By Noel Michaels
Noel is chief handicapper for The Race Palace, Long Island's premier OTB wagering facility, and director of Personnel for Nassau OTB. He was a long time racetrack correspondent and online Editor for the Daily Racing Form. He's also the best-selling author of many best-selling handicapping books, including , The Players Angle Almanac, Winning Angles A to Z,SARATOGA SEMINAR, The Handicapping Contest Handbook (DRF Press) and PROFITING FROM DISTANCE CHANGES.
The Preakness Stakes, and its supporting 13-race card scheduled this year for Saturday, May 15, is one of the great races on one of the great days of the year in Thoroughbred racing. The second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown will headline a card containing a total of six stakes and a weekend of Maryland racing that is second to none with 12 stakes over the two-day period from Friday to Saturday. All this, just as the Pimlico meet as a whole continues to shrink and shrink from its once glorious standards to just seven weeks of racing in 2009 and five weeks of racing in 2010.
And so, this column is not only dedicated to handicapping the Preakness Stakes, but it’s also dedicated to successful handicapping at Pimlico in general, because after all, with racing at Pimlico on Preakness week going on from Wednesday through Saturday, there are several days ahead at Pimlico that should enable us to build up a healthy bankroll to bet with on Preakness Day. The Pimlico meet may be forgotten by some, but it shouldn’t be overlooked by you, because the new five-week boutique meet Pimlico format includes a lot of great racing and betting that will be over and gone before you know it. This year’s meet concludes the weekend following the Preakness on May 22.
The Preakness weekend action at Pimlico starts early on Friday, where the $175,000 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes headlines a 13-race card that also includes five other un-graded stakes worth $70,000 apiece and $350,000 combined. The undercard stakes begin in race 6 with The Very One Stakes, and then continue in race 8 with the Jim McKay Turf Sprint, in race 9 with the Miss Preakness, in race 11 with the Skipat Stakes, and in race 13 with the running of the Hilltop Stakes. The Black-Eyed Susan goes as race 12 on Friday, and will feature Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher and Fantasy Stakes second-place finisher behind Blind Luck, Tidal Pool.
Friday’s race card will lead nicely into the Pimlico meet’s headline event on Saturday, May 15 – Preakness Day. Preakness Day this year will be a six-race day including five graded stakes races in addition to the Preakness Stakes. The undercard events are the Grade 3, $100,000 Maryland Sprint Handicap, the Grade 3, $100,000 Chick Lang Stakes (formerly the Hirsch Jacobs), the Grade 3, $100,000 William Donald Schaeffer, the Grade 3, $100,000 Gallorette Stakes, and the G2, $200,000 Dixie Stakes on the turf.
Thanks to Pimlico’s most famous race, the Preakness Stakes, and the fact that there is less and less racing conducted at the historic Baltimore oval every year, there are many handicapping fallacies that seem to exist surrounding Pimlico Racecourse and its perceived biases.
The first misconception about Pimlico is that the track has “tighter turns” than most tracks, particularly Churchill Downs (we hear this every year around Preakness time). The fact is, however, that Pimlico’s turns are no “tighter” than any other common track layout. The turns may appear different to other tracks based on the Pimlico oval’s very long stretch run, but that characteristic happens to offer no apparent help to the late runners.
The commonly believed myth about the supposedly tight turns at Pimlico is important because that one major misconception leads to and feeds into another prominent misconception that has a big impact on handicappers from a day-to-day practical standpoint – that Pimlico is strictly an inside speed-biased track.
Let’s move past the myths and misconceptions and look at the realities of handicapping at Pimlico.
The Preakness – This is What It’s All About
No matter what good things you say about the Pimlico meet, the fact remains that most people will bet Pimlico only once a year, on Preakness Day. Of those players, a large fraction will only bet one race on Preakness Day, and that’s the main event.
Here are a few tips that might help you have success in Pimlico’s top race.
Preakness post positions will be drawn on Wednesday, May 12, and with a field of 13 or 14 horses expected, the Preakness post draw will also carry much significance just as it did for the Derby. While there is very little advantage or disadvantage to be gained or lost from drawing any post from 2 to 13 in the Preakness, the other posts – posts 1 and 14 – are, in fact, severe disadvantages, especially in the case of the rail.
How bad is the rail in the Preakness? Well, there has been only one single Preakness winner in the last 50 years to break from the rail (Tabasco Cat in 1994). That’s a 1-for-50 record for the Preakness rail horse dating back to 1960. Ouch!
Everyone always tries to avoid the outside posts in the Preakness, but with the exception of the aforementioned post 14, the outside posts are actually better than the inside posts. The outside (except, perhaps posts 13-14) is the place you want to be!
Remember that last year, Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness from post 13! Other recent Preakness winners who’ve broke from the outside half of the gate include Bernardini in 2006 (post 8), Afleet Alex in 2005 (post 12), Funny Cide in 2003 (post 9), War Emblem in 2002 (post 8), Point Given in 2001 (post 11), and Silver Charm in 1998 (post 10).
