Belmont Season Preview


By Noel Michaels - OTB Learning Labs It's Derby week and everyone in the racing world has Derby Fever - and understandably so - with the biggest race of the year coming up on Saturday (plus the Kentucky Oaks and Rachel Alexandra's second start of the season the same day in the $400,000 La Troienne Stakes on Friday). Last year no public handicapper picked Mine That Bird's stunning $103.20 win at Churchill Downs. But one book did hint at the upset, and I'm proud to say that was my, 9 Steps to Picking the Derby Winner a manual giving you the insight to finding not only this year's Derby winner, but many Derbies to come, plus special chapters on winning the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. My book is available to you as a download immediately. And with the book you can get my 1-1-2-3-4 selections on the Derby. Nevertheless, the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the action from Churchill Downs are not the only big events going on in racing this week. With all that's happening, horseplayers should not overlook the other big event taking place in horseracing this week - the opening of the Belmont Park spring/summer meet. I'll be ready with my Opening Day Stunners that you can get along with your copy of 9 Steps To Picking The Derby winner and my selections on the Run For The Roses itself. Click here to learn more and get on board...

Six long months at Aqueduct are over and New York is once again poised to become the epicenter of East coast racing with the opening of the Belmont Park spring-summer meet, which will run from Friday, April 30 through closing day, Sunday, July 18, which is a week earlier than usual this year due to the extended Saratoga season. The move to Belmont Park each spring is not just a move from Aqueduct to Belmont, but is also signifies a 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 meet, runners will generally come from one of four groups - the local Aqueduct horses, horses coming from Keeneland, horses returning to New York from Gulfstream, and layoff horses, primarily meant for the grass. These are four importantly different categories of horses, all having their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to racing at Belmont.

Evaluating out-of-town and returning-to-town talent is one of the keys to 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 Park. This is especially true on the grass. You not only have the local New York horses in the mix coming from Aqueduct or coming off layoffs, but you also have scores of top caliber horses coming in from elsewhere including, most notably, Keeneland and Gulfstream.

First off, horseplayers should take note of the recent trends from the Aqueduct main track including track trends and all-important trainer trends. For the most part, the Aqueduct main track was a bias-free meet, where horses with all running styles from all post positions had fair chances to win on both on turf and dirt.

The only exceptions to the fair racing surfaces offered at this season's short Aqueduct main track meet happened on select days between April 7-14.  The biases that were noted on those dates on the Aqueduct main track are, as follows:

Date Aqueduct Track Bias
April 14 - Bad rail
April 11 - Helped to be on or close to pace
April 10 - Closers won 7 of 8
April 9 - Bad rail
April 7 - Speed bias

If you want to delve further back into the Aqueduct meet for more track bias information, here are the track biases I noted in March on the inner track:

Date Aqueduct Inner Track Bias
March 26 - 7 of 9 winners led or were close to pace
March 25 - 7 of 9 winners led or were close to pace
March 20 - Speed was good
March 17 - 8 of 9 winners were on or close to the pace
March 14 - Front runners 4-for-4 in sprints
March 12 - Good rail
March 11 - Good rail
March 10 - Only 1 wire-to-wire winner in parade of chalk
March 6 - 8 of 11 races won by horses sitting 1st or 2nd
March 4 - Speed was dead

As far as trainer trends are concerned, the red-hot barns recently have included Steve Asmussen, who won his first NYRA training title by going 12-for-28 with a 42% win percentage and a 71% ITM percentage. Rudy Rodriquez made a successful switch from the saddle to the shedrow with an amazing 8 wins from 11 starters for a 72% win percentage and a huge 90% ITM percentage. Also be on the lookout for David Donk (honk if you like Donk!) with 5 wins from 14 starters (35% wins), and Mike Hushion with 5 wins from 13 starters (38% wins), who made the best of their brief Big A meets.

Sometimes, the way to make money betting on trainers is by going against the trainer stats. This line of thinking says that if a trainer has won a bunch of races recently, the horses in his barn will have burned through their current conditions, while conversely, the relatively cold trainers will have barns loaded with horses sitting on wins at their current conditions because they haven't been winning those races lately.

Some trainers ready to heat up locally include Bruce Brown (won only 4-of-30 at the Big A), Todd Pletcher (3-for-26 at the Big A), Mark Hennig (1-for-15), Bill Badgett (0-for-15), and Rick Violette (0-for-12). Linda Rice should also be loaded and ready to go with her stable of young horses and turf sprinters, now that the 2-year-old and turf sprint seasons are about to get started.

