Del Mar Preview


By Noel Michaels

It's summer in Southern California, and for horseplayers, that can only mean one thing: Del Mar. The annual Del Mar thoroughbred meet opens on Wednesday, August 20, and will usher in California's best and most looked-forward-to seven weeks of racing straight up through Sept. 7. For handicappers, Del Mar will be a welcome change from the small fields, limited race days, and sparse betting opportunities offered at the recently concluded Hollywood Park meet. I'm already poised to go with some excellent betting spots on Wednesday and Thursday, and you can be assured there's a lot more to come after that.

Del Mar unveiled its current Polytrack surface in 2007 and it has played to mixed reviews ever since. Despite the nay-sayers, however, many horsemen continue to vouch for the surface for its safety, while many handicappers like the big field sizes and high-priced mutuel payoffs that Polytrack has brought along with it to 'Where the Turf Meets the Surf' at old Del Mar.

With four Polytrack meets in the books at Del Mar, the Polytrack seems to be playing the closest to Keeneland's surface on the list of other artificial surface venues across the country. Fortunately, as in the case of Keeneland, Del Mar's Polytrack surface has gradually 'broken in' as the years have gone on, slowly becoming a little bit quicker and a little more fair and formful year after year. In the past, Del Mar's Polytrack could be as mercurially slow as Keeneland's, but the track has sped up each year since debuting in 2007 and the track is therefore more betable now than ever, and infinitely more betable than it was back in 2007 and 2008 when the races were completely unpredictable and there was no database of statistics one which to base your handicapping.

Two trends seem to have been firmly established at Del Mar with three years of Polytrack racing in the books. 1) Outside running paths have been an advantage at Del Mar, and 2) early speed is little help at Del Mar, where outside pressing, stalking, and rallying trips best fit the track profile for success.

The effectiveness of front-runners has been reduced on Del Mar's Polytrack, particularly in route races, but it should be noted that the track has become more and more fair to all running styles in each subsequent annual race meet. In sprints, it is worth noting that the decrease in front-running winners is mainly made-up for by an increase in winning close-to-the-pace pressers and stalkers. In routes, the decline in winning front-runners is mainly due to a large increase in the number of winning closers.

These days, you can best say that short sprint races up to 6 1/2 furlongs play fairly on Del Mar's main track, but it is difficult to win on the front-end in routes. Take note that in sprints, the farther you go the worse front-runners do. In 5 1/2-furlong races, speed tends to do best. However, beware of Del Mar's quirk at 7 furlongs, where horses rarely go wire-to-wire.

The overwhelming majority of all winners at 7 furlongs are mid-pack stalkers that race between 2 1/2 and 6 lengths off the lead at the second call. Rarely do horses lead off the way, but they are just as unlikely to win at 7 furlongs if they have to rally from more than 6 lengths back at the second call.

Just as important as running styles on Del Mar's Polytrack are running paths. This does not mean post positions, but rather, the number of paths out from the rail that a horse runs during the course of the race.

Del Mar post positions are fair at Del Mar at all distances – including mile races where the inside posts see little to no advantage despite the short run to the first turn. However, it does make a difference in which path a horse runs, and that is a very difficult thing to handicap. This is probably the reason that Del Mar's mutuel payoffs can be so astronomically high, especially early in the meet when people are still figuring out Del Mar's Polytrack, and how it differs from Hollywood's Cushion Track (and even further back in a horse's pp's to the dirt at Santa Anita). Remember, the biggest bias at Del Mar, especially in sprints, has more to do with a horse's running path than it has to do with post position or running style.

The reality at Del Mar is that the 4-5 wide paths can often play like a conveyor belt to the winner's circle. Middle and outside running paths have an advantage at all distances (sprints and routes) on Del Mar's Polytrack.