And now that we know the rail is death is the Preakness, what about running styles? Which running style is preferred in the Preakness at its 1 3/16th-mile distance? Well, with the notable exception of Afleet Alex, who rallied from 10th place to win the Preakness in 2005, almost every other recent Preakness winner has been an early speed runner laying no more than a few lengths off the early lead at the first call. Even when Preakness winners of the last 10 years came from father off the pace – such as with Point Given in 2001, Red Bullet in 2000, and Charismatic in 1999 – the eventual winners in those cases could still be termed stalkers, who were able to make their moves into a pace pressing position no later than on the backstretch. Afleet Alex was a rare example of a horse who won the Preakness with a true late closing running style.
Finally, the best advice I can give for betting the Preakness is to bet a horse that is coming out of a good effort (in the money preferred), whether it happened to be in the Kentucky Derby or in some other race. You have to go back to 2001 to find the last time a Preakness winner had not either hit the board in the Kentucky Derby or skipped the Derby altogether (Point Given).
Out of the 12 Preakness winners from 1997 to 2009, other than Point Given, seven were Derby winners, two had hit the board in the Derby, and three had skipped the Derby entirely in order to point for the Preakness. Two of the three that skipped the Derby – Bernardini in 2006 and Red Bullet in 2000 – both had finished in the exacta in the Wood Memorial in their most recent races before being pointed directly to the Preakness. The third Preakness winner – Rachel Alexandra, won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 lengths. In other words, the Preakness winner is rarely a big surprise. Besides Point Given, who was fifth in the Derby in 2001, the last Preakness winner coming in off a sub-par race was Louis Quatorze, who had thrown in a 16th-place clunker in the Derby in his race before going wire-to-wire in the Preakness in 1996. Even Point Given was the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, so you’ll at least want to look for a revenge-minded losing Derby favorite such as Lookin At Lucky if you insist on betting a horse coming off a sub-par race. Odds are stacked dramatically against a horse winning the Preakness off of a sub-par effort in any race other than the Derby.
Pimlico Main Track– The Need for Speed and the Myth of the Inside Bias
For years handicappers have referred to Pimlico as an inside speed track, when in reality, in recent years, they are only half right. Pimlico is, in fact, still a speed biased track. Early speed horses and front runners (defined as horses in the lead or within 2 lengths of the front at the first call) have the most preferred winningest running style at every distance on Pimlico’s main track. However, in recent years Pimlico really has shown very little statistical indication that inside posts (or the rail for that matter) are any better than any other post in the middle or even the outside of the gate.
Old-timers probably always have and always will stick to their guns with the inside posts at Pimlico, but that bias has been all-but-erased thanks to recent changes in the Pimlico surface brought about by Pimlico’s new track superintendents since the track was taken over by Magna Entertainment.
This inside bias, or lack thereof, is important for horseplayers to note when handicapping Pimlico, because the horses drawing the inside posts are almost always overbet due to their post positions. Since the inside posts no longer really offer any statistical aid to a horse’s chances of winning, however, handicappers are often left with good prices and overlay odds on the horses breaking from the middle or outside gates.
A look at every race meet run at Pimlico between Spring 2005 and Spring 2007 shows middle and outside posts winning at increasing percentages each year, especially in two turn route races where you’d expect innermost post positions to do best.
In the last three race meets run at Pimlico, sprints did show a slight predilection toward inside speed, but the numbers are slowly deviating more and more toward average each year, and are currently basically no different than at any other race track.
Startlingly though, the surprising news comes in two-turn routes at Pimlico, where the inside posts (1-3) are statistically no more likely to win than the outside posts 8-12. As a matter of fact, when posts 11 and higher are removed from the equation, the outside posts actually performed nominally better on average than inside posts 1-3 in Pimlico routes run from the fall of 2005 through the present.
In Pimlico routes so far at the 2010 meet, inside posts 1-3 won 14 races from 99 starters, for an average of 14% combined. The actual rail post has been good this year, with 21% wins through May 9, but overall the inside posts are no advantage. Middle posts 4-7 won 15 races with 114 starters for an average of 13.2%, and outside post positions 8-10 won 4 races from 17 starters for an average clip of 23% wins. Based on those numbers, the old inside bias at Pimlico, especially in routes, seems to be a thing of the past.
In dirt sprints, the 2010 Pimlico meet has shown a big bias toward horses breaking from Post 2 in sprints that is so high that is looks like a statistical anomaly (Post 2 is 13-for-56 for 23%). Overall, however, the three inside posts 1-3 have won 24 sprints from 168 starters for an average win percentage of 14%. Despite the good results from Post 2 in sprints at this meet, the inside posts overall are still doing no better than any other set of post positions. Middle posts 4-7 have won 27 races from 201 starters for a combined win percentage of 13.4%, and outside posts 8 and wider have won 5 races from 45 starters for a win percentage of 11% – a somewhat disappointing average, but not bad.
In short, take the good odds overlays that are always offered to you on outside horses in Pimlico dirt races, both in routes and sprints. These are good bets with positive ROIs that could get you out of jam when you are stuck between two or more horses in a race, or when you are considering putting another outside-drawn horse into your multi-race bets such as pick 3s, pick 4s, and daily doubles.
