The 5 Tracks Of February: Part 2

FEBRUARY HANDICAPPING:
Focus on Five Tracks for What it Takes to Win
By Noel Michaels

Although it is not often regarded as such, the winter is perhaps the best time of the year for horseplayers, a big reason I authored Handicapping The Big Winter Meets in 2009 and updated the material for 2011. As opposed to other times of the year when good racing and wagering are scattered around the country at countless race circuits and stakes races take center stage every weekend, the winter is a time of the year when hardcore handicapping rules and basically every eye at every simulcast center from New York to Las Vegas is focusing on the same five tracks. Sure, there are plenty of people around who like Tampa Bay Downs or Golden Gate and racing will be returning to Chicago in the next couple weeks at Hawthorne, but will all due respect to those tracks and others, the action in Thoroughbred racing in February is all happening at Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream, Oaklawn, and Santa Anita.

With so much good racing taking place in February at so few tracks, is becomes relatively easy at this one time of the year to keep close tabs on the races and results from all five of the major winter signals, and thereby keep your finger on the pulse of everything that's important in the sport of racing. I do this each racing day for clients in Winter Angles Daily Racing Service, and today I want to take you on a tour around this season's five major circuits and get fully up-to-speed on what it's taking to win at the season's various epicenters of pari-mutuel wagering.

In our most recent article we checked in at Aqueduct. With the weekend's racing featuring big stakes action at both Gulfstream and Santa Anita, that's where our focus will be today.

GULFSTREAM
Gulfstream Park is the Eastern epicenter of Thoroughbred racing during the winter, and another exceptional and challenging meet is now upon us. As always, Gulfstream offers the best horses, trainers, jockeys, grass races, and stakes races of the winter season with the top barns from New York and Kentucky and all points in-between all converging on South Florida for a sensational four-month sunshine-filled standout race meet.

For bettors, some changes to the 2011 Gulfstream meet include a new post time of 12:55, and a new 50-cent Pick-5 bet with a low 15 % takeout on the day's last five races. There are also both early and late 50-cent Pick-4s and rolling Daily Doubles and Pick-3s. Takeouts have been lowered on the Pick-3 and 50-cent Pick-4 (20 percent). All other bets are $1 minimums, with the exception of the new experiment with a 10-cent Pick 6, with a jackpot that will only be awarded to a winner with one unique ticket. On days when there are multiple winners, 60% of the pool will be shared equally while 40% will go into a carryover pool.

Gulfstream once again is playing host to the wintertime's best trainer line-up and jockey colony. Paco Lopez, who was the surprise winner of the 2010 jockey title at Gulfstream winning 70 races, is again on top of the jockey standings with 24 wins and a 20% win percentage. Todd Pletcher, who won last year's trainer title with 35 wins (23%), is off to a relatively slow start in 2011 with only 7 victories and a 15% win percentage.

With most of the best East and Midwest trainers and horses wintering in Florida, it's no surprise that the region's top jockeys are all there. Gulfstream is the winter home of John Velazquez (14% wins), Kent Desormeaux (13% wins), Julien Leparoux (15% wins), Javier Castellano (13% wins), and Elvis Trujillo, a surprise third in the standings with 13 wins in 99 mounts so far. Cold riders to be aware of include Edgar Prado (only 6% wins), and 2009 Gulfstream leading rider leader Jose Lezcano, who is currently winning at a low 11% clip. Also, Eibar Coa is winning at only 10% so far and has recently been arrested in a case of domestic violence in an incident that could hardly be expected to up his win percentage. On the other end of the spectrum, one jockey winning races at a faster rate than one would expect at this point in the season is Jesus Castanon, who has scored with 10 of 44 mounts for 23%.

The prevailing running style preference in Gulfstream dirt races tends to favor horses with early speed, or at least tactical speed, at all distances. Stalkers and mid-pack horses sometimes run well, but deep closers are generally not good bets at Gulfstream, except on days when a temporary anti-speed bias occasionally develops to help-out closers.

Since deep closers generally don't do well on this main track, and inside posts and rail-skimming trips are usually not an advantage, the two prevailing track biases on Gulfstream Park's main track are, 1) Gulfstream's dirt track favors horses with speed and tactical speed, and; 2) Gulfstream one-turn dirt races favor outside paths, while Gulfstream two-turn races favor inside posts -- except for, perhaps, the rail post #1.

