Noel Michaels: Trainer and Shipper Angles, Layoff and Prep Trends at Saratoga

Trainer and Shipper Angles, Layoff and Prep Trends are Key to Saratoga Profits

By Noel Michaels

Saratoga is obviously an important a part of the NYRA’s year-long program of New York racing, but more so than any other track, Saratoga is a national meet with horses and horsemen coming into town with varied levels of effectiveness and profitability. For handicappers, it always helps to keep track of which shippers have been winning, and where the winners have been coming from in their most recent races. It also helps to keep on top of trainer trends, and to know the ins-and-outs of layoff and prep stats and angles if you want to be successful wagering on horseraacing’s premier meet.

Saratoga is more than just an interlude between the high-class Belmont spring and fall meets in spite of the fact that it is part of the same New York circuit with many of the same horses competing who also run downstate at other times of the year. Rather, Saratoga is an entirely different beast altogether. One of the main things that sets Saratoga apart from the rest of the New York racing calendar is the multitude of shippers that come from all over the east coast and Midwest in search of prestigious wins at this track. It is the shippers from Kentucky and the Mid-Atlantic region, in particular, that makes Saratoga the interesting handicapping puzzle that it is each and every year.

Everyone wants to win at Saratoga, and trainers always point their best horses for their best efforts at “The Spa.” This makes Saratoga one of the most formful meets of the year, which is music to the ears of serious horseplayers and handicappers. This is especially true because Saratoga’s big, evenly-matched fields and loads of rookie and novice money in the betting pools still guarantee good prices and tons of value at the mutuel windows. In the unique case of Saratoga, formful does not equal chalky, and that is part of what makes Saratoga the great handicapping meet that it is each and every year.


Saratoga’s nickname is “The Graveyard of Favorites,” and it has that reputation for a reason. Much of it has to do with horses’ one-turn form from Belmont being misinterpreted—either too good or too bad—on Saratoga’s totally different two-turn layout.

The other main reason that Saratoga has always been the Graveyard of Favorites is because stakes caliber horses coming off layoffs tend to get beaten with regularity by fresher, well-meant in-form horses at the Spa.

TIP: Stakes caliber horses almost always use a prep race when returning from a layoff. The public usually overbets these horses based on name recognition and reputation, but sharp handicappers should ignore horse’s prep races and bet against these horses off a layoff whenever possible, especially when the prep race in question is taking place at an improper distance or surface.

We’ve all seen it happen—equine heroes and heroines take time off due to rest or injury and return to the races off a layoff or to start a new season. These big-name returning warriors promptly get bet down to favoritism and often predictably go down in flames in their first start back off a layoff. It happens time and time again, so why do horseplayers continue to fall into this all-too-common trap?

It is true that stakes caliber horses do sometimes come back from layoffs to win at Saratoga making the first starts of their late-summer/fall campaigns, but the disappointing losses usually outweigh the wins because the horses that end up beating these vulnerable favorites almost always pay very good mutuel prices. Just ask Allen Jerkens. This makes the ROI of the returning layoff horses very low at Saratoga, and the chances of an upset very high. Even if the horse in question wins, you can afford to lose your speculative wager against that favored horse. You may not, however, be able to afford passing up the chance to cash-in on a winning overlay that ends up knocking off the favorite.

One prime spot for this prep angle is in the Jim Dandy Stakes, upcoming this weekend on Saturday, July 26. The Jim Dandy is a Grade 2 $600,000 stakes race in its own right, but first and foremost it is still the local prep race for the much more important Grade 1 Travers Stakes. 

Horses exiting top finishes in the Triple Crown races often take a break and return to the races either in the Jim Dandy (or in the Haskell at Monmouth). The goal for these horses is the Travers—not the Jim Dandy. People often end up betting the wrong horses in the Jim Dandy, and then when they lose, they compound the error by then betting the wrong horses in the Travers based on the results of the Jim Dandy.

TIP: Bet the in-form horses and the new shooters in the Jim Dandy, then bet the big names in the Travers, especially if they were upset in the Jim Dandy, which is often just a prep for them. You will cash a lot more tickets in both of these big stakes races if you follow this tidbit of advice.

