Noel Michaels: Saratoga Preview Article


By Noel Michaels

The summer racing season at Saratoga is all about the top horses, trainers and jockeys in the sport of horseracing, and the top-notch betting and handicapping that goes along with it. The fields are huge, the competition is stiff and evenly-matched, and the payoffs are often pricey and loaded with good value for horseplayers who are willing to put in the necessary effort.

Saratoga is the ideal meet for horseplayers who follow track trends and do their homework, because you know that so many novice handicappers and tourists will be pumping so much money into the pools at the highly-anticipated 40-day Saratoga racing season that lasts throughout the heart of the summer, running six days a week (every day except Tuesday) from Friday, July 18 until Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 1.

The 2014 Saratoga meet—the 146th year of racing at Saratoga—will feature upgraded purses across the board, including $17.45 million in stakes purses. All told, the 2014 Spa meet will host 33 graded stakes, including 15 Grade 1s.

The Saratoga meet will waste no time getting in gear with a pair of graded stakes on opening weekend, including the Grade 1, $500,000 Diana on Saturday, July 19 and the Grade 1, $300,000 CCA Oaks on Sunday, July 20. The third weekend of the meet will get the month of August off to a bang-up courtesy of the revamped $1.5 million Whitney Stakes, headlining a five-stakes card on Saturday, August 2.

Later in the meet, Saratoga’s two biggest weekends will center around the Alabama Stakes and the Travers Stakes, which are scheduled on Saturday, August 16, and Saturday, August 23, respectively. The meet then wraps-up on “Final Stretch Weekend” for a stakes-filled three-day Labor Day weekend extravaganza.

The Saratoga meet is non-stop action for handicappers, and it’s easy to see why horseplayers look forward to this annual centerpiece race on the annual Thoroughbred racing calendar.

Of course, this meet, or any meet for that matter, can sure be a lot more enjoyable when you are winning, so I have put together a few short and simple tips that can get you started in the right direction and give you a little information edge as you get ready to unleash your bankroll on the races at Saratoga. Read on for some advice on what to look for at “The Spa,” and I hope you have an enjoyable and profitable Saratoga meet. Good luck and good racing!


Let’s look at some categories that a horseplayer could use to help narrow down the choices and find the kind of good-priced winners you’ll need to profit at horseracing’s premier race meet.

Winning Running Styles and Saratoga’s Winning Track Profile

There are a few key things for handicappers to watch out for 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.

First off, Saratoga’s main track is speed favoring at all distances. 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 dirt sprints. Pressers and the occasional stalker tend to win the rest. Speed horses and pressers both do exceptionally well at 6F.

Second, with the move to Saratoga, the focus in New York racing flip-flops from benefiting one-turn route specialists at Belmont to favoring route horses that do their best running around two turns up at Saratoga. Bet horses whose best route races came on more traditional layouts such as Aqueduct, 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. Give these two-turn horses the edge against overbet horses that do their best running in Belmont’s one-turn (mainly shorter) routes.

Third, as detailed thoroughly later in this article in the turf sprint section, downgrade the three inside posts in turf sprints, particularly the rail, while upgrading horses drawing far outside posts in those races.

Fourth, outside posts are negative factors on the Saratoga turf courses in routes to varying degrees. Posts 8 and outward are a slight disadvantage on the turf at most distances, while far outside posts 10 and outward are usually poor bets. The inside three posts can offer a good advantage to horses running on the inner turf course at the distances of 1 mile and 1 1/16 miles.

And finally, in Saratoga grass races, speed generally plays a little better on the Mellon course than on the inner course. The pace 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 2½ lengths off the pace at the second call. Hold more strict to this pace preference on the Mellon course, where deeper-closing winners happen less frequently than on the inner turf.

If you can get to the paddock for inner track turf races, look for physically small, athletic-looking horses instead of large, long-striding horses. The little guys handle the tight inner course turns nicely, while the big bulky 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 and Grade 1 winners in action there than at any other race meet at any other track at any time of the year.

