2010 Saratoga Preview and Handicapping Guide

SARATOGA 2010 PREVIEW AND HANDICAPPING GUIDE

By Noel Michaels

Saratoga is America's premier annual horseracing meet, and even with Monmouth's Elite Summer meet in full swing and Del Mar already off to a flying start in SoCal, there is still no better meet for race fans and handicappers to watch, wager, and enjoy than the Saratoga meet, which annually brings together the best horses, trainers, and jockeys in North American racing - bar none.

The annual summer season at Saratoga begins Friday, July 23 and continues six days a week for seven weeks through Labor Day, Monday Sept. 6, for a total of 40 of the best race days of the year. Saratoga Racecourse in upstate Saratoga Springs is America's oldest and most historic race track. Despite Belmont's lackluster recently-concluded Spring/Summer meet, there is nothing to stop Saratoga from attracting the huge crowds of both horses and spectators that is always has in the past.

First off, one only has to look at the star-studded jockey colony to know what the Saratoga meet means to the top-rung players in the sport of Thoroughbred racing.  The jock's room is led by Ramon Dominguez, who comes off another Belmont riding title and a meet title at Saratoga in 2009 when he led by five races with 45 wins to Alan Garcia's 40.  Dominguez has now won nine straight meet riding title in New York, but if he hopes to land No. 10, he'll have to defeat an enormously talented group that includes two-time Eclipse Award winner Garrett Gomez, 2009 Eclipse Award winner Julien Leparoux, New York regulars such as Kent Desormeaux, Javier Castellano, John Velazquez, Cornelio Velasquez, Jose Lezcano, and many more including Robbie Albarado, Alex Solis, and likely top apprentice Frederic Lenclud.

The 2010 Saratoga meet will be highlighted by the $1,000,000 Travers Stakes on Saturday, August 28.  The Travers, which is nicknamed "The Mid-Summer Derby," headlines one of the year's best race days. This year's Travers is expected to feature an anticipated showdown between Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver and Preakness winner Lookin' At Lucky plus a star-studded field of America's top 3-year-olds including up-and-comer Trappe Shot.

Other stakes highlights on Saratoga's unrivaled 54-race stakes schedule include the $500,000 Alabama Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on Saturday, August 21, and the $750,000 Whitney Handicap for the country's best older horses on Saturday, August 7.  Reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra is also expected to make an appearance at Saratoga later in the meet, perhaps in the $300,000 Personal Ensign Stakes on August 29, or in the $750,000 Woodward on Sept. 4.

Other top older horses expected to race at the Spa meet include Quality Road, Blame, Rail Trip, and too many more to mention.

But the Saratoga meet is not just about the top horses and top jockeys - it's also about the top-notch betting and handicapping. The fields are huge, the competition is stiff and evenly-matched, and therefore the payoffs are often pricey and loaded with good value for handicappers who are willing to put in the effort.

And so, with all that money floating around upstate New York during August along with so many novice handicappers and tourists pumping money into Saratoga's mutuel pools, the opportunities abound for serious horseplayers to get their share of the pie over the course of the next seven weeks.  Please read on for a Saratoga Handicapping Guide, which hopefully will help you get your hands on some of the big-time profits available at the Saratoga meet.

SARATOGA HANDICAPPING GUIDE

First off, lets state facts: Saratoga's main track is speed favoring at all distances, and 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 sprints.

There are a few key things for handicappers to watch out for when looking at Saratoga races in terms of post positions and running style angles. Here are some of the top long-term trends to look for to give you the edge.

Remember that the focus at Saratoga flip-flops from benefiting one-turn route specialists at Belmont to favoring route horses that do their best running around two turns at Saratoga. Horses whose best route races came on more traditional layouts such as Aqueduct, Gulfstream, the mid-Atlantic region, or in past races at Saratoga, particularly if those past races were at Saratoga's route distance of 1 1/8 miles are usually good bets in Saratoga routes. Give these two-turn horses the edge against overbet horses that do their best running at Belmont.

Second, as mentioned will be mentioned later in the turf sprint section, downgrade the three inside posts in turf sprints - and especially the rail - while upgrading horses drawing far outside posts.

Next, keep in mind that outside posts are negative factors on the Saratoga turf courses in routes to varying degrees based on long-term figures. Recently, however, the only real post position bias in Saratoga routes in 2009 was at the distance of 1 1/16 miles on the inner turf only. The inside four posts can offer a good advantage to horses running on the inner turf course at the distance of 1 1/16 miles.

Finally, in Saratoga grass races, speed generally plays a little better on the Mellon course than on the inner course. The 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. Perhaps is pays to stay a little closer to the pace on the Mellon course, and front-runners also fare better on the Mellon than they do on the inner.