Del Mar Main Track Winning Post Positions
2010 Meet

Sprints Routes
Post Wins-Starts Win% Post Wins-Starts Win%
1 25-175 14% 1 6-45 13%
2 16-175 9% 2 6-45 13%
3 20-175 11% 3 4-45 9%
4 16-175 9% 4 7-45 16%
5 21-172 12% 5 6-44 14%
6 20-163 12% 6 6-41 15%
7 20-150 13% 7 6-26 23%
8 22-119 18% 8 0-16 0%
9 8-90 9% 9 2-12 17%
10 2-58 3% 10 1-6 17%
11 2-30 7% 11 0-2 0%
12 5-15 33% 12 1-2 50%
13 0-1 0%

Based on the winning post position chart above from the 2010 Del Mar meet, there is very little advantage or disadvantage to any post position or area of the starting gate, inside-middle-outside in main track sprints. Note, however, that the inside posts do better in the short sprints, while the posts in the outer half of the gate do most of their winning in the longer sprints.

In routes, the best place to break from generally seems to be the middle posts 4-7, but again, there are no major advantages or disadvantages to any post.

Remember, the Cushion Track in place at Hollywood is far different than the Polytrack at Del Mar. Horses that did well at Hollywood probably won't be the same as the horses who do well at Del Mar. It's a different kind of surface with different kinds of running times and different kinds of track biases and different kinds of horses for the course. When handicapping at Del Mar, pay special attention to horses (including those dangerous out-of-town shippers) that have shown they can run well on Polytrack courses, and specifically at Del Mar, which has become one of those tracks where the term 'horse for the course' means the most.

For bettors who can't stand betting Del Mar's Polytrack, the good news is that Del Mar still cards some of the country's best turf racing all summer long. Del Mar's turf racing is great, because among other things, there is little or no bias or favoritism for inside posts as opposed to outside posts. Del Mar turf races are carded for a maximum of 10 runners, and the limited field sizes seem to have the effect of lessening the troubles encountered by wider horses.

2010 Del Mar Winning Post Positions
Turf Routes (1 mile – 1 1/8 miles)

Post Wins Starts Win%
1 7 69 10%
2 8 69 12%
3 10 69 14%
4 6 69 9%
5 12 69 17%
6 12 68 18%
7 9 59 15%
8 4 41 10%
9 2 26 8%
10 0 13 0%

Del Mar's top turf trainers often include Richard Mandella, Mike Puype, James Cassidy, and Jerry Hollendorfer.

Trainers who may perform poorly on the Del Mar lawn include Steve Knapp, David Hofmans, and Bob Baffert. Surprisingly Neil Drysdale has not done his best work on the Del Mar turf the last couple of years, and John Sadler , who annually battles it out in the race for top trainer, wins at a much lower percentage on the lawn.

Turf Sprints
Turf sprints are nothing new at Del Mar, but they have become an increasingly big part of the Del Mar condition book over the last couple of years with even more turf sprints expected to be on the way. Turf sprints in general have become more popular across the country, and now that the division is represented by a Breeders' Cup race, the trend is likely to continue in the future at tracks like Del Mar, where turf sprints were once little more than a novelty.

When horseplayers think of Southern California turf sprints, we invariably think of Santa Anita with its extensive program of 6 1/2-furlong races run down-the-hill on its unique turf course. These days, however, the SoCal turf sprint season no longer begins and ends with the races run at Santa Anita. Hollywood is running its fair share turf sprints these days, and Del Mar, in turn, is following suit with its own expanding program of turf sprints.

Del Mar turf sprints are all run at 5 furlongs. Del Mar's short turf sprints featuring a relatively short run into a tight turn tend put an extreme emphasis on speed and athleticism much more than the turf sprints being run elsewhere on the circuit. Small, agile, quick horses do much better than their big bulky rivals.

Due to Del Mar's narrow turf course, a maximum of only eight starters are allowed in Del Mar's turf sprints. On the plus side, however, at least the races are usually filled with the field size in Del Mar's turf sprints averaging nearly 7 1/2 starters the last five years.

Del Mar's turf sprints are usually over in the blink of an eye, and that kind of race dynamic favors speedy running breaking from inside posts who can get out front, get to the rail, cut the corner, and hold on to the wire.

Over the years, the majority of Del Mar's turf sprints have been won from the four inside posts. Posts 1-4 normally account for two-thirds of Del Mar's turf sprint wins with only about 55% of the starters, which amounts to a solid wagering advantage. This was not the case at the 2010 meet, however, which featured only 16 turf sprints which were won fairly equitably from all post positions, except for post 8, which was winless.