When it comes to those expensive spa baby races, speed always helps. Most 2-year-old sprints are either won wire-to-wire, or are won by an early speed horse or pace-presser capable of staying within a couple lengths of the lead at the first call. Sometimes you will see a juvenile and/or a first-time starter win from off the pace in Saratoga sprints, but you can’t really rely on these types of horses. When you see one, you might want to take note of him or her, because you might be looking at a next-out winner at least, and/or a horse destined for next spring’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. You can expect his numbers in this regard to be between 25-30%. However, in spite of his normally big win percentage, Pletcher’s Saratoga 2-year-olds are so well bet that they often result in a negative return on investment (ROI). Therefore, you’re going to need to dig a little deeper than Pletcher in order to make money with 2-year-olds 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 with their 2-y-o Spa first starters, including Rick Violette, John Kimmel, Barclay Tagg, Chad Brown, and Bob Baffert, who has shipped to the recent Saratoga meets with his very best, ready-to-win, dirt-suited juveniles that he feels can’t excel on the Polytrack at Del Mar.

Other dangerous 2-year-old trainers at Saratoga include Linda Rice, Ken McPeek, Mike Hushion, and surprisingly, James Jerkens. The reason Jerkens is surprising in this category is because he is much more well-known over the years for his great winning percentage and ROI with maiden second-time starters. Kiaran McLaughlin, like Jerkens, is much more likely to win with his 2-year-old second-time starters than his first starters at the Spa. One guy who is known as a win-early trainer, Steve Asmussen, has been up-and-down in recent years and can burn a whole lot of money when he’s down.

First-Time Turfers

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 Eastern half of the country. 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 Spa 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 six years have included Chad Brown. Linda Rice has double-digit wins in this category—mainly with turf sprinters.

The top ROI trainers with first-time turfers at Saratoga the last nine years, besides Mott, have included Chad Brown, Graham Motion, George Weaver, Christophe Clement, Barclay Tagg, Wesley Ward, and Mike Maker. John Kimmel also has some good numbers with first-time turfers at Saratoga, but doesn’t have as many starters in the category as the other trainers mentioned above. Gary Contessa also can spring to life in this category from time-to-time, even though he is not generally known for first-time turf winners, or turf winners in general for that matter. This results in high mutuel payoffs on his turf winners, so pay attention to when his barn starts to heat up.

Saratoga Turf Sprints

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 get used to them because turf sprints have become so firmly entrenched in Saratoga racing since 2005.

Saratoga turf sprints are all run at 5½ 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 most 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 good 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 in the field and then circle around the field with so little real estate to work with, particularly at Saratoga were the races are all 5½ 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 vs. 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 5½ 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 have the advantage of being able to control the pace. No matter which way you slice it, the inside few 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 won just 1-for-43 in 2009, and 2-for-45 in 2010. In 2011, the rail was awful again, going just 1-for-41 (2%). When the three Saratoga meets from 2009 thru 2011 are considered, the numbers for the rail are staggeringly bad. Saratoga turf sprinters breaking from the rail post in 2009-11 went a combined 4-for-129 for an unbelievably bad 3.1% wins!

Since then, the win percentages for the rail in turf sprints improved slightly at the 2012 and 2013 meets, due in large part to some more limited field sizes. Smaller Saratoga turf sprint fields lessen the disadvantage for the inside horse(s).  Larger turf sprint fields make the inside posts nearly impossible. Pass on betting the inside horses in Saratoga turf sprints, and then take note of those horses and bet them back next time out, when and if they get off the inside. Besides just the rail, the other far inside posts were not much better in Saratoga turf sprints the last several years.

Something like post position seems like such a trivial handicapping tool, but in these wide open Saratoga turf sprints, any way you can narrow down the field can be helpful. Flat-out one of the best ways to narrow down these races in recent years has been to toss out the inside three runners, at least to win.

It is the outermost posts that 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, when in use, have earned winning percentages of approximately 10% each in turf sprints run at Saratoga for the past several years, despite accounting for less than 8% of the total combined overall starters in those races.

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 coming even remotely close to putting up her kinds of numbers. Rice has sent out by far the most runners, and in turn 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 usually around 2.00, which indicates her horses are usually worth betting and always difficult to bet against.

The summer at Saratoga is not only about the top horses, trainers 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 horseplayers who are willing to put in the effort.

I hope you can benefit from this Saratoga handicapping primer and use the information to your best advantage when trying to enhance your enjoyment of the best race meet of the year.


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