Belmont Park Spring-Summer Preview

THE SEASON'S BEST RACING WILL BE FOUND AT BELMONT

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 27 through closing day, Sunday, July 15. 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 at Aqueduct and on the inner track.

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 trainers title went to Linda Rice, who enjoyed a hot month of April, and in particular a hot final week, to edge out Rudy Rodriguez with 13 wins to Rodriguez's 12.  Rice has been tough at the Aqueduct Spring meet recently, now with 2 training titles in a row after splitting the 2011 title with David Jacobson. Jacobson also had a good season this year as well, winning at a 20% clip despite falling short in terms of winners. Rodriguez posted his usual strong numbers after a slower-than-usual inner track meet, and should be able to carry over his win percentage to Belmont from the Aqueduct main track meet, which was 26%.

In the jockey's standings, the big story at the Aqueduct Spring meet was not who was winning races, but rather, who wasn't winning. Perennial leading rider Ramon Dominguez missed the majority of the meet with a shoulder injury, which left the riding title wide-open this spring. With Dominguez out of the picture, the Aqueduct jockey title went to Cornelio Velasquez with 24 wins. David Cohen finished second with 20 wins and Eddie Castro was third with 18 victories.

The jockey and trainer standings are expected to change dramatically at the Belmont meet, however, thanks to the seasonal influx of top talent that spent the winter out of town in warmer climates.

The Aqueduct main track meet displayed some daily track biases at the recently concluded meet, which are detailed below. However, there was 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 (20% wins), but basically any post position from post 2-7 was also okay at all distances. This was also true in 2010 when the rail won 24% and posts 2-7 also were okay.

Post positions quickly became a disadvantage outside of post 8, however, on the Aqueduct main track.  Runners starting from posts 8-14 in Aqueduct main track sprints were just 3-for-105 for a terrible combined winning percentage of only 2.9%.  Back in 2011, there was a mild disadvantage to drawing outside in Big A main track Spring Meet sprints, with posts 8-13 winning a combined 3-for-36 for 8%.

Because of this inside and middle bias in main track sprints at Aqueduct, handicappers should make note of Belmont runners coming out of main track sprints at Aqueduct. You should upgrade the chances of any horse coming out of an Aqueduct loss where it was encumbered with an post position anywhere outside post 7. Posts 8 and outward were at a definite disadvantage.

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. 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:

Aqueduct Main Track Biases
April 21 - Helped to be on or close to the pace
April 19 - Had to be on or close to the pace
April 13 - Helped to be on or close to the pace
April 12 - Outside advantage
April 11 - Outside and off-the-pace bias
April 6 - Anti-speed bias
Mar. 30 - Outside and off-the-pace preferred
Mar. 28 - Outside bias, had to be on or close
Mar. 25 - Anti-speed bias on drying out track
Mar. 23 - Helped to be on or close
Mar. 22 - Speed bias
Mar. 21 - Front-end bias

 

BELMONT 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 out with an injury and as a result rode only a few days at Aqueduct this spring.  Dominguez is expected to be riding full-time again on a daily basis at the Belmont meet, but keep in mind that Dominguez's win percentage has been shockingly low since his return from an injury at the end of March - an indication that his shoulder probably is not fully healed and is effecting  his performance.

If Dominguez is less than 100%, look for others to seriously challenge him atop the Belmont jockey standings this season. Will Cornelio Velasquez be able to capitalize on some of his spring momentum to become one of the leading riders at Belmont?  How about David Cohen and Eddie Castro?

Well, all of those jockeys will ride their fair share of winners at Belmont, but don't expect the 20% win percentages that they posted at Aqueduct. That's because they probably will take a backseat to the big name riders who will all be back in town en force at Belmont. That more-than-likely means a shootout for the most winners between the country's two current top jocks, Javier Castellano and John Velazquez.  Both Castellano and Velazquez ride frequently for top trainer Todd Pletcher, and they usually have their choice amongst all the favorites in pretty much every race where Pletcher doesn't train the top contender.