If you can get to the paddock for inner track turf races, look for physically small athletic-looking horses instead of large, long-striding, bulkier horses. The little guys handle the tight inner course turns and the big 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 in action there more than at any other race meet at any other track at any time of the year.  If you are going to win at Saratoga you are going to need to excel in the baby races, because they are so much a part of the racing calendar annually at The Spa.

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 two lengths of the lead at the first call. Sometimes you will see a baby juvenile and/or a first-time starter win from off the pace in Saratoga sprints. You can't really rely on these types of horses, but when you see one, you might want to take note of him or her. You might me looking at a next-out winner, or a horse on his way to next year'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 at Saratoga. His 17-for-124 record with 2-y-o debuters the last five years (14%) led the way in terms of wins, but nevertheless resulted in a negative return on investment (ROI) for Pletcher of $1.21 for every $2 bet with Saratoga 2-y-o first starters. Therefore, you're going to need to dig a little deeper than Pletcher in order to make money with 2-y-o first starters at Saratoga.

Some of the Saratoga ROI leaders with 2-y-o first starters might surprise you. Only 11 trainers have won a combined total of at least 5 races with Saratoga 2-y-o first starters over the last five years, and only a few of those trainers showed a positive ROI.  Nick Zito is an interesting case, because while his overall numbers have been good in this category the last 5 years, he went 0-for-16 in 2009 and is just 1-for-31 the last two years.

Zito might not be the most reliable bet with first starters (in fact, his long-term trend suggests he does much better with his second-time starters), but there are several trainers who can reward you with a positive ROI for betting their 2-y-o first starters, including Rick Violette, John Kimmel, Barclay Tagg, Richard Dutrow, and first-and-foremost, Bob Baffert, who has shipped to the recent Saratoga meets with his very best, ready-to-win, dirt-suited 2-y-o that he feels he can't win with on the Polytrack at Del Mar.

When just 2008 is taken into consideration, other trainers who did well included Ken McPeek (2-for-8, $6.89 ROI), Chad Brown (2-for-7, $3.89 ROI, Dallas Stewart (2-for-7, $6.03 ROI), Mike Hushion (2-for-4, $7.85 ROI), and surprisingly, James Jerkens (2-for-4, $7.28 ROI). The reason James Jerkens is surprising in this category is because he is much more well-known for his great winning percentage and ROI with maiden second-time starters.

Top Trainers with 2-y-o First Starters at Saratoga
(Most wins, last five years 2005-2009)

Trainer

Wins

Win%

ITM%

ROI

2009-only

Todd Pletcher

17

14%

40%

$1.21

4-for-27, 15%, $1.77 ROI

Nick Zito

10

14%

36%

$2.04

0-for-16, 0%, $0.00 ROI

Linda Rice

9

21%

40%

$1.91

2-for-10, 20%, $1.86 ROI

Rick Violette

9

25%

42%

$2.35

2-for-7, 29%, $3.60 ROI

Bill Mott

7

8%

35%

$0.68

0-for-17, 0%, $0.00 ROI

Kiaran McLaughlin

7

15%

33%

$0.88

1-for-18, 6%, $0.33 ROI

Steve Asmussen

6

17%

44%

$1.49

0-for-8, 0%, $0.00 ROI

John Kimmel

6

21%

39%

$3.58

0-for-2, 0%, $0.00 ROI

Barclay Tagg

6

26%

48%

$2.77

2-for-5, 40%, $7.92 ROI

Richard Dutrow

5

29%

59%

$2.36

0-for-1, 0%, $0.00 ROI

Bob Baffert

5

71%

86%

$4.54

1-for-1, 100%, $6.60

Some interesting notes from last year's numbers with 2-y-o first starters from the 2009 Spa meet: Bill Mott is high in the chart with 7 first-out juvenile winners the last five years, but he was 0-for-17 in 2009 and has now lost with 34 such runners in a row. Overall, this is now a shock because Mott has never been known as a "win early" trainer.  On the other hand, one guy who is known as a win early trainer is Steve Asmussen, however, he went 0-for-8 in these races in 2009 and burned a whole lot of money in the process.  Kiaran McLaughlin was only 1-for-18 last season for a 6% winning percentage with his 2-y-o first starters.  He can certainly win with these kinds of horses, but it's worth noting that McLaughlin, like the above-mentioned James Jerkens, has long-term stats indicating he does much better with his maiden second-time starters.

First-Time Turf

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 East coast. 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 five years from 2004-2008.  Pletcher leads all trainers with 12 first-time turf winners over the last five years, while Mott comes in second with 9 wins, but a much better ROI of $2.44 to Pletcher's $1.87.  Other top trainers with first-time turfers at the Spa the last five years have included Linda Rice, who has 6 wins in this category - mainly with turf sprinters.