Pimlico Turf Racing – Short and Sweet Meet Keepin’ it Fair
On the Pimlico turf, the short five-week season is heavily geared toward high-quality races on a manicured turf course that benefits from under use due to Pimlico’s shrinking meet. This is the time you want to focus your play on grass racing in Maryland, with so many good races, full fields, and quality barns and trainers participating.
Again, as far as post positions are concerned, there is little bias toward the inside on the Pimlico lawn. As a matter of fact, at the 2010 meet, the opposite has been true. The inside two post positions 1-2 have each gone 0-for-18 in Pimlico turf routes through the first three weeks of the season for a combined record of 0-for-36. Ouch, this really hurts the guys pounding the inside posts, while all along the outside gates have all been winning more than their share – all the way out to post 11.
Meanwhile, all running styles have an equal chance to thrive on the Pimlico turf course, whether a horse is a speedy front-runner or a deep closer. Remember, that Pimlico stretch is long on the grass course, as well.
Instead of looking out for post positions or running styles to lead you to riches on the Pimlico lawn, the key here is to concentrate on the top turf trainers.
It’s a no-brainer to concentrate on the top turf barns such as Dale Capuano (5-for-13 on the grass) and Graham Motion (2-for-5), and some of the other hot trainers at this season’s turf meet. Below is a list of this season’s top turf trainers at Pimlico:
Pimlico Turf Trainer Standings (through 5/10)
As you can see by the standings, the winningest turf trainers at the meet are making quite a splash in the ROI department. Stick to betting these barns on the grass, and you should do alright the rest of the way on the Pimlico turf.
As for those to avoid at the other end of the spectrum? Trainers struggling on the 2010 Pimlico turf at this meet include Hamilton Smith (1-for-15, 7%), Rodney Jenkins (1-for-10, 10%), Crystal Pickett (1-for-9, 11%), Kathleen Demasi (0-for-8), Patrick MaGill (0-for-8 wins and ITM), Damon Dilodovico (0-for-5 wins and ITM), John Rigatteri (0-for-5 wins and ITM), and Gaston Sandoval (0-for-6 wins and ITM).
More on Pimlico’s Winning Trainers
Trainer stats are not just for turf racing, they are, in fact, good to follow in all cases on the turf and dirt. Here are the overall turf standings after the first three weeks of racing at the 2010 Pimlico meet:
Pimlico Overall Trainer Standings (through 5/10)
The big news here is the battle for the training title between Dale Capuano and Scott Lake, who is winning an unrealistic 89% of his starts so far (8-for-9). Word has it that officials at Philadelphia Park have laid down the law with Scott Lake and have been keeping close tabs on him this year. As a result, Lake is winning down at around an 8% win percentage at Philly Park. Pimlico officials, however, apparently haven’t been watching Lake quite as close, so as a result, you’d better watch Lake every single time he enters a horse at this meet.
Besides the top two, other top notable trainers include Rodney Jenkins, who has been winning on the dirt at a 5-for-9 rate (56%) to make up for his 1-for-10 on turf, and Damon Dilidovico, who is 5-for-11 (45%) to make up for his 0-for-5 on the turf. Meanwhile, Dane Kobiskie, Ann Merryman, and King T. Leatherbury are all winning at positive ROIs.
Other trainers to watch outside of the top 10 in wins include John Salzman Jr., who continues to win with his selective small but high performing stable (3-for-8 wins, 62% ITM), Alexandra White (3-for-4 wins, 100% in the exacta – all on the turf), Graham Motion (3-for-9 wins, 67% ITM), and Katie Voss (2-for-5 wins, 4-for-5 in the exacta).
Cold trainers at the 2010 Pimlico meet have included the ice-cold Allen Ferris 1-for-22, Mark Shuman (1-for-17), Rafael Ramos (2-for-24), Hamilton Smith (2-for-33), and the 0-fer crew that includes Linda Albert (0-for-12), Howard Wolfendale (0-for 19), John Robb (0-for-17), David Lezell (0-for-10), Gary Capuano (0-for-11), Patrick Magill (0-for-12), and Bobby Lee Plummer (0-for-10), just to name a few.
And so, when betting the rest of the Pimlico meet, especially in the coming week as you unleash the bankroll on the best racing of the year in Maryland, keep in mind the hot and cold trainers, and the following two winning tips: First, Pimlico lives up to its reputation as a highly speed favoring track with front runners and speed horses on the lead or within 2 lengths of the front at the first call winning percentage at every distance run on the Pimlico main track; and second, there is money to be made at Pimlico by betting against the traditional inside bias of years past. Inside horses at Pimlico are always overbet, and that means horses breaking from middle and outside posts usually offer overlay odds and good wagering value, particularly in routes.
Good luck during Preakness week and at the remainder of the once-a-year race meet at Pimlico.
"If you want to Succeed in this game, you've got to work, you've got to put the time in and find the people who have good opinions like Noel Michaels" -ANDY BEYER, Daily Racing Form & Washington Post columnist, creator of the Beyer Speed Figures..
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