On the other hand, some trainers who might be overdue for a cooldown, starting right about now, include Dominick Shettino (5-for-20, 25% wins and 65% ITM at the Big A), and Gary Sciacca, who should return to his usual low-percentage ways after getting hot at the Big A with 4 wins and 11 ITM finishes from his 25 starters.

As far as angles are concerned, stay away from Bruce Brown first-time starters, and hop onboard the bandwagon with James Jerkens- and Kiaran McLaughlin-trained maiden second-time starters.

A few trends to watch for horses coming in from out of town include some post position angles pertaining to horses coming from Keeneland and Gulfstream. At Gulfstream, horses who drew outside posts in 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 at huge disadvantages. Therefore, if you see a Belmont starter exiting a bad effort in one of those kinds of races at Gulfstream, you should remember to give that horse an excuse for the loss if it broke from anywhere outside Post 6 at 1 1/8-miles, and give that horse an excuse if it broke from Posts 1-2 in a recent loss at 6 1/2 furlongs to one mile on the main track.

As for the horses coming to Belmont from Keeneland, keep in mind that the inside three post positions were dominant in sprints at this spring's Keeneland meet, while the far inside posts 1 and 2 were best in Keeneland two-turn routes. If you see a horse coming out of a big Keeneland sprint effort from posts 1-3, or a route effort from posts 1-2, you might want to downgrade the horse slightly. Conversely, if you see a horse coming out of a loss at Keeneland where it broke from the outside on the main track, you might want to consider giving that horse a big excuse and betting him back next time at Belmont.

Finally, on the turf, keep in mind that horses coming from Keeneland enjoyed a big advantage from the innermost Post 1 in Keeneland grass races at he recently concluded meet - winning about 30% of the races!  Horses that won with the benefit of Post 1 in a Keeneland turf route may not be as good as they appear on paper based on those recent inside post victories.

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, and is obviously very, very different from Keeneland's Polytrack. Good and bad performances from Keeneland are always important, but Belmont horseplayers should nevertheless temper their opinions of Keeneland shippers based on the horses' performances on Keeneland's Polytrack, since Polytrack racing bears little resemblance to the dirt racing conducted at Belmont Park. If anything, the Polytrack results from Keeneland should be considered more applicable to Belmont's turf racing than its dirt racing.

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, Meadowlands, 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 the front runners regardless. 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 one-turn affairs up to 1 1/8 miles.

Six furlong races and all shorter races are the most likely to favor inside posts at Belmont. At last year's Belmont spring meet, the inside three posts were big advantages at the most commonly run distance of six furlongs on the main track. Post 1 won 18% of the time, post 2 won 19% of the time, and post 3 won 17% of the time. Meanwhile, the outside was bad, with starters from posts 9-11 going a combined 2-for-39 (5% wins).

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 during this same meet last year, posts 8-12 were a combined 3-for-54 (5.5%), while posts 9-12 went 3-for-47 at 1 1/16-miles (6.3%). On the inner turf course at 1 1/16-miles, horses from posts 8-10 won just 1-for-27 (3.7%). At 1 1/8-miles, posts 8-11 were 2-for-28 (7.1%).

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. Others to look out for in these races are mid-Atlantic shippers from New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and even Philadelphia Park. The trainers on those circuits have been training for and running in turf sprints for quite a few years and seem to have a slight edge in these races on the local competition.

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.

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 New York Post, New York Daily News, and 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 publications), 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 (especially the rail), and upgrade horses breaking from posts 8 and outward, especially the far outside post in any given race.

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, however, from Belmont firm turf for the second half of the meet after the Belmont stakes. This is 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.

Among the local training contingent, Aqueduct bigwigs such as Gary Contessa and Bruce Levine will still continue to win a lot of races, but their win percentages will probably drop against the stiffer Belmont competition. Many of these local outfits generally point their horses for winter and spring racing at Aqueduct and have run through most their conditions by the time Belmont opens.

Other local horses 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 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.

The out-of-town shippers who return to New York directly from Florida in the spring are usually best suited for Belmont Park. The big name trainers at Belmont are usually 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, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Kiaran McLaughlin, Tom Albertrani, Christophe Clement, Shug McGaughey, and the ubiquitous Steve Asmussen. These trainers are all going to win a significant percentage of their races at Belmont.

Spring racing is now revved up to full throttle on the New York circuit, and Belmont is always the place to be focusing your wagering attention at this time of year.  This year's new, high-stakes Monmouth meet, with $1 million in average daily purses, will undoubtedly affect Belmont, but we don't yet know what that impact is and that will be a story for another day. For now, let's enjoy the annual renaissance of New York racing with the return to Belmont Park. Best of luck, and enjoy the show.



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