Belmont Season Preview

BELMONT SEASON PREVIEW - GOOD RACING RETURNS TO NY

By Noel Michaels

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 29 through closing day, Sunday, July 17. 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, and of course locally on the Aqueduct inner track. I'm looking forward to another profitable summer here at Belmont.

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 horses returning from layoffs, often meant for the grass either immediately or after a prep race or two. These are four importantly different categories of horses, all having their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to racing at Belmont.

 

AQUEDUCT REVIEW
First off when trying to approach the Belmont meet, horseplayers should take note of the obvious recent trends from the completed Aqueduct main track including track trends and all-important trainer trends.

The Aqueduct main track meet displayed some daily track biases, which are detailed below, but very little bias in terms of post position draw, especially in two-turn routes where all posts played fairly.  In Aqueduct main track sprints, the rail Post 1 offered an advantage (24% wins), but basically any post position from post 2-7 was also okay at all distances.  There was a mild disadvantage to drawing outside in Big A sprints, with posts 8-13 winning a combined 3-for-36 for 8%.

For the most part, the Aqueduct main track is usually 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.  This year was no exception for most of the second half of the month-long Aqueduct main track stand.  However, handicappers should note that there were several track-biased days earlier on in this spring's Aqueduct main track meet.  Those observed track biases are notated below:

Belmont/Aqueduct Track Biases
Apr. 16 - Speed bias, all winners on or close
Apr. 10 - Outside preferred
Apr. 8 - Bad inside, winners all started and stayed off rail
Apr. 7 - Helped to be on or close to pace
Apr. 6 - Outside advantage
Apr. 3 - Speed and close-up horses excelled
Apr. 1 - Bad rail, speed died down inside
Mar. 31 - Outside good
Mar. 30 - Speed bias opening day Aqu main track

 

Aqueduct Trainers & Jockeys
Stop the presses, Ramon Dominguez actually lost a New York meet riding title this spring!  Dominguez, the perennial New York leading rider was beaten, 24 wins to 22 wins, this spring on the Aqueduct main track by Cornelio Velasquez, who took advantage of several absences by Dominguez last season. Dominguez left a couple of weekends to ride out of town and also served a two-day suspension - both of which helped Cornelio take top honors (along with some hot riding at a 25% win percentage).

Either way, Dominguez can once again be expected to be top dog and big cheese at the Belmont Park meet this spring/summer as not only the circuit's premier rider but perhaps the country's best rider as well.  Expect Cornelio to capitalize on some of his spring momentum to enable him to ride to another good meet at Belmont.  Aside from those two riders, however, the rest of the Aqueduct jockey colony will drop considerably down the ladder in the jockey standings now that the top riders from out of town have returned to New York.

The rest of the top five jockeys at the Belmont meet will all be household names and should be topped by John Velazquez, who as always will ride first-call for the powerhouse Todd Pletcher Stable (leading trainer this winter at both Aqueduct and Gulfstream). Velazquez took the riding title at Gulfstream and should give Dominguez a run for his money as the leading jockey at Belmont.  Other jockeys who will be racking up wins also include Alan Garcia (riding first-call for Kiaran McLaughlin among others), Javier Castellano (perhaps the best turf rider on the circuit), and Rajiv Maragh, who was in the top 3 here last year and kept his brisk business going this winter at Gulfstream with over 40 wins).

As far as trainer trends are concerned, plenty of Belmont trainers had successful seasons this winter, and many have won at high percentages and posted strong ROIs, topped by the aforementioned Todd Pletcher, who toped the trainers standings at both Aqueduct's inner track meet and at Gulfstream, where he won at percentages of 30% and 29%, respectively.

Beyond Pletcher, the top trainers this spring on the Aqueduct main track were Linda Rice (29% wins) and David Jacobson (an amazing 42% wins).  Both Rice and Jacobson won 9 races at the Big A in the last month. Rice's win percentage could actually go up now that the two-year-old season and turf sprint seasons will be starting shortly. Look for Jacobson, meanwhile, to continue to do well, particularly with his patented claim-and-drop methodology that he works to perfection in the claiming game.

