Closing Week Tips

By Noel Michaels

Five and a half weeks are down and there's one week still to go at Saratoga, but this is certainly no time for handicappers to abandon ship and start looking for better racing elsewhere. Saratoga is still the best racing available to horseplayers this week through the first week of September through Labor Day, and there is much money still to be made even though the Travers Stakes is in the rear-view mirror and the massive on-track crowds have all departed.

With most of the 2010 Saratoga meet already in the books, we have a wealth of information to help us attack the final week of action at the Spa. Some of the key areas I want to focus on include the relative successes of out-of-town shippers to watch, track biases, which trainers have been winning with first-time starters, which trainers have been winning turf races, and which jockeys, trainers, and posts have been winning the turf sprints. I have combed through five weeks of result charts at Saratoga, and this is what I have uncovered.

First off, let's take a look at the track bias days that have affected the running of the races on Saratoga's main track. The track biases are very important to log as the meet goes on, because horses exiting bias-aided performances on the days listed below should be downgraded by handicappers in their next races, while horses exiting against-the-bias efforts on the days listed below should be upgraded by handicappers in the next races.

Saratoga Main Track Biases, 2010
Aug. 28 -- All 6 dirt sprints won wire-to-wire
Aug. 26 -- Speed and pace horses had the edge
Aug. 23 -- Speed and pace horses had the edge
Aug. 22 -- Anti-speed bias
Aug. 20 -- Speed and close up horses won all 4 dirt races
Aug. 18 -- Speed and close up horses finished 1-2 in all 4 dirt races
Aug. 16 -- Slow rail on drying out track
Aug. 12 -- Outside bias
Aug. 11 -- Closers did well
Aug. 8 -- All winners were up close
Aug. 7 -- Outside better, slow rail
Aug. 5 -- Strong inside speed bias

Use the bias chart to help you through the difficult maze of main track races thoughout the final week of racing at Saratoga. The information could help you uncover live overlays, or overrated underlays you can make money by avoiding.

Races become slightly more difficult for the Racing Secretary's office to fill throughout the final week of the Saratoga meet, since most of the horses who've pointed to this meet have already run once or twice, and the out-of-town trainers are already starting to ship out their horses little by little. This means that we'll begin to see more and more of certain types of races through the final week. Some of the races we'll be seeing the most of will be 2-year-old maiden races, turf races and turf sprints, because these categories always attract plenty of entries and are good vehicles for the racetrack to use to try to fill races and provide large fields.

Also, as a side note, great weather is forecast throughout the final week of Saratoga, so turf handicappers should get plenty of opportunities to bet grass races -- which will probably make up at least half of the total amount of races remaining to be run at the meet.

A total of 17 different trainers have already won races at this year's Saratoga meet with two-year-old first-time starters, and five of those trainers have won with debut horses more than once. Just because 5+ weeks of the meet are already done, don't assume that every barn would have already sent out all of its live firsters by now. For example, Uncle Mo, a Todd Pletcher juvenile first starter who Pletcher called the best 2-year-old in his barn, was just debuted last week en route to a monster score at 4-5 odds. First starters continue to be strong factors in 2-year-old races during the final week at Saratoga and throughout the fall meet at Belmont Park.

Trainers With More Than 2-Y-O One Debut Winner

Trainer Starts Wins
Todd Pletcher 22 10
Chad Brown 10 4
Linda Rice 12 2
Steve Asmussen 10 2

Trainers with 1 winning 2-y-o first-time starter: Richard Dutrow, Galluscio, Kimmel, Nihei, Rudy Rodriguez, Robert Reid, Serpe, Stall, Stewart, Violette, Weaver, Zito.

Todd Pletcher has had a great meet overall with maidens and 2-year-olds. On the negative side, trainers with no success to mention with 2-year-old first starters so far at the 2010 Saratoga meet have included Bill Mott (0-for-17), Ken McPeek (0-for-11), and Gary Contessa (0-for-11).

Weather conditions have been favorable for most of the 2010 Saratoga meet, and the weather forecast is mostly looking good for the final week of action, except for the small possibility the area could be impacted by Hurricane Earl later in the week. The result of all that good weather at the Spa has been plenty of turf racing, and the final week of action should continue to be a turf race lover's paradise at Saratoga.

Here is a list at the dominant turf trainers so far at the 2010 Saratoga meet.

