Win Now As Gulfstream Heads Down The Stretch

WIN NOW AS GULFSTREAM MEET HEADS DOWN THE HOME STRETCH

By Noel Michaels- OTB Learning Labs

The Gulfstream Park meet almost over as we are approaching the centerpiece of the season - Florida Derby Day - on Saturday, March 31.  There are still two great weeks of racing left in the marquee East Coast winter meet, and we have seen more than enough racing by now to give us plenty of valuable information to provide for a profitable home stretch at the Gulfstream meet on Florida Derby Day and beyond.  The information we've gleaned at Gulfstream from early December until now should be enough to give us the framework for a profitable stretch-run through the end of South Florida's premier race meet.

Gulfstream offers the East's top winter stakes program, headlined by Florida Derby Day and its 6 graded stakes races including the featured Grade 1, $1,00,000 Florida Derby, which will be the final Kentucky Derby prep race for several promising Derby hopefuls. The Florida Derby will top a star-studded card that will also include renewals of the G2- Gulfstream Oaks, the G3-Skip Away Stakes for older horses, the G3 Rampart Stakes for older fillies & mares, the G3 Orchid for female turfers going 1 1/2 miles, as well as the Grade 3 Appleton Stakes at a mile on the grass.

Needless to say, the Florida Derby remains one of the most important stepping stones on the road to the Kentucky Derby now more than ever. In the decade of the 2000s, three Florida Derby winners went on to win the Kentucky Derby including 2001 winner Monarchos, 2006 winner Barbaro, and 2008 champion Big Brown.

Last year, Shackleford come out of the Florida Derby to run a respectable fourth in the Kentucky Derby before going on to take the Preakness two weeks late, and two years ago Nick Zito's Ice Box exited the Florida Derby to finish second in a tough-luck trip in his next start in the Kentucky Derby

This year, a headline field of seven 3-year-olds is confirmed for the 2012 running of the Florida Derby. The lineup will include the horse widely considered to be the divisional leader, Union Rags, as well as contenders El Padrino, Take Charge Indy, Neck n Neck, News Pending, Raveron, and Fort Loudon.

Union Rags will be the horse to beat coming off his convincing four-length win on this track last time out in the Fountain of Youth. That, in addition to his impressive 2-year-old campaign capped off by a tough-luck second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, makes him the top contender not only for the Florida Derby, but also onward to the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.  Before Union Rags and trainer Michael Matz reach that hurdle, however, they will have to overcome a big-time challenge in the Florida Derby from likely second-choice El Padrino, who comes off a win in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds. El Pardino has the Gulfstream meet's top connections in his corner with the leading trainer and rider at the meet, Todd Pletcher and Javier Castellano.

The Florida Derby's other top contenders will include Take Charge Indy, trained by Patrick Bryne and ridden by Calvin Borel, who exits and sharp second in a GP allowance race, and Raveron, earlier in the meet won the first running of the Gulfstream Derby before posting a disappointing third next out in the Sam Davis Stakes at Tampa.

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After the Florida Derby, the Gulfstream meet focus will likely turn to the last big event of the meet - the conclusion of the Rainbow Six pick 6 bet, scheduled either for the final day of the meet or more likely for the final Saturday of the meet on April 7.  The Rainbow Six is a pick 6 where the jackpot is paid out only when one single winning ticket is sold. Otherwise, the bet carries over, and carries over, and carries over until a mandatory payout is scheduled on the last day of the meet (or the next-to-last day of the meet due to the final day falling on Easter, April 8).

Any big day of racing - whether it be Florida Derby Day or taking a big shot at the Rainbow Six payout - is always a lot better from a horseplayer's point of view when you are winning races and cashing tickets, and the best way to accomplish that task is to carefully comb the past performances for trainer angles and to pay attention to certain other meet-specific handicapping tips that have proven themselves to be profitable. At Gulfstream this includes running-style and post position biases that tend to prevail on a fairly consistent basis dating all the way back to 2005 when the main track was reconfigured to its current mile-and-an-eighth layout.

Here are some Gulfstream handicapping tips, not only to help you win on Florida Derby Day, but also to come in handy for the rest of the Gulfstream meet.

GULFSTREAM PREVAILING BIASES AND TRACK TRENDS

In Gulfstream dirt races, the prevailing track bias 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 the best plays at Gulfstream Park, except on days when a temporary bias may help out closers and work against speed.

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.

Much to the adulation of both horsemen and bettors this season, Gulfstream has added a new 1 1/16-mile distance on the main track. This has greatly increased the number of two-turn races being run at Gulfstream this year. Just by utilizing a new alternate finish line further down the stretch, Gulfstream has been able to card this distance that has been overlooked for six years since the track was re-configured by Frank Stronach.