2010 Del Mar Winning Post Positions
Turf Sprints (5 furlongs)

Post Wins Starts Win%
1 2 16 2%
2 2 16 12%
3 3 16 19%
4 2 16 12%
5 2 16 12%
6 3 14 21%
7 2 12 17%
8 0 8 0%

At Del Mar, the trainer that has asserted himself in turf sprints above all others has been Brian Koriner. What trainers can you rely on if you are looking for better odds than you can get on the typical Koriner turf sprinter? Well, the best alternatives, especially lately, have been Mike Mitchell and Peter Miller.

Trainers to avoid in these turf sprints may include Steve Knapp, Jack Carava, Robert Hess, Ron McAnally, and Richard Mandella.

Meanwhile, some trainers, particularly the very vocal Bob Baffert, are far from impressed, and would much rather be racing their short sprinters and speedy 2-year-olds on surfaces other than Polytrack, which doesn't emphasize the brilliant speed that California racing has been known for decades in these kinds of races. That being said, Baffert has made the necessary adjustments through the years and is coming off of an all-time high 16-win meet at Del Mar in 2010, where he led all trainers in purse money won for the second straight year.

Baffert was far behind the top two trainers in the win standings at Del Mar 2010, however, trailing meet leaders Doug O'Neill (31 wins) and John Sadler (22 wins), by a wide margin.

In many ways, the meet-specific trainer statistics for Del Mar are more valuable than what certain trainers have done at more recent meets, such as the recently concluded Hollywood meet. Therefore, here is a refresher on the final top 10 of the trainer standings from last year's Del Mar meet:

2010 Del Mar Top Trainer Standings

Trainer Starts Wins Win%
Doug O'Neill 136 31 23%
John Sadler 104 22 21%
Bob Baffert 91 16 18%
Mike Mitchell 84 16 19%
Jerry Hollendorfer 73 13 18%
Peter Miller 59 10 17%
Mike Puype 39 10 26%
Carla Gaines 34 10 29%
Jack Carava 42 8 19%
Vladimir Cerin 31 8 26%

Based on the stats from the 2010 Del Mar meet, some of the trainers you'll want to focus on obviously include 2010 leading trainer Doug O'Neill (42 wins the last two years) and 2009 leading trainer John Sadler (50 wins since 2009!). Other usual suspects include Mike Mitchell (27 wins the last two years) and Jerry Hollendorfer (22 wins the last two years). Mike Puype and Carla Gains are both coming off particularly strong 2010 meets in terms of both win percentage and positive ROIs. Eric Kruljac also had a tremendous meet in 2010 with 7 wins from just 20 starters for a win percentage of 35%, buoyed by a strong string of Del Mar turf sprinters.

Trainers who are coming off of a bad Del Mar meet or two in recent years, who may be good to avoid, include Jeff Mullins, Barry Abrams, and guys like Rafael Becerra, Art Shurman, Ed Moger, Gary Sherlock, Bill Spawr, Caesar Dominguez, Patrick Gallagher, Mark Glatt, Craig Lewis, Steve Knapp, Walter Solis, David Hofmans, and Sal Gonzalez. Robert Hess also had a disappointing year at Del Mar in 2010 with just 5 wins from 50 starters (10% wins). Some trainers who rarely win at Del Mar include Beau Greely, Eoin Harty, Drew Fulmer, Jose Delima, Roger Stein, Henry Moreno, Cirilo Sierra, Howard Zucker, and Jesus Mendosa.

When it comes to jockeys, everyone who follows the SoCal circuit knows that the racing is basically dominated by two guys – Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano. After dominating the Hollywood meet, Rosario and Bejarano are both set to battle it out atop the Del Mar standings again in 2011 after a tremendous duel for the jockey title in 2010, which was eventually won by Rosario, 57 wins to 56, over Bejerano. Both Rosario and Bejerano should again be expected to win over 20% of their mounts at Del Mar in 2011, with Patrick Valenzuela, Martin Garcia, and Joe Talamo picking up most of the crumbs. Also take note that one other emerging rider who has done a very good job bringing home price horses on the circuit the last year or so is Alonso Quinonez.

By using these simple as a rough guideline, you will have a foundation in what it takes to win at the Del Mar meet. Enjoy the next seven weeks in SoCal, where the surf meets the turf at sunny Del Mar. Good luck! And don't forget to get with me for Saratoga, which starts on Friday.


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