The top ROI trainers with first-time turfers at Saratoga the last five years, besides Mott, have included Graham Motion, thanks in large part to his 3-for-9 record in 2009, George Weaver, Stanley Hough, Christophe Clement, Barclay Tagg, Tom Bush, Wesley Ward, and couple of trainers who did well in 2009 like Mike Maker and Dominick SchettinoJohn Kimmel and Patrick Biancone also have good numbers with first-time turfers at Saratoga, but neither had any starters in the category in 2009.

Top Trainers with First-time Turf Starters at Saratoga
(Most wins, last five years 2005-2009)

Trainer

Wins

Win%

 ITM %

ROI

2009-only

Todd Pletcher

12

17%

39%

$1.87

1-for-14, 7%, $2.40 ROI

Bill Mott

9

16%

45%

$2.44

1-for-12, 8%, $2.32 ROI

Linda Rice

6

14%

25%

$1.61

1-for-12, 8%, $0.90 ROI

Mike Hushion

4

22%

44%

$2.56

2-for-8, 25%, $4.05 ROI

Graham Motion

4

22%

33%

$4.02

3-for-9, 33%, $6.84 ROI

Bobby Frankel

4

27%

53%

$2.70

not active

John Kimmel

4

29%

36%

$4.85

no starters

Patrick Biancone

4

31%

46%

$11.57

no starters

George Weaver

3

10%

39%

$4.01

1-for-6, 33%, $3.10 ROI

Stanley Hough

3

14%

38%

$2.34

0-for-3, 0%, $0.00 ROI

Christophe Clement

3

17%

44%

$2.28

0-for-3, 0%, $0.00 ROI

Barclay Tagg

3

21%

57%

$2.27

1-for-3, 33%, $5.47 ROI

Tom Bush

3

21%

29%

$3.46

0-for-4, 0%, $0.00 ROI

Wesley Ward

3

33%

33%

$3.44

1-for-4, 25%, $2.70 ROI

Mike Maker

3

38%

50%

$5.78

2-for-5, 40%, $6.56 ROI

(Note: Dominick Schettino, who was hot at Belmont in 2010, was 2-for-2 with Spa first-time turfers in 2009!)

Turf Sprints

Anyone who follows New York racing knows that turf sprints have become an increasingly big part of the Saratoga landscape over the past few years. Even if you don't like them, you ought to at least be used to them by now because turf sprints have become so firmly entrenched in Saratoga racing since 2005. With the start of the sever-week Saratoga meet quickly approaching, this is a perfect time to delve into the New York turf sprint racing scene in detail to serve as a primer on the ever-expanding turf sprint program at Saratoga.

Saratoga turf sprints are all run at 5 1/2 furlongs on the main turf course, with none being carded on the inner turf. 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 nearly all of Belmont's 6 furlong turf sprints run on the inner turf. The Saratoga turn comes up much quicker than the turn for Belmont's turf sprints, and Saratoga's turns are obviously much tighter than Belmont's. The different turns, along with the shorter distance, puts a much higher importance on tactical speed in Saratoga's turf sprints as opposed to Belmont's.

The first thing to understand about New York turf sprints, before anything else, is that outside posts rule. This reality in some ways is contrary to conventional wisdom that would lead uninformed bettors to conclude that the inside posts are the places to be.

What are the reasons that inside posts are bad and outside posts are good in Saratoga turf sprints? Well, if you are a late-running horse with an inside post, it can be very difficult to drop back to the rear of the field and then rally wide around the field with so little real estate to work with, particularly at Saratoga were the races are all 5 1/2 furlongs. If you are a stalker with an inside draw, you risk getting buried down on the rail behind the speed horses who send from the rail or drop over from the outside. A stalker in this position finds itself at a big disadvantage to the outside closers with clear sailing who will get first run at the leaders. As for speed horses, the inside is an equal disadvantage, except in cases where the horse is the flat-out lone speed in the field (a rarity in turf sprints at 5 1/2 furlongs). In all other cases, inside speed horses are forced to "send" to the front, whether they want to or not, because the speed horses from the outside will have the advantage of being able to control the pace. No matter which way you slice it, the inside few of posts can be a difficult hurdle to overcome in Saratoga turf sprints - especially the rail!

Take a look at the raw post numbers at Saratoga. The inside gate in Saratoga turf sprints (2005-09) has won just 9 of 152 races for a poor winning percentage of 6 percent, including just 1-for-43 in 2009. The No. 2 post is not much better, with just 13 wins since 2005 (a 9% winning percentage), and post No. 3 was just 2-for-43 in 2009 for only 5% wins. In fact, an inside advantage isn't realized until post 4 with 15% wins over the last five years and 19% wins in 2009. Aside from that, it is the outermost posts which have proven to be the absolute best posts to break from in Saratoga's turf sprints. While the sample size is smaller, the outside posts 10-12 have won 16 of the 152 turf sprints run at Saratoga (10.5%) despite accounting for only 7.8% of the starters in these races.