Trainer Wins Win% ITM% $ROI
Linda Rice 13 33% 50% $3.41
Chad Brown 6 24% 48% $1.83
Bill Mott 6 15% 41% $1.03
George Weaver 6 18% 45% $1.87
Seth Benzel 5 45% 72% $5.05
Ken McPeek 5 16% 47% $1.90
Dale Romans 4 27% 53% $3.77
Carlos Martin 4 20% 40% $1.29
Mike Maker 4 17% 38% $3.38
Todd Pletcher 4 14% 32% $1.61
Jonathan Sheppard 4 22% 61% $2.84

Linda Rice -- turf sprint queen and last year's leading trainer at Saratoga -- has had a tremendous 2010 meet on the green and she shows no signs of slowing down after what was a slow start to the meet and all systems go since then. Flat win bets on all of Linda Rice's 40 turf starters have resulted in a strongly positive return on investment (ROI) of $3.41. Besides Rice, the other standout turf trainer at the Saratoga 2010 meet has been Seth Benzel, who has rebounded from a bad 2009 at the Spa to post 5 wins from 11 Saratoga turf starters for a 45% win percentage and an outstanding ROI of $5.05.

Among the top turf trainers so far at the meet in terms of wins, the other top ROIs belong to Dale Romans $3.77, and Mike Maker ($3.38). Beyond the top winning turf trainers on the list, other trainers hitting for strong ROIs at Saratoga this year include Tom Voss (3-for-17, $5.24 ROI), Rick Violette (3-for-14, $7.04 ROI), and surprisingly D. Wayne Lukas who has won 3 of 17 turf races for a $3.10 ROI). However, one horse, the red-hot Wow Wow Wow, has accounted for 2 of Lukas' 3 turf winners at the meet, thereby skewing his overall stats.

Others to watch out for on the positive side include Gregory DiPrima (3-for-9, $3.71 ROI), Ralph Nicks (2-for-9, $4.87 ROI), Alan Goldberg (2-for-4, $7.57 ROI), Roger Attfield (2-for-6, $4.67 ROI), and Al Stall (2-for-4, $6.07 ROI) with their remaining Saratoga turf starters.

Worst Turf Trainers -- Saratoga 2010

Trainer Wins Win% ITM% $ROI
Gary Sciacca 0 0 50% $0.00
John Kimmel 0 0 48% $0.00
John Hertler 0 0 41% $0.00
Phil Serpe 0 0 45% $0.00
Paulino Ortiz 0 0 72% $0.00
Tim Ritvo 0 0 47% $0.00
Bobby Barbara 0 0 40% $0.00
John Toscano 0 0 40% $0.00
Bruce Brown 1 5% 38% $0.53
David Donk 1 6% 61% $0.55
Gary Contessa 2 7% 28% $0.50
Richard Dutrow 2 9% 50% $0.57

Beyond just the trainers who are currently taking the collar with turf winners from more than 10 starters at the meet (listed above), other trainers struggling through a slow meet on the Saratoga lawns include some trainers normally associated with high ROIs and large winning percentages like Bruce Brown (1-for 19), David Donk (1-for-18), Gary Contessa (2-for-29), and Richard Dutrow (2-for-22).

Other trainers of note having dreadful Saratoga meets on the turf also include Rudy Rodriguez (1-for-10, $0.49), Kiaran McLaughlin (1-for-17, $0.73), Mike Matz (1-for-12, $0.52), H. James Bond (1-for-16, $0.28), Tom Bush (2-for-19, $0.47), and Barclay Tagg (3-for-30, $0.93 ROI).

Sure, Saratoga is a part of the NYRA year-long program of New York racing, bit more so than any other track, Saratoga is a national meet, with horses and horsemen coming into town with varied levels of effectiveness. For handicappers, it always helps to keep track of which shippers have been winning, and where the winners have been coming from in their most recent races.

Once we've gotten down to this point in the season -- with only one week of racing remaining, most of the well-meant horses on the grounds or within ship-in distance have already run at the meet, with many making their second and sometimes even third starts of the Spa meet this coming week. This trend started to really show itself during Week 5 of the meet, when winners of 21 races were making their second or third starts of the meet. Expect more of the same in the final week of the meet. See the chart below for details:

Saratoga Winners, Week 5
37% making 2nd or 3rd start of the meet
18% last raced elsewhere on NYRA circuit
28% shippers
18% first-time starters

In the final week of the Spa meet, based on trends from past years, we can expect 60% of the winners to be making their second, third, or in rare cases fourth starts of the meet.

Amongst this year's groups of shippers, horses who last raced at Monmouth Park have done the best, but the 'Elite Summer Meet' at Monmouth has had a much smaller impact on racing at Saratoga than most people originally thought. New Jersey horses generally have stayed at Monmouth to run for Monmouth's purses, and many of the Monmouth horses who've won at Saratoga were originally New York horses who had jumped ship from Belmont to Monmouth earlier in the summer and then returned to New York to run at Saratoga. Aside from Monmouth invaders, the Kentucky shippers who last raced at Churchill or Keeneland, not surprisingly, have had the next-highest impact at the 2010 Spa meet. This group has been led by horses in the barns of Mike Maker (5 wins from 31 starters) and Al Stall, who has had a great Spa meet with 4 winners from 10 starters so far.