Here are the Gulfstream track biases noted so far this season since opening day on Jan. 5:

Gulfstream Track Biases
Jan. 17 -- Speed bias races 5-9 (rain)
Jan. 16 -- Outside better, helped to be up close
Jan. 15 -- Outside better, helped to be up close
Jan. 13 -- Outside bias
Jan. 12 -- Outside bias
Jan. 7 -- Strong speed bias; outside the better part of the track
Jan. 6 -- Strong Outside bias
Jan. 5 -- Outside bias

Some of the prime golden rules at Gulfstream Park are to stay away from outside posts in main track two-turn routes, and to stay away from far inside posts in dirt miles. Don't bet the rail horse in any sprint at 6 1/2 furlongs or longer, and stack your bets against front-runners on the turf (unless the turf rails are out -- the further the better). These axioms cannot be repeated often enough, because these elements when added together with winning running styles and trainer trends can provide you the framework of everything you'll need to make money at Gulfstream Park.

The rail post is, at times, absolutely awful at Gulfstream Park in one-turn races between 6 1/2 furlongs and a mile on the main track (Post 1 at 6 1/2 furlongs during the 2009 meet, for example, won 2-of-49 races for 4%). Often, the anti-rail disadvantage is enough that any reasonable player would be forced to think twice before betting a horse from the wood no matter how good the horse looks on paper.

In Gulfstream miles, the three inside posts are also much more of a disadvantage than an advantage. Note, however, that the far outside posts in those races aren't great either. Mid-pack posts from 4-7 seem to be the best gate slots at one mile.

These post position trends are not solely based on short-term statistics. It has always been this way on Gulfstream's current track layout to one degree or another since 2005.

Now let's move to the grass, where a large part of the action takes place each winter at Gulfstream. Like many turf courses, the Gulfstream turf usually favors horses with good turn-of-foot acceleration in the stretch. It is difficult to go wire-to-wire on the Gulfstream turf course, and Gulfstream's turf course is definitely not friendly to early speed horses. Through the last couple years the Gulftsream grass course has became one of the most difficult courses in the country on which to win going wire-to-wire.

If you must bet a Gulfstream turf front-runner, try to make sure 1) The horse is the lone speed in the race, preferably from an inside post, 2) The horse has a solid class edge on the rest of the field, and 3) Look and see if the turf rails are moved out from the hedge.

The position of the turf rails on the Gulfstream grass course, which has been divided into inner and outer turf courses to help the condition of the course stay good throughout the long meet, is key for the chances of an early speed grass horse. Since they are always moving the turf rail around, always be aware of where the turf rail is before you consider a front-runner's chances on turf.

At Gulfstream on the grass, unlike on the dirt, a horse's chances of success are based more on running style than post draw. Running style has been a key determining factor how well a horse is expected to run on the Gulfstream lawn with pressers and stalkers having the best chances overall.

SANTA ANITA
With Santa Anita's switch back to dirt, we have seen a slight increase in the emphasis for early speed in sprints, especially at the track's two most popular sprint distances of 6 furlongs and 6 1/2 furlongs.

The average beaten lengths at the first call at these sprint distances is about 2 lengths behind at the quarter-mile mark. Horses definitely don't want to be too far back, however, based on the fact that 93 percent of the dirt sprint winners have raced within 5 lengths of the lead at the first call (quarter mile). It has been difficult to win from very far back in the pack on the Santa Anita dirt based on these stats, and clearly the need for good tactical speed has increased now that Santa Anita has gone back to dirt.

During Santa Anita's artificial track era, it also was often difficult to win by going wire-to-wire in route races. It is now thankfully a little easier to go all the way on the front-end in Santa Anita's new dirt routes (about 23 percent of the dirt route races are won wire-to-wire and 66 percent are won by horses classified either as early speed horses or pace pressers). These numbers were both much lower on Santa Anita's artificial surface at all two-turn distances when the slight edge instead went to closers and mid-pack stalkers.