The field for the 2014 Jim Dandy Stakes is shaping-up to be a tremendous one. The race is expected to be led by Belmont Stakes and Peter Pan winner Tonalist. Other possible/probable runners include Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve, Kentucky Derby and Belmont fourth-place finisher Wicked Strong, Easy Goer Stakes second-place finisher Legend, and possibly Kentucky Derby fifth-place finish Samraat.

Beyond just the Jim Dandy, the betting public loves betting on familiar horses at Saratoga, ranging everywhere from horses who last raced in the Breeders’ Cup, in the Triple Crown races, or in any number of other prominent stakes races in other divisions around the country throughout the year. The bets on these horses could simply be sentimental wagers on old favorites, or they could be the result of conventional handicapping techniques that show these horses with superior speed figures or company lines. Whatever the case, these horses are always prime bet-againsts because they are always overbet in their first starts off a layoff.

Trainers of top caliber horses are always looking down the road toward major goals and certain stakes races. The first race back from a layoff is just one step on the road toward a larger goal, and it often doesn’t matter to the trainer whether the horse wins or loses its first race back. Sure, the trainer will take a win if he can get it, but more than a win, he is probably looking for a specific class level or distance to race his horse at in order to leg up his trainee without taking too much out of the horse in the process.

Besides pure guesswork, the best way to spot a returning horse that is using its comeback race as a prep rather than an opportunity for an easy win is by looking at the type of race the horse uses for its first race back from the layoff. Is the race a stakes race, or only an allowance? Is the race at the horse’s preferred distance, or is the race at distance shorter than what the horse seems to prefer? These are just a couple of the ways to spot a horse prepping for a future race. When you find these instances, don’t be afraid to put your money on a seemingly inferior competitor who may be able to upset the favorite in the right place at the right time.


Early in the Saratoga meet you will be looking for trends in terms of where the majority of the winning horses are coming from. Are horses from the New York circuit (i.e. Belmont) performing the best, or are shippers from Churchill doing better?  What is the strongest group of out-of-town shippers?  Where are the winners coming from? Is it Monmouth, Parx, Finger Lakes, Delaware, Florida, California, or somewhere in between?

Amongst the different groups of shippers, Kentucky shippers who last raced at Churchill Downs usually win the most races, but also tend to have by far the most starters of any group of shippers.  Kentucky shippers, by overall percentage, tend to perform no better than shippers from Monmouth Park. This is a general rule, however, and Monmouth Park invaders certainly can, and do, win at Saratoga when they are good enough.

One difference between the Kentucky and New Jersey shippers is that most of the Kentucky shippers hail from Kentucky barns, while the majority of the winners who last races at Monmouth tend to be trained by New York-based trainers such as Todd Pletcher, Linda Rice, Kiaran McLaughlin, Bill Mott, and Nick Zito. Others who bring horses from Monmouth to Saratoga for victories include horses based all over the East from trainers like Steve Asmussen and Anthony Dutrow.

TIP: A group of horses that tends to do exceptionally poorly at Saratoga are horses who ran their most recent races on artificial surfaces. Shippers who ran their most recent races on the main tracks at Arlington, Hollywood, Presque Isle, and Woodbine, rarely win Saratoga dirt races.

Instead of horses from artificial tracks, try betting shippers from a place like Delaware Park when seeking Saratoga winners from a place that’s off the beaten track. Horses that made their most recent starts at Delaware Park are usually value bets, as are the higher-quality shippers from Finger Lakes, who are particularly dangerous in New York-bred races, particularly if you see that the horse has run a past in-the-money effort(s) at Saratoga.

Kentucky shippers are often all the rage up in Saratoga with trainers such as Dale Romans, Neil Howard, Ken McPeek, Mike Maker, Al Stall, Eddie Kenneally, Stanley Hough, D. Wayne Lukas, and others bringing a wide range of claimers and higher quality stock into town to compete at the meet. However, due in part to medication differences between Kentucky and New York, this group of shippers has become far less effective in recent years, at least in terms of ROI.

TIP: In general, because of different medication rules, Kentucky horses often don’t perform up to their optimal recent form at Saratoga, presumably because they cannot receive the bute and higher levels of Lasix that they are allowed to train with and run with in Kentucky.