Saratoga Turf Sprints Winning Post Positions

  2005-09      2009 Only   
Post

Wins-Starts

(Win %)

Wins-Starts

(Win %)

1

9-152

6%

1-43

2%

2

13-152

9%

6-43

14%

3

16-152

11%

2-43

5%

4

23-152

15%

8-43

19%

5

15-152

10%

5-43

12%

6

18-150

12%

8-43

19%

7

16-144

11%

2-40

5%

8

13-136

10%

3-37

8%

9

13-116

11%

3-31

10%

10

8-69

12%

2-19

11%

11

6-27

22%

3-10

30%

12

2-14

14%

0-5

0%

One key reason all these outside posts have good percentages is that the strongest post bias of all in Saratoga's turf sprints favors THE outside post itself, in any race, which consistently has proven to be a considerable advantage in four years of turf sprints at the Spa. The moral of the story: Downgrade the three inside posts (except in the case of a lone speed horse), and upgrade posts 9-12, especially taking into consideration horses breaking from the far outside post (or posts for those playing exacta and trifecta boxes).

Since turf sprints have been run at Saratoga dating back to the 2005 meet, Linda Rice has been the undisputed queen of those races with no other trainer even remotely close to putting up her kinds of numbers. Rice has sent out by far the most runners, and in turn by far the most winners. She'll win the most races, but due to her high number of starters, she won't win at the highest percentage. Nevertheless, her ROI is still above 2.00, which indicates her horses are usually worth betting and always difficult to bet against.

Top Saratoga Turf Sprint Trainers

Trainers with at least 2 wins or 10 starters, lifetime

Linda Rice       
Richard Dutrow
Wesley Ward  
Saeed bin Suroor
Dominic Galluscio
Christophe Clement
John Kimmel               
Robert Barbara
Graham Motion
Kiaran McLaughlin
Mike Hushion  
Mark Hennig
Anthony Dutrow

Worst Saratoga Turf Sprint Trainers
Trainers with at least 2 wins or 10 starters, lifetime

George Weaver
Bruce Levine   
Gary Contessa 
Pat Kelly         
Stan Hough     
John Hertler     
Carlos Martin  
Bill Mott          
Barclay Tagg   
D. Wayne Lukas
Keith O'Brien  

Search for Overlays and the Underlays

Besides the above mentioned statistics and angles, you'll always want to be searching the Saratoga entries for live overlays - especially in the opening weeks of the meet.  Before horses get their first outings over the Saratoga dirt track, you'll be dealing with lots of shippers from many different locales, but first and foremost you'll probably be best able to focus your attention on New York horses who have been racing this spring and summer at Belmont Park.  Remember that out-of-town horses, especially horses from Kentucky and even from Monmouth have been getting completely different medication administrations than are allowed in New York, which is still the strictest state in the union when it comes to meds including Lasix levels.  Shippers often have inflated speed figures from other tracks that they just won't be able to duplicate at Saratoga, and often their performance tails off early in the Spa meet as a result.

When concentrating on the horses from Belmont, you'll want to be able to sift through live contenders and overbet contenders in order to find your bargain odds at Saratoga.  One of the best ways to look for overlays and to avoid underlays is to take into account track biases from Belmont and factor them into your handicapping of individual horses running at Saratoga.

Please see the chart below for my observations of daily track bias from the recently concluded Belmont meet.

Belmont Track Biases (Spring/Summer meet, 2010)

July 5 - Speed bias, 4-of-5 dirt winners went wire-to-wire
June 30-July 4 - Belmont's prevailing bias... favoring front-runners and stalkers
June 27 - Outside bias
June 26 - Outside speed favoring
June 25 - Innermost path(s) were slow
June 24 - Outside was better
June 23 - Speed favoring
June 20 - Outside bias
June 19 - Outside bias, dead rail
June 18 - Outside closers ruled; anti-speed and anti-rail
June 16 - Speed and the rail bias
June 12 - Speed bias
June 11 - Speed and rail bias
June 10 - Had to be on or close to pace
June 5 - Possible outside was better than inside
June 3 - Favored front-runners won 4-of-5 at odds 2-1 max
May 31 - Speed and close up horses had the edge
May 30 - Good rail, speed no advantage
May 28 - Closers did well, speed no benefit
May 26 - Speed was no benefit
May 19 - Outside good, inside slow
May 16 - Horses rallying wide did best; no inside speed winners
May 14 - Speed did well in sprints
May 13 - Outside was best part of the track
May 12 - Outside good, rail dead
May 8 - Closers did well
May 6 - Speed and rail ruled

I hope you can benefit from this Saratoga handicapping primer and use the information to your best advantage when playing the year's best race meet at The Spa. Best of luck!

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