Favorites," and the track 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 route layout.

Two-turn route races have always been a big element of handicapping at Saratoga, unlike at New York's bookend race meets at Belmont Park which almost no two-turn routes. Saratoga, on the other hand, cards roughly 40 two-turn dirt routes a season - an average of about one per day - and those events are quite different than the dirt route races run around one turn at Belmont Park. Plus, when it rains a lot, you can expect even more dirt routes at Saratoga due to all of the races moved from turf to dirt. In 2014 for example, there were a total of 62 dirt route races run at Saratoga, for an average of 1.5 of these races per day. In 2015, there were 51 dirt routes run at the 40-day Saratoga meet.

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, however, 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, and every other track that runs route beyond one mile around (at least) two turns.

This adds an interesting handicapping wrinkle to these 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, Churchill, Gulfstream, Monmouth, the mid-Atlantic region, or in past races at Saratoga, then you have a potential key play on a likely "wake-up" horse at Saratoga, particularly if the horse's past good two-turn efforts came at or near 1 1/8 miles.

Another ultra-important handicapping note to make at Saratoga is that, because of the track layout, there are no one-mile races and no 1 1/16-mile races ever run.  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 (perhaps too short).

Those 1 mile-to-1 1/16th-mile horses are essentially homeless at Saratoga, but that doesn't stop their connections from running them, even when they need to shoe-horn them into bad spots.

What works when handicapping the mostly 1 1/8-mile two-turn dirt routes at Saratoga?  When it comes to post positions, the inside four posts historically have had a slight advantage in all two-turn dirt races at Saratoga, particularly at the most common dirt route distance of 1 1/8 miles. This way of thinking is prevalent amongst many bettors, and it is strong enough to affect the odds, making inside-drawn horses favorites and bumping-up the odds on outside horses. However, take note that but this post position factor has played a smaller role at recent Saratoga meets, perhaps because of some kind of difference with the recent track superintendent as opposed to former track maintenance crews.

At the most recent Saratoga meets, far outside-drawn horses were at a disadvantage in Saratoga two-turn routes, but this bias only affected horses drawn in posts 8 and wider.  Middle posts 5-6-7 won a fair share of races, indicating that the inside posts 1-2-3-4 held no advantage over the middle posts. You don't need to start downgrading horses' chances in Saratoga dirt routes until you get out as far as post 8.  Horses breaking from posts 8-11 in Saratoga dirt routes in 2015, for example were a combined 1-for-31!  In short, I am concluding that there is very little post position advantage in these races, until you go all the way out to post 8. Posts outside 8 may still be a disadvantage, but the middle posts 5-7 showed no statistical disadvantage.

3) Turf Sprints

Turf sprints are 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 6F 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 recommend you stick with this angle in big turf sprint fields, 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%).  More turf sprints carded for smaller fields have helped to ease this trend and statistically make the inside posts look better in the last two or three years. However, don't overlook this angle when you see Saratoga turf sprints with more than 8 horses in the field.

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. In 2015, however, trainer Christophe Clement began to put his stamp on these races, winning twice as many turf sprints as any other single trainer other than Rice.

 

4) Turf Route Posts

In turf routes run at Saratoga, the inside and middle posts boast an advantage over the outside gates. This is true in turf routes run on the Mellon (outside) course, and especially true on the inner turf course where the inside three posts definitely do the best and any post 8 and outward is a disadvantage. On the Mellon turf, you have to go all the way out to posts 10 and higher to notice a big disadvantage. Remember that if you want to bet horses toward the outside, but not all the way outside, that Posts 8 and 9 may win less often than post 1, for example, but the odds will be better for Posts 8 and 9 and the better odds offered on outside horses often makes up for any win percentage difference between inside and horses on the not-too-far outside up to post 9.

Inside post positions are almost always preferred in two-turn grass races, especially at Saratoga where the fields are usually large, the course is narrow, and traffic is a factor. The first turn has a tendency to come up on the field very soon after the start of a turf route, and a horse breaking from the inside that is able to hug the rail around the first turn may gain as many as five lengths on a competitor from the far outside who may be destined to lose ground while wide. That many lengths can be very difficult to make up during the running of the race, and the result is that outside horses often end up falling short - even in cases when they may have been the best horse in the race.

Far outside posts - we're talking about posts 10-12 - are not the place to be in turf routes at Saratoga, because they often lead to ground loss and wide trips.  Many turf horses who have lost their last race after breaking from an outside post come back to win their next start at good odds if fortunate enough to get a better post draw.

You may or may not choose to take post positions into account when handicapping turf route races, but one thing you should never ignore is a turf horse making a positive shift to an inside post after breaking from an outside post last time out. There are plenty of times when horses are good enough to overcome outside posts en route to victory. However, when that is not the case, you should be able to identify that information in a horse's past performances in order to take advantage of it next time out.

 

5) Turf Route Running Styles

All running styles have a fair chance at winning in Saratoga turf route races, no matter if a horse is a speed horse, a presser, stalker, or closer. This is important to note, because some other turf courses tend to play one way or another.  The Gulfstream turf routes, for example, play against speed and tend to favor stalkers. Belmont's grass courses are more speed-friendly than most when firm, but tend to play more towards late-runners when yielding or less than firm.

At Saratoga, on the grass in routes, speed generally plays a little better on the Mellon (outer) course than on the inner course. The pace profile of the average turf route 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 strictly 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.


Wrap-Up

By using this information and these simple trends as a rough guideline, I hope you will have a foundation for what it takes to win at the 2017 Saratoga summer meet. Saratoga is the ideal meet for horseplayers who 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 summer. 

Enjoy meet at sunny Saratoga. I hope you can benefit from this analysis and use the information to your best advantage when trying to make money at racing's top summer destination. Best of luck!

By Noel Michaels

17
Oct

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