Belmont Park Fall Meet Preview, 2011

BELMONT PARK FALL MEET PREVIEW, 2011

By Noel Michaels

"The summer wind came blowin' in from across the sea . . .
All summer long we sang a song . . .
Like painted kites, those days and nights they went flying by
The world was new beneath the blue umbrella sky
Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you
I lost you I lost you to the summer wind . . ."

Like The Summer Wind, the Saratoga meet has come and gone and taken summer racing along with it, much to the chagrin of racing fans and handicappers who relished the full fields and excellent wagering opportunities that the Spa is known for.  Thankfully for horseplayers, however, there are only a few days to lament the close of Saratoga and no sooner will the east's next big meet, the Belmont Park Fall Championship Meet, be ready to begin it's eight-week run starting on Saturday, Sept. 10 as Thoroughbred racing marches steadily onward toward the fall's Breeders' Cup World Championships at the start of November.

There are few race meets as important as the Belmont fall meet, which follows Saratoga and contains all of New York's key prep races for the Breeders' Cup. Besides just stakes races, Belmont also offers top notch racing day-in-and-day-out throughout the season. Every serious horseplayer plays Belmont races at this time of year, so it will pay for you pay close attention to what's going on in order to keep up with the handicapping trends that will prevail at the Belmont meet this fall.

The recently concluded Saratoga meet was just as high-quality as ever and we all will be hoping for a Belmont fall meet featuring a similar program of stakes races, turf races, and the best juvenile racing at this time of year. The field sizes at Belmont can be expected to be somewhat smaller than they were at Saratoga, but Belmont still will have plenty to offer horseplayers, especially when weather conditions permit the full array of turf racing. August and September rain levels in New York have been at all-time high records, so a new weather pattern certainly seems overdue to bring dry weather conditions and good racing to Long Island's Belmont Park.

The Belmont Fall Championship Meet will begin on Saturday, September 10 and will continue Wednesdays through Sundays until closing day on Sunday October 30, with only one small schedule change with live racing planned for Columbus Day, Monday October 11.  Some of the biggest days of the meet will be Breeders' Cup Preview Day on Saturday, Oct. 1 featuring the runnings of four Grade 1's including the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, the Flower Bowl, and the Vosburgh.  Another big Saturday is then set for October 9, with three Grade 1's including the Champagne Stakes and Frizette for 2-year-olds, and the Jamaica Stakes for 3-year-old turfers.

As always, one important thing to remember and keep in mind at this time of year in New York racing is just how dramatically different Belmont Park is from Saratoga.  At Belmont, the route races all return to being one-turn events, and 1 mile and 1 1/16-mile route races re-enter the picture on the dirt. Usually, a horse's two-turn record, especially in mile races, is irrelevant for the purposes of evaluating Belmont's one-turn routes. When handicapping those races, scan the pp's for horses' past performances in one-turn routes and ignore other mile results run at two-turn layouts such as at Saratoga, Monmouth, and elsewhere.

TRAINER TRENDS

Trainers are an important handicapping factor at this Belmont meet even more so than usual.  When it comes to trainers trends, you always want to keep on the lookout for at least two categories: 1) Who are the hot trainers? And; 2) Who are the trainers who have already fired all their best bullets at Saratoga and will inevitably go cold at this Belmont meet?  Correctly differentiating trainers in both of those categories and staying ahead of the public's learning curve annually are amongst the strongest keys to winning for handicappers at the Belmont Fall meet.

Here are the lists of top trainers from both the recently concluded 2011 Saratoga meet:

Top Trainers -Saratoga 2011

Trainer Wins Win% ITM%
Todd Pletcher 38 26% 51%
Chad Brown 22 30% 57%
Steve Asmussen 15 31% 61%
Bill Mott 14 18% 43%
Rudy Rodriguez 13 24% 56%
Kiaran McLaughlin 10 23% 53%
Mike Hushion 9 32% 54%
Graham Motion 8 24% 39%

Based on the chart of top trainers at the most recent Saratoga meet, it is safe to assume that Todd Pletcher, and the trainer/jockey combination of Pletcher/Velazquez will once again dominate the 2011 Belmont Fall meet.  Pletcher is coming off another of the most dominant Saratoga training meets again this year after a nearly identically strong Saratoga last year, and his stable reloads no matter how fast he shoots his bullets, especially in turf races and 2-year-old races.