Delaware shippers have heated up lately which should be of particular interest to Saratoga handicappers. Horses who made their most recent starts at Delaware Park won three times last week, and are winning almost as much as their Kentucky and Monmouth counterparts.

Winning Shippers to Saratoga, Week 5

Track of last race Wins
Monmouth Park 4
Churchill Downs 3
Delaware Park 3
Philly Park 1
Finger Lakes 1
Suffolk Downs 1
Laurel 1
Artificial tracks  
Keeneland 1
Presque Isle 1

Expect plenty of turf sprints throughout closing week as Saratoga has more difficulty filling races during the final week of the meet as many trainers and horses get out of town early on to their next destinations.

Everyone who reads my columns knows has much of an advocate I am for outside posts in New York turf sprints -- especially in Saratoga's extensive program of 5 1/2-furlong turf sprints. This year's post position statistics show a different picture than usual, however, especially when in-the-money percentages are figured, which show nearly uniform ITM percentages across the board for all turf sprint posts. Nevertheless, while outside posts haven't been as much of an advantage in these races this year, and inside posts haven't been as much of a disadvantage, one fact has remained the same -- the rail post in 5 1/2-furlong turf sprints at Saratoga has remained the worst post in New York racing. Horses breaking from the rail in these races have won just 2 of 27 races for 5% wins. This following a dreadful 1-for-41 record in 2009, paints a bleak picture of the chances of any horse drawing the rail post in Saratoga's turf sprints -- at least to win. Post 1 in Saratoga turf sprints still remains one of the easiest toss-outs in all of racing.

Saratoga Turf Sprint Post Position Analysis

Post Wins Win% ITM ITM%
1 2 5% 12 32%
2 7 19% 14 38%
3 3 18% 13 35%
4 3 8% 13 35%
5 6 16% 10 27%
6 4 11% 14 38%
7 4 11% 9 24%
8 3 8% 12 33%
9 2 7% 8 30%
10 3 19% 6 38%
11 0-for-2 0% 0-for-2 0%
12 0-for-1 0% 0-for-1 0%

In terms of the in-the-money percentage of posts 1-12 in Saratoga turf sprints, when long-term stats are examined, three of the six best post positions are 9-11, and four of the six best starting draws are posts 6 and outward.

When it comes to turf sprint trainers, everybody knows that Linda Rice is the queen of turf sprints, especially at Saratoga. This year has been no exception. Other trainers finding success in turf sprints have included Chad Brown, Carlos Martin, Mike Hushion, Todd Pletcher, and surprisingly Allen Jerkens.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Barclay Tagg is an instant turf sprint toss out, and the usually reliable Wesley Ward is still in the midst of a cold streak that has lasted months and his starters should not be trusted at any odds until his barn finally shows real signs it is ready to snap out of the doldrums.

AFAAF: Pressed and set the pace throughout and held on for second in a big effort in a race otherwise ruled by closers. Won't be a maiden for long.
CHINA: Was overlooked off a long layoff, but came out seriously running and was unlucky to run into a Baffert buzz-saw in a race where he tried his eyeballs out for second. Must respect.
EXLEY: Got caught in a three-way, seven-length-gap speed duel and finished clearly the best of the early pace horses in the race for third. Can shake loose and make amends.
MISSION MIKE CLARK: Got caught in a speed duel and was not embarrassed in a race that set up for closers on a closers-biased track on 8/11. Wire-to-wire threat next time in second race off the layoff.
POWER DREAMS: Got bumped around at the start and broke slow on 8/13, yet closed from far back to be third in a 5 1/2-furlong race where no other horse made up ground from behind. Don't overlook against maiden claimers.
SHAARAAT: Lost to a runaway winner, but finished a clear second after racing inside on an outside-biased track after breaking from the rail on 8/12. Dangerous speed won't remain a maiden for long.
SHIMMERING FOREST: Was knocked sideways out of the gate to lose his best chance at the start when he rushed up and set the pace. Lost by only a pair of noses behind a two perfect-trip closers/stalkers, and can rebound with a better start.
SILENCED: Stumbled badly at the start in return from a brief layoff, and spotted the field too much ground in a race dominated by the two front-runners. Finished sixth, but was only a neck and a nose out of fourth and can turn things around with a clean start.
THE WEST RIM: Showed good interest both early and late after getting shuffled back in traffic behind a wall of horses in a z-pattern trip on 8/12. Finished ahead or next-out winner Yan Yan.
TRINITY MAGIC: Trying to return to form off a layoff, but the eighth-place effort on 8/11 was not indicative of his chances for success after he got caught in a speed duel in a race ruled by closers on a closers-biased racetrack.
WILDCAT ALY: Drew the dreadful rail post in a turf sprint and had a traffic-filled trip repeatedly blocked behind horses before rallying nicely for second once clear. May not be denied with a clean trip.


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