The 1 1/16-mile route distance plays much like the 1/18-mile route races play, except there is slightly less emphasis on the need for inside posts at 1 1/16 miles. Also, front-runners and pace pressures do better at 1 1/16 miles than at 1 1/8 miles, where the closers have more of a stretch run to work with.

Beyond just the prevailing biases, don't overlook those important daily track biases when handicapping Gulfstream, which can be filled with a variety of track biases that end up affecting the outcomes of the races in several different ways. Keeping track of biases can lead you to some interesting overlays that offer good value, while at the same time helping you steer clear of horses that have been aided by track biases in recent good efforts. Handicappers should not underestimate the impact that these biases can have on the race results. This bias information can be invaluable when it comes to evaluating the relative strength or weakness of the contenders in future races in cases where horses are exiting races where they ran with, or against, a noticeable track bias.

Below are my personal main track bias notes for Gulfstream Park 2011-12, up through late March:

Gulfstream Track Biases, 2011-12 Meet

Mar. 25 - Speed advantage
Mar. 24 - Speed bias
Mar. 22 - Anti-speed track, no wire-to-wire winners
Mar. 18 - Speed bias
Mar. 15 - Outside good on sloppy track; difficult to close from too far back
Mar. 14 - Speed horses and inside horses did well
Mar. 11 - Difficult to close from too far back
Mar. 7 - Outside anti-speed bias
Mar. 4 - Anti-speed biased day with strong headwind on the backstretch
Feb. 26 - Outside helped
Feb. 25 - Outside better than the rail
Feb. 24 - Difficult to come from far back
Feb. 23 - Speed and front-end bias
Feb. 20 - Outside good, slow rail
Feb. 16 - Anti-speed bias
Feb. 12 - Outside good
Feb. 11 - Outside bias on drying out track
Feb. 10 - Outside bias in slop
Feb. 5 - Speed good, had to be on or close to the pace
Feb. 4 - Speed bias
Feb. 3 - Speed good
Feb. 2 - Speed good
Feb. 1 - Speed good
Jan. 29 - Had to be on or close when wet and re-sealed for races 7-11
Jan. 28 - Speed good
Jan. 26 - Outside preferred
Jan. 22 - Outside was the best part of the track
Jan. 21 - Slow rail
Jan. 15 - Outside preferred
Jan. 14 - Outside preferred
Jan. 13 - Speed bias
Jan. 12 - Couldn't come from too far back
Jan. 8 - Outside advantage
Jan. 7 - Outside advantage
Jan. 2 - Outside preferred
Dec. 26 - Outside & anti-speed favoring; rally wide moves ruled the day
Dec. 24 - Speed helped
Dec. 9 - Best trips were close to the pace and outside
Dec. 8 - Couldn't close from too far back
Dec. 4 - Outside good
Dec. 3 - Outside good

The other primary Gulfstream prevailing track bias revolves around post positions.  Gulfstream one-turn dirt races favor outside posts and paths, while Gulfstream two-turn races favor inside posts.

When you are stuck between two or more contenders in a race and can't make up your mind based on any other information, let these two rules be your guide to making your final decision and you probably will seldom go wrong.  This particularly pertains to all horses breaking from the rail post position in longer Gulfstream sprints from 7F to one mile, and to horses breaking outside post 6 in two-turn dirt routes. Horses breaking outside post 6 in two-turn Gulfstream dirt routes this season are a combined 10-for-151 for a 6.6% winning percentage.  These posts are always at a disadvantage, and this is no short-term statement. It has always been this way on Gulfstream's current track layout, which has been in place since 2005.

In the Gulfstream one-turn races on the main track, the overall post position win percentages this season don't show as big of a preference toward outside posts and against inside posts as in past years, but nevertheless, when just longer one-turn races between 7F and 1 mile are considered, the outside posts and especially outside running paths are still the places to be. The inside, and the rail in particular, isn't that bad at 6 furlongs, but inside paths get worse and worse as the sprint distances increase to 7 furlongs, 7 ½ furlongs, and one mile.

GULFSTREAM TURF TRENDS

Interestingly, unlike in Gulfstream's two-turn dirt races, outside post positions have never been much of a detriment for horses in two-turn turf races. This is opposite to the way most tracks play where inside draws are key factors in winning turf routes. This year's turf route post position figures have shown a good favoritism towards inside posts 2-3, however, more often than not at it is running style - not post draw - that has been a key determining factor how well a horse is expected to run on the Gulfstream lawn.

On the grass, in terms of biases, it is always very difficult for horses to go wire-to-wire at Gulfstream. For whatever reason, the Gulfstream grass course almost always favors stalkers or closers, or perhaps even pressers, and this has been the case consistently since the track changed configurations in 2005.  However, this is not to say that speed horses and early pace horses cannot win at Gulfstream. There are three instances when pace horses tend to perform well on these turf courses: 1) The horse is the lone speed in the race, preferably from an inside post, 2) The horse has a large class edge on the rest of the field, and 3) When the turf rails are moved out from the hedge - the farther the better.