As opposed to the more high-profile Kentucky contingent, try to instead focus more on the sometimes overlooked profitable group mid-Atlantic shippers that run at Saratoga for trainers such as Michael Matz, Graham Motion, and Jonathan Sheppard. These stables win more than their share of Saratoga races, especially on turf, with horses that ship to The Spa with recent running lines from places like Delaware Park, Laurel, Pimlico, and Monmouth. Many of these horses pay highly-respectable mutuel prices thanks to their underrated recent competition, form, speed figures, and their experience and ability levels in two-turn route races.

The Woodbine contingent, too, led by Mark Casse, Roger Attfield, and sometimes even Mark Frosted and others, is worth paying attention to at the Saratoga mutual windows. This is particularly true with turf horses, and lightly-raced maidens or first-time starters.

Something we see these days that we rarely saw in the past, expect for the top-level stakes races, is a regular stream of California shippers. This new angle started to emerge when Del Mar switched to Polytrack. Led by trainer Bob Baffert, Saratoga sees an influx of California horses—particularly young horses and stakes horses—who ship to The Spa in order to run in high-caliber races on a traditional dirt surface rather than staying home on Del Mar’s Polytrack. Look for Baffert and others from the West coast to continue this trend of bringing some of their best dirt stakes horses and most precocious 2-year-olds to Saratoga.

TIP: Bet California-based juveniles when you see them. Talk about deciphering trainer intent! You know these horses would shipping across the country to run at Saratoga if the trainers did not already know that they will excel on the dirt.

The thought process in terms of shippers changes a lot in the latter part of the Saratoga meet, because most of the well-meant non-stakes horses within ship-in distance have already run at the meet by the time you get to the latter half of August, with many horses already making their second, and sometimes even third starts, of the Spa meet.

By the time the latter half of the Saratoga meet comes around, the statistics tend to be pretty reliable based on the numbers from recent meets.  The percentages of winning horses can be broken down as follows during the second half of the meet, beginning with “Alabama week.”

Saratoga Winners, Second Half of the Meet
55% making 2nd or 3rd or 4th start of the meet
22% last raced elsewhere on NYRA circuit (Belmont, Aqueduct)
13% Out-of-town shippers
10% first-time starters

TIP: Based on the statistics, the majority of victorious shippers (non first-time starter horses that ran their last race elsewhere besides at Belmont, Aqueduct, or Saratoga) tend to win during the first half of the Spa meet. During the second half of the meet, we expect only about 13% of the winners at Saratoga to have run their last race at an out-of-state track.  By far the most winners during the second half of the meet had already raced at the meet at least once.

The majority of the horses running at Saratoga will have run their most recent races at either Belmont or Churchill Downs, and therefore it is important to know as much as possible about those recently concluded meets as possible in order to capitalize on that knowledge at Saratoga.  The more information you have about the Belmont and Churchill horses, the more chances you will have to bet live Saratoga overlays while at the same time avoiding bad underlays on the tote board.

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Many handicappers think the "trainer angle" is the most important part of the handicapping pie. All trainers have strengths and weaknesses. The beauty of following the trainer angles and stats is that they help you identify these strengths and weaknesses.

For example, some of the top trainer moves include the following:

1. Distance moves (sprint to route and back)
2. Surface changes (dirt to turf and back)
3. New medication (Lasix on, etc.)
4. Trainer change (off a claim, first-time U.S., or private switch).
5. Rider switch
6. Class moves up and down
7. Equipment changes (blinkers, etc.)
8. Long layoffs

TIP: The best approach when trying cash-in on trainer angles is by zeroing in on horses trying new things, or who are in new situations either for the first time or the second time. These new situations can encompass several categories including race class moves, surface switches, distance stretchouts or cutbacks, first-time Lasix, blinkers on/off, and trainer’s statistics having to do with layoffs of varying degrees. We are also talking about changes in circumstances for particular horses since their last race.

When analyzing hundreds of races over the course of the last several Saratoga meets, I noted that much more than half of the winning longshots showed one or more of the above major changes since their previous race. The important thing to remember is that, in many instances, these changes act as a catalyst to "wake up" the horse. Every trainer has his or her own strengths and weaknesses with these kinds of changes.

