Belmont Park Spring Meet Preview

WATCH AND WAGER THE SEASON'S BEST RACING AT BELMONT PARK

With all the hub-bub in Thoroughbred racing focused on the Triple Crown, it can be easy to forget that at the same time horseplayers are getting ready for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, it is also time to get ready for the opening of premier east coast meet of the season at beautiful Belmont Park.

The 2016 Belmont Park Spring/Summer meet will run from Friday, April 29 through closing day, Sunday, July 17. After months and months of Aqueduct, and with winter/spring detours through Gulfstream and then Keeneland, the major eastern circuit finally returns to New York with the much-anticipated annual opening at Belmont Park. And handicappers are more than ready for the move, to say the least.

At the start of the Belmont Spring/Summer meet, runners will generally come from one of four groups - 1) local Aqueduct horses, 2) horses coming from Keeneland, 3) horses returning to New York directly from Florida, and 4) New York 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 betting at Belmont. Read more below in the shippers and layoffs and Belmont winning track trends sections.

The biggest day of the 54-day Belmont meet, of course, will be the 148th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 11. The $1.5 million third leg of racing Triple Crown will be the centerpiece of a revamped Belmont Stakes Day that will include five more Grade 1 stakes such as the $1.25 million Metropolitan Mile Handicap, the $1 million Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap, plus the Grade 1 Just a Game, the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps, and the Grade 1 Acorn.  All told, Belmont Stakes weekend (Thursday, June 9 thru Saturday, June 11) will feature 19 stakes races with purses totaling $9.6 million, making the three-day Belmont Stakes Festival the second-richest event in North American racing behind only the Breeders' Cup.

AQUEDUCT REVIEW

First off when trying to approach the Belmont meet, horseplayers should take note of the recent trends from the completed Aqueduct spring main track meet.

The jockey standings at Aqueduct this winter and spring were more or less ruled by brothers Irad Ortiz and Jose Ortiz, who finished 1-2 in the Aqueduct jockey race on the inner track, and then again during the 19-day Aqueduct main track meet. Jose Ortiz won both meet riding titles, most recently on the Aqueduct main track with 37 wins and a big 30% win percentage!  Irad Ortiz was clearly second-best on the Aqueduct main track with 29 winners and a 24% win percentage. The next winningest rider was Kendrick Carmouche with 16 victories for 15% winners. The other jockeys with double-digit wins were Manuel Franco (14 wins), Cornelio Velasquez (10 wins), and Junior Alvarado (10 wins).

These local riders should be the ones to watch at Belmont along with the main contingent of New York's top riders who will be returning from Florida - a group that includes Javier Castellano, John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Luis Saez, and Jose Lezcano. These jockeys, along with the top five from Aqueduct, should round-out the top 10 in the jockey standings all season long at Belmont Park.

The Aqueduct main track displayed very few, if any, daily track biases worth mentioning at the recently concluded meet. There was very little bias in terms of post-position draw either, especially in sprints, where horses had pretty much equal chances from any part of the starting gate.

Overall, post position preferences were fair in two-turn route races as well where posts played fairly all the way out to post 7 on both dirt. This was also true on turf, where outside-drawn horses won consistently all season long at Aqueduct - all the way on out to post 11.

In dirt routes, you had to go outside to posts 8-12 before you noticed a disadvantage, with those outermost posts going just 2-for-22 combined in dirt routes.

Because of these post position results at Aqueduct, handicappers should make note of Belmont runners coming out of Aqueduct routes. You should upgrade the chances of any horse coming out of an Aqueduct loss where it was encumbered with a post position anywhere outside post 7, because horses from posts 8 and outward did encounter a disadvantage in dirt routes based on those posts.

For the most part however, the Aqueduct main track is usually a bias-free meet, where horses with all running styles had fair chances to win on both on turf and dirt.

 

BELMONT TRAINERS

Many trainers enjoyed solid and successful winters/springs at Aqueduct, and they will be joined by the best trainers and racing stables in the country who are now back in New York from their winter bases at Gulfstream and their spring stopovers at Keeneland.

The dominant Aqueduct trainer this season, by far, was leading trainer Rudy Rodriguez. Rudy had 14 wins and 23% win percentage on the Aqueduct main track alone after having dominated all winter on the inner track. 

One trainer whose presence was diminished this winter/spring, both in terms of number of starters and wins and win percentage, was multiple-season Aqueduct leading trainer David Jacobson.  He left for SoCal this winter, and after flopping badly out west, he returned to NY and brought some California horses with him for the Aqueduct main track meet, where he won 10 races.

The other trainer to mention at the Aqueduct main track was a guy that enjoyed a breakout winter, Danny Gargan.  Always a high-percentage but low-profile guy in recent years, Gargan exploded during April on the Aqueduct main track with 10 winners from just 18 starters for a giant 56% win percentage. He's red-hot and cannot be overlooked.