Now that Santa Anita is back to a dirt track, handicappers can again take advantage of daily track bias information affecting the main track. Here are the track biases from the first part of the current Santa Anita meet, which began on Dec. 26:

Santa Anita Track Biases
Jan. 16 -- Speed helped, 6 of 7 winners on or close to pace
Jan. 15 -- Speed bias
Jan. 14 -- Speed beneficial
Jan. 13 -- Speed advantageous
Jan. 1 -- Good rail; 4 wire-to-wire and 6 of 7 winners on or near pace
Dec. 31 -- 5 of 6 winners on or close to pace
Dec. 29 -- Inside paths beneficial
Dec. 27 -- Inside and close to the pace helpful

The best policy for Southern California handicappers is to immediately downgrade any closer or late-running horse that has made a living in recent years thanks in part to the artificial surfaces like Pro-Ride. Instead, it will be the early speed and front-running horses that have often struggled in recent years that will rise again with a switch back to the dirt. All front-runners and horses with early speed, even the cheap speed horses and horses that have been quitting badly on Pro-Ride, must be immediately upgraded by horseplayers who wish to turn a steady profit on a new dirt surface at Santa Anita.

Where post positions were concerned in the past, the rail and inside posts (1-3) were preferred spots in sprints when Santa Anita last raced on dirt. This is pretty much the exact opposite from the way the track played once artificial surfaces were installed. So far in the current meet since the dirt track has been re-installed, the rail post #1 has not been an advantage at any distance, but the other inside and middle posts 2-6 are all winning at by far the best percentages.

The best way to proceed with your Santa Anita dirt track handicapping is to toss out the artificial track races a horse has run, while instead focusing your attention on either a horse's most recent dirt races, if any, or else waiting for horses to compile past performances on dirt during this year's Santa Anita meet.

The switch to dirt is also affecting trainers. Certain trainers have been hurt by the synthetic track era in California racing over the past few years -- let's face it. Trainers such as Bob Baffert, Richard Mandella, all the way on down to Vladimir Cerin, Jack Carava, Bruce Headley, Jorge Periban, and many others including Jeff Mullins and Doug O'Neill certainly haven't been helped by California's synthetic tracks in recent years, but all of those barns figure to have an influx of new winners and higher winning percentages back on the dirt. Baffert is currently the leading trainer at the meet with something in the ballpark of 40% wins. O'Neill is winning 27% of his races, Carava 26%. John Sadler and Mike Mitchell both currently continue to win races at high percentages at Santa Anita, just like they did before the switch back to real dirt.

One new trainer of note on the grounds will be Steve Asmussen, who has a winter string of about 30 horses at Santa Anita this season. Asmussen should continue to heat up as the meet progresses. He started the meet with 3 wins from his first 15 starters (20%).

On the other hand, other trainers will figured to be hurt by the switch back to dirt track racing have mainly struggled, including the likes of Neil Drysdale, Peter Eurton, Carla Gaines, Paddy Gallagher, and Kathy Walsh.

When it comes to jockeys, handicappers can narrow down the top choices really fast in Southern California, starting with Rafael Bejarano, Garrett Gomez, Joel Rosario and Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who all headline a high-quality jockeys' colony that also includes Tyler Baze, Brice Blanc, Victor Espinoza, David Flores, Martin Garcia, Corey Nakatani, Martin Pedroza, Joe Talamo, Alonso Quinonez, Chantal Sutherland, Patrick Valenzuela and others in 2011. It is this group -- especially Gomez, Rosario, and Bejerano -- that should dominate the top of the jockey's standings this season and battle it out for the meet title.

The leading rider at the recently concluded Hollywood Park Fall Meeting was Joel Rosario, who finished the meet on fire and could well be the most up-and-coming young rider in America today. Rosario, like Gomez, is also known as a tremendous finisher. Rosario has finished fourth, third, and second the past three years at Santa Anita's winter/spring meets and he's in search of his first Santa Anita title in 2010-2011. It he continues his recent trend, he should end up as the current Santa Anita meet's leading rider come April.

Finally, one tried-and-true handicapping angle at Santa Anita has continued its long-term trend this season, proving perhaps that the more things change the more things stay the same. The inside posts, and particularly the rail, remain big disadvantages in Santa Anita's signature down-the-hill 6 ½-furlong down-the-hill turf races. The inside three posts in these races are each winning at about 5% apiece. This is in stark contrast to post positions 4-9, which each have been winning at anywhere between 14%-30%.

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