SARATOGA 2011 PREVIEW AND HANDICAPPING GUIDE
By Noel Michaels
Saratoga is America's premier annual horseracing meet, and there is still no better meet for race fans and handicappers to watch, wager, and enjoy in the summer 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 22 and continues six days a week for seven weeks through Labor Day, Monday Sept. 5, for a total of 40 of the best race days of the year. Saratoga Racecourse in upstate New York is America's oldest and most historic race track. Despite Belmont's lackluster recently-concluded Spring/Summer meet, Saratoga still stands alone in the East in terms of attracting huge crowds of both horses and spectators for the best the sport has to offer. I'll be on hand each day with my racing picks and am looking forward to a profitable meet.
You only have 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 narrowly over Javier Castellano. Dominguez will face an enormously talented group or riders 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.
The 2011 Saratoga meet will be highlighted by the $1,000,000 Travers Stakes on Saturday, August 27. The Travers, which is nicknamed 'The Mid-Summer Derby,' headlines one of the year's best race days. This year's Travers again is expected to feature a star-studded field of America's top 3-year-olds.
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 20, and the $750,000 Whitney Handicap for the country's best older horses on Saturday, August 6. All in all, a who's who of top horses in nearly every division is expected to race at the Spa meet.
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, let's 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, and two-year-olds closing from far back to win sprints are relatively uncommon.
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, Churchill, 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's one-turn layout, despite the fact that the Belmont races are often more recent in a horse's past performances.
Second, as 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 generally 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 turf routes lately has been at the distance of 1 1/16 miles on the inner turf only. The inside four posts can offer good advantages 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 it pays to stay a little closer to the pace on the Mellon course, because front-runners tend to fare better on the Mellon than they do on the inner.
If you can get to the paddock for inner turf course races, look for physically small athletic-looking horses instead of large, long-striding, bulkier horses. The little guys handle the tight inner turf course turns nicely, while 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. The 2010 Spa meet was the launching pad to the careers of several eventual Grade 1 and 2-winning juveniles including Uncle Mo, More Than Real, Winter Memories, Buster's Ready, J.B.'s Thunder, Santiva, Anthony's Cross, Bizzy Caroline, To Honor and Serve, and the Grade 3-winning eventual third-place Preakness finisher, Astrology, and the winner of the Grade 3 Illinois Derby, Joe Vann.
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 (especially at 5F), 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. He has roughly a 15% win record with 2-y-o debuters the last six years, and always leads the way in terms of wins, even if the wins result in an overall negative return on investment (ROI) for Pletcher for every $2 bet on his 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. 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 juveniles that he feels he can't win with on the Polytrack at Del Mar.
Other dangerous 2-year-old trainers at Saratoga include Linda Rice, Ken McPeek, Chad Brown, Dallas Stewart, Mike Hushion, and surprisingly, James Jerkens. 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.
One guy who is known as a win-early trainer is Steve Asmussen, however, he has been u-and-down in recent years and can burn a whole lot of money in the process. Kiaran McLaughlin, like James Jerkens, is much more likely to win with his 2-year-old second-time starters than his first starters.
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 several years. Pletcher leads all trainers recently with first-time turf winners. It is Bill Mott, however, who has been much better in terms of ROI. 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 six years, besides Mott, have included Graham Motion, George Weaver, Stanley Hough, Christophe Clement, Barclay Tagg, Tom Bush, Wesley Ward, and hot-and-cold guys like Mike Maker and Dominick Schettino. John Kimmel and Patrick Biancone also have good numbers with first-time turfers at Saratoga, but neither has as many starters in the category as the other trainers mentioned above.
Anyone who follows New York racing knows that turf sprints have become an increasingly big part of the Saratoga landscape over the past several 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 seven-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 turn in Saratoga turf sprints 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 (especially at Saratoga) 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, and will be at the mercy of the speed horses from the outside who 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 11 of 197 races for a poor winning percentage of 5.5 percent, including just 1-for-43 in 2009 and 2-for-45 in 2010. When just the last two Saratoga meets are considered, the numbers for the rail are staggeringly bad. Saratoga turf sprinters in 2009-10 went a combined 3-for-88 for an unbelievable 3.4% wins!
If you religiously abide by no other handicapping angle at Saratoga, you must abide by this one – don't bet the rail in Saratoga turf sprints!
The No. 2 post is not much better, with just an 11.7% winning percentage the last several years. Interesting to note is that Post 2 actually had a great meet in Spa turf sprints in 2010 with 22% winners. Nevertheless, when long-term stats are factored in, 2010 appears to be a positive aberration for Post 2 in turf sprints, because that post posted lousy numbers every other season the turf sprints have been run at Saratoga (just 9% wins from 2005 to 2009). Post No. 3 rounds out the bad inside post positions for Spa turf sprints winning just 2-for-43 (5%) in 2009 and only slightly better 4-for-4 (9%) in 2010. In fact, the inside disadvantage doesn't ease until post 4 with 15% wins over the last six years.
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 each have earned winning percentages of approximately 10% in turf sprints run at Saratoga the last six years, despite accounting for only about 8% of the starters in those races.
Saratoga Turf Sprints Winning Post Positions
One key reason all these outside posts have good percentages is that the strongest positive 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. Take, for example, the case of Post 10, which in 2010 was the outside post in 17 turf sprints. That post had a terrific 24% win percentage in 2010, going 5-for-21 in the win column.
The moral of the story: Downgrade the three inside posts 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.
Best Saratoga Turf Sprint Trainers
Saeed bin Suroor
Worst Saratoga Turf Sprint Trainers
Trainers with at least 2 wins or 10 starters, lifetime
D. Wayne Lukas
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. Get on board for my racing selections each day at Saratoga.
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