Just because all the big-name stables are back in town now, don't expect these guys like Rodriguez, Jacobson, and Gargan to stop winning. Yes, their win percentages will probably go down and they will win fewer allowance races, but these trainers will continue to win tons of races and probably will finish the Belmont meet near the top in the trainer standings by the time it's all said and done.

Belmont's training title should again belong entirely to Todd Pletcher, who displayed his usual domination in Florida over the winter while racing a much smaller string of horses at Aqueduct this winter. When he did run, however, he won roughly his usual 25% of his races this winter in New York. At the spring main track meet at Aqueduct he went 7-for-37 with 19% wins. That's not great for his standards, but he will heat-up immediately at Belmont with all of this first-string runners returning from their most recent starts at Keeneland and Gulfstream. Pletcher is indeed loaded, and with every kind of horse from stakes horses, turf horses, and soon, his usual roll-out of promising 2-year-olds.

The next trainers you'll want to focus on will be Linda Rice and Chad Brown. Linda Rice, split her winter stock between New York and Florida over the winter, and actually won enough races at Aqueduct to place her a distant second in the trainer standings behind Rudy Rodriguez. She wins a bunch of turf races at Belmont, with horses either coming off winter layoffs, coming from Florida, or who've been racing on the wrong surface in New York all winter.  As always, Rice can be counted on to be deadly in turf sprints at all distances.

Chad Brown is now well-established as one of the premier trainers on the national scene. Brown is lethal on the grass and in routes, and also wins a lot of maiden special weight races. When last seen in New York with his main first-string runners, Brown dominated Aqueduct grass races during the November meet, winning essentially everything in sight.  Expect him to pick-up right where he left off during the first part of the Belmont meet, because while Chad Brown is always dangerous and must always be respected, you can expect him to do much of his Belmont Park winning early in the Spring/Summer meet. Starting in late June, Brown will start to quiet down as be begins ramping-up the horses in his stable for his top annual meet at Saratoga.

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. Rick Violette has been reloading for what should be a big season, and Jason Servis should also win a ton of races. Bruce Brown has been ice cold for a year now, but on the flip side, a guy like Graham Motion is always dangerous, especially on grass.

Speaking of the grass, turf ace trainer Christophe Clement's grass string will be as powerful as ever this season at Belmont. Clement will lead the parade of top stables returning full force to New York after spending the winter and spring elsewhere, along with trainers like Bill Mott and Shug McGaughey, who can be counted on for high winning percentages at Belmont.

Steve Asmussen - a new horseracing Hall of Famer - will have a string of horses at Belmont this season, and he could prove to be nearly unstoppable because he has been red-hot everywhere his horses have been running during the first part of this year.

Looking for a few high-percentage trainer angles?  Hop onboard the bandwagon and bet Kiaran McLaughlin-trained maiden second-time starters.  Also bet on all Bruce Levine horses that are adding first-time Lasix (i.e. the "Bruce Juice").

 

SHIPPERS AND LAYOFFS

Evaluating out-of-town and returning-to-town talent is one of the keys to handicapping 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 at Belmont. This is especially true on turf.

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 that draw outside posts in 1 1/8-mile dirt races are at an enormous disadvantage. Those outside posts are also not great in Gulfstream's other two-turn routes run at 1 1/16-miles. Therefore, if you see a Belmont starter exiting bad efforts in one of those kinds of races at Gulfstream, you should remember to give some of those horses an excuses for those losses.

Other Belmont entrants to watch 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 early at Belmont or during the Aqueduct spring main track meet. Give horses with a prep race(s) 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 usually are 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, Chad Brown, Bill Mott, Kiaran McLaughlin, Tom Albertrani, Christophe Clement, and Shug McGaughey. 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 over the winter (no layoffs), or they are fresh and have been pointed to this Belmont meet all along.

 

BELMONT WINNING 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.

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 races. So, when doing your handicapping for 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 starts favoring 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 all one-turn affairs up to 1 1/8 miles.

 

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 at the Spring/Summer meet, posts 8-12 should win for about a combined 5%, while posts 9-12 should win about 6% at 1 1/16-miles. On the inner turf course at 1 1/16-miles, horses from posts 8-10 can be expected to win only about 5% at a time. At 1 1/8-miles, posts 8-11 may win 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 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 who 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 popular turf sprint department, Linda Rice does particularly well, as does Kiaran McLaughlin, and several other trainers who actually focus on winning these kinds of races. Check the trainer stats, particularly in Daily Racing Form, to find out who's who.

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 several 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 too 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 daily Belmont turf sprint races accordingly.

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 at this time of year for world class racing at a time in late spring/early summer when many other tracks are not at their best.  Enjoy the annual renaissance of New York racing with the return to racing Belmont Park. Best of luck, and have a great meet!

Be sure to check out my Kentucky Derby Program and more right here online.

By Noel Michaels

24
Sep

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