Gulfstream Park possesses much less of an inside favoritism than most other turf courses - in part because speed is certainly not a big asset here as opposed to off-the-pace moves that seem to work the best on the Gulfstream green (except in cases when the turf rail is moved far out from the hedge).

In Gulfstream's increasing number of short turf sprints the inside posts are no advantage, and if anything have proven to be a disadvantage at this season's race meet. The two inside posts 1-2 have amassed winning percentages of only 10% and 6% in 5 furlong turf sprints.  In those races, the preferred gates have been posts 5-6 in particular, with both of those berths winning at 15% and 16% win percentages, respectively.

JOCKEYS AND TRAINERS

Gulfstream once again is playing host to the wintertime's best trainer line-up and jockey colony. The earlier December start to the meet resulted in a dramatic shift in this season's jockey standings, because the dates of the Gulfstream meet this season more closely coincided with the schedules of all of the East and Midwest's top riders. Paco Lopez, who won the 2011 and 2010 jockey titles at Gulfstream winning 70 races, is again riding high, but no longer the leading rider behind guys with the last names of Castellano, Velasquez, Maragh, and Leparoux.

The runaway Gulfstream meet-leading rider this season has been Javier Castellano, who is running away from the pack in the jockey standings with 106 wins, which gives him a comfortable 36-win advantage ahead of second-leading rider John Velazquez, who has 70 wins. Castellano not only rules the roost in terms of wins, but also in terms of winning percentage with an impressive 26% winners at the meet against an extremely tough jockey colony in races with mostly big fields.  Velasquez is going some great riding of his own at the meet with a 22% win percentage, thanks in large part to riding first call for leading trainer Todd Pletcher.

After the top dynamic duo in the jockey standings, there is a good battle going on for 3rd, 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-places between Rajiv Maragh, Julien Leparoux, Paco Lopez, and Jose Lezcano, who are all separated by a combined total of 4 wins. From this group, the rider having the best meet has been Leparoux (54 wins), who has won at a 20% winning percentage and has teamed up for quite a few winners with a wide range of trainers including Mike Maker and Dale Romans.  As usual, Leparoux is especially dangerous on the grass.  Rajiv Maragh (55 wins) and Paco Lopez (52 wins) are both winning at 14% - Maragh mostly with New York-based trainers plus six winners with the high-percentage Peter Walder barn, and Lopez mostly with Florida-based trainers - and Jose Lezcano is pulling down a nice 18% win percentage, including having a good meet with the dangerous Jason Servis stable.

Other jockeys to watch include Joe Rocco Jr., who has surprised at the meet with 37 winners, thanks in large part to his partnership with the high percentage Nick Canani stable of owner Frank Calabrese's. Rocco is ninth overall in the jockey standings at the meet.  Right ahead of Rocco in the standings are Elvis Trujillo (40 wins), and Joe Bravo (37 wins), who both have enjoyed solid meets at Gulfstream Park.

When it comes to trainers at the Gulfstream meet, especially this season, the story has been all about perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher, who has been absolutely dominant this season - even for him - more than doubling the next-leading trainer with 63 victories and a 40% win percentage.  Chad Brown has parlayed a breakout 2011 into a strong Gulfstream meet with 28 victories, including many on the grass.  Brown is clicking with 27% of his starters, including many turf wins, and has maintained his mid-high 20s win percentage consistently all throughout the meet.

Dale Romans is next among leading trainers with 22 winners through March 25, but it is worth noting that his win percentage is not as good as the other leading trainers at 16%, due in large part to some tough luck and a lot of second- and third-place finishes.

Nick Canani is having another good meet with 21 winners and a 23% win percentage, but nevertheless, the "Canani factor" has been reduced at this season's Gulfstream meet as opposed to the last couple years when he won in the lofty 40%-45% range.  Also worth mentioning is Peter Walder, who has been up-and-down at Gulfstream in recent years but now is definitely enjoying one of those "up" times with a win percentage of 32% thanks to wins with a lot of turf sprinters and young horses.  His win percentage has cooled down a bit, however, as he was up near 40% wins earlier in the meet.

SUMMARY

All the handicapping angles in this article are for a horseplayer's general information and are intended to help bettors identify which of their selections might be in a better position to perform optimally, as opposed to others that may not be in quite as good of a situation due to either their running style, their post position, and whether or not their recent past performances were earned with or against the help of any track biases.

Good luck on Florida Derby Day, and throughout the last two weeks of the Gulfstream meet. I hope you enjoy a profitable homestretch of action at Gulfstream Park.
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