Elsewhere, Rudy Rodriguez and his stable should continue to see heavy action at Belmont, where he was so successful in 2010. Kiaran McLaughlin had huge seasons in both New York and Florida this winter with 22 wins at the Aqueduct inner track, and 4 wins (from 9 starters) on the Aqueduct main track, to go along with 10 wins at Gulfstream Park. Chad Brown recorded 16 wins and a 25% win percentage at Gulfstream, and Rick Violette has been reloading for the past month after a hot winter on the Aqueduct inner track, where he posted a 30% win percentage. Bruce Brown was a force in New York this winter with 27 wins for 24% win percentage on the inner track and another 5 wins last month on the Big A main track. Graham Motion has recently heated up in Florida and elsewhere, and Stanley Hough is also extremely dangerous at present.

Steve Asmussen, will have a big winning string of horses at Belmont this spring/summer, and the Jerkens clan, father Allen and son James, will both be trainers to watch. Bruce Levine had a nice Aqueduct main track meet that bodes well for him and his horses at Belmont - he was 6-for-25 for 24% wins which was good for a tie for third in the standings. Mike Hushion quietly enjoyed a good winter and spring in New York, too.  Hushion won for a high percentage on the Aqueduct inner track and then capped it off with a 4-for-11 training record on the Aqueduct main track for a win percentage of 36%.

Looking for a few high-percentage trainer angles?  Stay away from Bruce Brown first-time starters, and hop onboard the bandwagon with James Jerkens- and Kiaran McLaughlin-trained maiden second-time starters.

 

OUT-OF-TOWN SHIPPERS AND LAYOFFS
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.

A few trends to watch for horses coming in from out of town include some post position angles pertaining to horses coming from 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 also at disadvantages. Therefore, if you see a Belmont starter exiting a bad effort in one of those kinds of starts at Gulfstream, you should remember to give that horse an excuse for a 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 who will come to Belmont from Keeneland, keep in mind that the Polytrack has actually begun to"break in" during recent meets and no longer can consistently be counted on to favor outside closers and hinder inside speed like it once did.  Two-thirds through the 2011 Keeneland Spring meet, the inside three post positions have been dominant in routes, and the inside six posts have been the best place to be in sprints. You might want to consider giving horses shipping from Keeneland to Belmont excuses if they broke from outside posts in recent Keeneland losses.

As a matter of fact, all Keeneland main track results should be taken with a grain of salt at Belmont due to the surface change from Polytrack to dirt.  Horses who lost at Keeneland might not have liked the artificial surface, and horses who won at Keeneland might have benefited from the synthetic track and might not do so well as underlays next time out at Belmont.

On the Belmont grass, keep in mind that horses coming from Keeneland enjoyed a big advantage from the inner posts 1-7 in grass races at the 2011 Spring meet.  Horses from these posts have won almost every Keeneland turf race.  Horses that won with the benefit of inside posts Keeneland turf route may not be as good as they appear on paper based on those recent wins, while horses that were marooned outside post 7 recently on the Keeneland lawn may have had excuses.

Other Belmont entrants 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 of layoff horses 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 winning early at 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, because their horses either are fit and ready after running at big meets over the winter, or have been pointed to this meet all along.

 

BELMONT TRACK TRENDS
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, 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 front runners. 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 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 winning a combined 5%.

Turf Races
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%).

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 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.

As a side note, 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.

Turf Sprints
In the increasingly popular turf sprint department, Linda Rice and Anthony Dutrow do particularly well, as does Kiaran McLaughlin. Contrary to what you might expect,"The Chief" Allan Jerkens is also a high win percentage force in turf sprints, and usually offers more value than the other high percentage trainers - especially Linda Rice.

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.

The anti-rail bias is particularly prevalent in Belmont turf sprints on the Widener course, where the rail Post 1 customarily wins at only 4-5% at both 6 furlongs and 7 furlongs on the Widener (outer) turf.

On the inner turf course, the turf sprint inside vs. outside bias is still there, but it just works a little differently than on the outer turf.  In inner turf sprints at Belmont, the rail post itself is not bad, but instead it is all of the other inside posts that are terrible including posts 2-5.  Post position seems to mean more in these kinds of races than in any other locally, so bet the large amount of turf sprint races at Belmont accordingly.

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.

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.  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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