Linda Rice, notably, had a horrific Saratoga meet this year with few wins and a low win percentage -even in the turf sprint category that she usually dominates.  Her barn is ice cold now and should be avoided.  This is especially true in the turf sprints, where her horses are always heavily bet and lately have been bad underlays. The Belmont fall meet is traditionally a slow meet for Rice anyway in terms of bad win percentages and low return on investment (ROI).  The only value to be had on Linda Rice at the Belmont fall meet can be found by betting against her.

One trainer who it is currently very difficult to try to cut against the grain with at the 2011 Belmont Fall meet is Chad Brown, who had a breakout Saratoga meet with 17 winners in 2010 and then followed that up this Spa season with 22 wins and an impressive 30% win percentage.  He was especially dominant at Saratoga on the grass, and even though his horses have blown through a lot of conditions lately, it still may be worth trying to ride the hot hand and back Chad Brown's horses strongly at Belmont.  Otherwise, generally speaking, it is usually a good idea to start betting against trainers who made a lot of noise at Saratoga once they return to the Belmont fall meet, because many trainer's winning percentages inevitably will go down now at Belmont after winning a lot of races and exhausting a lot of their conditions at Saratoga.  This gives you a good chance to try to buck a lot of chalk on the tote board while trying to look elsewhere for the new "hot hand." This strategy, however, will be difficult this fall in Chad Brown's case, since his horses have been consistently running well race after race, horse after horse.

Other trainers who won 10 or more races at the recently concluded Saratoga meet include Bill Mott, Kiaran McLaughlin, and even Rudy Rodriguez, who in the past has been very quiet at the Spa.  The fast that Rodriguez's stock ran so well at Saratoga against the higher grade of competition bodes very well for Rodriguez's stable at the current Belmont meet, since there are many more and easier spots for him to run his horses in downstate.  I also would expect Bill Mott to continue to do very well with his turf-centric stable in Belmont's grass races this fall.  Of all the trainers listed so far, my top choice for a big Belmont fall meet would have to be Kiaran McLaughlin, who debuted a ton of first starters at Saratoga and is sitting on a barn full horses sitting on maiden wins. This is in addition to a strong turf string that McLaughlin should win a lot of races with this fall at Belmont, particularly with Alan Garcia aboard.

Gary Contessa and Bruce Levine are a pair of trainers who annually win their share of races at Belmont no matter what their performances were at Saratoga. Both guys routinely drop out of the top of the trainer standings at Saratoga but should immediately begin to re-rise in the standings at Belmont, which has a lot more spots for them to run the majority of their claiming stock in than does Saratoga.  Contessa in particular quietly put together a very solid Saratoga meet -better than usual -and even won some turf races upstate. His stable is very live right now in my opinion.

TRACK BIASES

On the Belmont dirt track, speed is an extremely handy commodity. Other tracks such as Saratoga, 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 the front runners regardless. When those biases appear, they can stay in place for up to a week at time when the weather goes through a stretch without changing.  Otherwise, always assume the prevailing main track bias at Belmont, favoring speed horses and horses able to stay within 2 1/2 lengths of the early pace in sprints and within 4 lengths of the early pace in routes.

Most of the horses running at the Belmont fall meet will be exiting races at Saratoga for their 1, 2, or 3 most recent outings.  See the chart below for the list of main track biases I compiled at the recently concluded Saratoga meet:

Saratoga Daily Main Track Biases -2011
Sept. 5 -Outside bias
Aug. 26 -Outside advantage on "fast" but drying out track
Aug. 25 -Speed favoring; sloppy races 5-9
Aug. 15 -Speed bias in slop
Aug. 13 -Inside front-end bias
Aug. 12 -Needed to be on or close to the pace
Aug. 11 -Speed bias (only 3 dirt races)
Aug. 10 -Speed bias
Aug. 8 -Speed bias on muddy but drying track
Aug. 7 -Outside bias, bad rail in mud; helped to be on or close
Aug. 3 -All winners on or close to the pace
July 30 -Sprints favored speed and close-up horses
July 29 -Inside speed bias
July 28 -Outside good
July 27 -4 of 5 races won from on or close to the pace
July 25 -Fast to sloppy races 3-9; speed bias in sprints, outside bias in 3-9
July 24 -Speed held in 4 of 5 dirt races
July 22 -Inside bias

When betting horses at Belmont who are exiting races on any of the above-listed bias days at Saratoga, I recommend upgrading horses that are coming out of losses in against-the-bias efforts, while at the same time downgrading horses coming out of wins in efforts that may have been aided by running with the biases listed above.