A great way to spot winning longshots at Saratoga with a trainer angle is by looking for a trainer that had a bad meet at Belmont or Churchill.  This group of trainers is not always a bad thing when you are trying to determine who the hot trainers will be at Saratoga.  Often, it can work exactly the opposite of how you would expect.  Trainers who didn’t win a lot at the Belmont spring/summer meet often have just been getting their barns geared-up for big a Saratoga meet all along.  Many times trainers who had slow Belmont meets benefit at Saratoga simply because they have a lot of horses who will be able to be placed in winning spots at the Spa because they haven’t “run through their conditions” with recent wins.

Trainers who did not particularly do well in the win column at the recently-concluded Belmont and Churchill spring/summer meets can often be expected to enjoy big turnarounds and win big at Saratoga with barns full of ready-to-win horses placed in realistic spots.

The opposite is also true. Trainers who did well at the Belmont and Churchill may have already fired their best shots before the Saratoga meet even starts, and may be out of bullets.

TIP: Betting trainers coming off of sub-par meets at either Belmont or Churchill can often be good bets at Saratoga, because they will have a lot of horses that can be properly placed in winning spots who haven’t already “run through their conditions.” Trainers who were uncommonly hot at Belmont or Churchill can be bad bets at Saratoga, because their barns might be “out of bullets” before the Saratoga meet even begins.

Another angle is to look for when out-of-town trainers ship-in their horses in pairs on a single race card, you can often identify which horse is the “A Play’, and which horse is “along for the ride.”

This angle is an oldie but a goodie, and probably the most obscure angle listed in these pages, but it could result in an occasional longshot that spurs some much-sought-after IRS tickets.

What I refer to as “the van angle” is a shipper angle that usually involves horses from low-profile connections shipping-in horses from another Eastern track or training center.

What the majority of the public doesn’t realize, or doesn’t ever think about, is that true shippers, i.e. horses stabled elsewhere outside of Saratoga regardless of where they last raced, almost always arrive on race days in horse vans, that contain at least two stalls.

Most of the time when trainers scan the condition books from out-of-town, they are looking for a specific spot for a particular horse. For instance, a Maryland trainer from the Fair Hill training center might find a perfect state-bred maiden spot on a race card at Saratoga if he has a certain New York bred in his stable. He’ll go ahead and enter his horse and then think about transportation on a horse van and think about what other horse he can send with him. Since almost all vans have room for more than one horse, trainers often take the opportunity to enter a second horse on the same out-of-town race card in order to minimize their shipping expenses while maximizing their opportunities.

This essentially means that one of these two ship-in horses has been expertly spotted by its trainer, while the other is literally just along for the ride to try to perhaps pick up a check. One of these horses therefore will be a good bet, while the other will probably be a dud just taking a shot.

How can you spot one of these situations when it is happening? Well, the first thing to do is to notice an out-of-town trainer who does not normally run his horses at Saratoga, perhaps from Finger Lakes, Suffolk Downs, Penn National, the aforementioned Fair Hill, or countless other places, has not one, but two horses entered in two different races on a single day at Saratoga.

TIP: Take advantage of “the van angle.” When you notice an uncommon out-of-town trainer with two horses in two different races in the Saratoga entries on any given day, see how the first horse runs.  If the first horse loses, it keys a “van angle” bet on the second of his two ship-ins that day.  There is a good chance that horse is a very live play at any odds.

Since you probably will not know which one of the trainer’s two ship-ins is the live horse, you will need to wait and see how the trainer’s first runner has performed. If the first horse runs well, chances are that he or she was the live horse, which means that the trainer’s second entrant will probably be the dud of the duo.

However, if you see the trainer’s first entrant run poorly, the van angle is ready to be put into action. The trainer’s second entrant of the day is probably the horse he’s made the trip for, and these horses are worth a wager at any odds.


Trainer angles, and trends, tips, and angles involving shippers, layoffs and preps are some of the most important handicapping factors to focus on when playing the Saratoga meet.  Every horseman points his horses for their top efforts at Saratoga, and these angles can help you decipher when one of those prime efforts is on the way today, or when the horse’s race, or a recent race, may instead have been a prep race.  The Saratoga meet is much-looked-forward-to and always a lot of fun, but The Spa is sure a much more enjoyable place to watch and wager when you are winning.  Use these tips and trends, and you should get more than your share of the winnings at the Saratoga race meet.  Best of luck!


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