Plenty of other top riders will also be riding daily at Belmont this season, including the most notable addition to the local jock's room - Julien Leparoux. Leparoux has chosen Belmont over Churchill this season for many reasons, starting with Belmont's newly increased slots-infused purse structure.  Additionally, Leparoux trainers such as Mike Maker and especially Dale Romans will have larger strings of their top horses in New York this year, and we expect Leparoux to ride first call.  Other jockeys who will be racking up wins also include Alan Garcia (riding first-call for Kiaran McLaughlin among others), Rosie Napravnik, who is coming off back-to-back riding titles at both Fair Grounds and Delaware Park the last two years, and Rajiv Maragh, who was in the top 3 here last year and kept his brisk business going this winter at Gulfstream.  Local talent Junior Alvarado has also emerged as a new force to be reckoned with in the jockey colony.

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 Gulfstream by a wide margin in a tour-de-force performance.  Pletcher's stable is overloaded with good horses, and it only figures to get stronger and stronger once 3-year-old racing season gets into full swing as spring turns into summer.

Beyond Pletcher, the top trainers this spring on the Aqueduct main track, Linda Rice and Rudy Rodriguez, will both be amongst the top trainers at Belmont, as well. Rice was on fire through mid-to-late April at Aqueduct, and her win percentage could actually go up now that the two-year-old season and turf sprint seasons will be starting in New York. Look for Rudy Rodriguez and his stable to continue to see heavy betting action at Belmont, as will continue to be the case for David Jacobson. Both trainers will do the bulk of their damage in claiming races at Belmont. Jacobson should to continue to do well with his patented claim-and-drop methodology that he works to perfection in the claiming game.

Kiaran McLaughlin had his typical high win-percentage seasons in both New York and Florida this winter, and his winning ways should continue at Belmont - the longer the race the better. Chad Brown and Rick Violette have been reloading for what should be a big season for both of them, and Jason Servis should also win a ton of races, often sneaking under the radar despite a breakout winter in 2012 at both Aqueduct and Gulfstream. Bruce Brown was a force in New York this winter with plenty of wins on the inner track and another 10 wins on the Big A main track. Graham Motion and Richard Dutrow are both always dangerous, and Tony Dutrow can always be counted on too for his share of victories.  Turf ace trainer Christophe Clement's grass string will be as powerful as ever this season at Belmont.

Steve Asmussen, will have a big winning string of horses at Belmont this season, and the Jerkens clan, father Allen and son James, will both be trainers to watch. Mike Hushion quietly enjoyed a good winter and spring in New York.  Hushion won for a high percentage on the Aqueduct inner track and then capped it off with a 4-for-15 training record on the Aqueduct main track for a win percentage of 27%.

As mentioned above in regards to Julien Leparoux, the big story in the trainer standings at Belmont this season could end up being Dale Romans. Usually a Kentucky stalwart, Romans is increasing his Belmont string to 38 horses, which is up from the 10 horses he's had here in the past. Romans already has a head start in New York, too, having won 9 races from 69 starts at Aqueduct this past winter.

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.  Bet on all Bruce Levine horses that are adding first-time Lasix (the first-time "Bruce Juice").

 

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 2012 Keeneland Spring meet, the inside three post positions have been good 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 far 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 as well, often 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 post positions 1-7 in grass races at the 2012 Spring meet.  Horses from these posts 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. Give horses with a prep the advantage over horses coming back off winter layoffs.

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 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 sprints are the most likely to favor inside posts at Belmont. At last year's Belmont Spring/Summer Meet, the inside three posts were advantages at the most commonly run distance of six furlongs on the main track.

 

BELMONT 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 won for about a combined 5%, while posts 9-12 won about 6% at 1 1/16-miles. On the inner turf course at 1 1/16-miles, horses from posts 8-10 won only about 5% at a time. At 1 1/8-miles, posts 8-11 won only about 7%.

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 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 Belmont turf sprint races 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, 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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Nov

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