POST POSITIONS

When it comes to post position angles on the Belmont main track, the track does not always play like you would expect. Remember, Belmont runs almost no two-turn races due to its 1 1/2 -mile circumference.

Based on the raw post position numbers from the spring-summer Belmont meet, inside posts were clearly desirable on the Belmont main track.  The inside four posts 1-4 won about 70% of the six-furlong races run at the meet, while horses breaking from posts 8 through 14 in those six-furlong races won a combined 8% of the time.

At one mile on the main track at Belmont, the story was more of the same, with a big bias for the two inside posts 1-2, which each won at over a 20% clip and accounted for wins in nearly half of the races run at the distance during the spring-summer season.  Outside posts 7 through 11, when taken as a group, performed poorly with horses winning at about a combined 10%.

By far the most common longer route distance recently run at Belmont on the main track is 1 1/16 miles.  At the 1 1/16-mile distance, the rail post 1 had a great success rate at the spring-summer meet, winning in the neighborhood of 40% of the races.  Posts 5 and outward have won only about 7% of the time.

On the turf, in grass route races between 1 1/16-miles and 1 1/8-miles, the inside post positions performed well for the most part during the spring-summer Belmont meet, with the possible exception of the rail post itself, especially at 1 1/16 miles on the Widener where rail starters won at around a 6% clip.

On the inner turf course, meanwhile, turf routes not surprisingly have strongly been favoring the inside six or seven post positions, which accounted for nearly all of the inner turf route grass wins during the spring-summer Belmont season. Outside posts 7 through 12 on the inner turf won for a combined win percentage of roughly only 5%.

TURF SPRINTS

Expect plenty of turf sprints throughout the Belmont Fall meet. When it comes to turf sprint trainers, everybody knows that Linda Rice gets bet heavily in turf sprints (see above trainer trends).  Bettors seeking the opportunity to find value with other successful trainers in New York turf sprints can instead focus on trainers such as Chad Brown, Carlos Martin, Mike Hushion, Todd Pletcher, and surprisingly Allen Jerkens.  This group offers more value

A great turf sprint handicapping angle during this year's Belmont fall meet will be to bet back any horse who exits a Saratoga turf sprint where the horse drew Post 1.  The rail isn't particularly any bargain in Belmont's turf sprints, either, but it's not as bad as at Saratoga, and any horse that lost from Post 1 up at Saratoga deserves another shot down at Belmont -most likely at overlay odds.

Everyone who reads my columns knows has much of an advocate I am for outside posts in New York turf sprints. The worst post position in all of New York racing is the #1 post in Saratoga 5 ½-furlong turf sprints, and the horses who got stuck with the one-hole at the Spa in their last race are often good value bets when they run back at Belmont if they are fortunate enough to get off the rail. This season, horses breaking from Post 1 in Saratoga turf sprints once again went down in flames an at alarming rate.  Rail horses in 2011 Saratoga turf sprints went just 1-for-40 (2%) in those races.  When added to the Spa turf sprint rail's performance last year (2-for-45, 4%), and the Spa turf sprint rail's performance in 2009 (1-for-43, 2%), that post position is now an astoundingly horrific 4-for-128 (3%) in 5 ½-furlong turf sprints at Saratoga the last three years.

Down at Belmont Park in turf sprints, the rail had done badly on and off during the last several years -mostly off.  Generally, the inside posts are not the places to be in Belmont's turf sprints, either, particularly on the Widener Turf Course where outside posts rule.

I hope these tips and trends give you an edge at the betting windows for the 2011 Belmont Fall Championship meet.  Best of luck.

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