GULFSTREAM PREVIEW - THE WINTER'S BEST RACING STARTS NOW!
Winter racing in Florida is where it's at, and the best winter race meet anywhere is at Gulfstream Park, which will kick-off its annual live meet about a month earlier than usual this season starting on Saturday, Dec. 3. The new expanded meet will feature the best trainers, jockeys, stakes horses and stakes races in action at this time of year, and as usual will be a must-bet track for all serious horseplayers and handicappers for the next several months.
The annual winter Gulfstream Park meet opens on Saturday, December 3 and will extend for four+ months this year until early April. The first month of the season will be four-day-a-week racing Thursday thru Sunday, with Wednesdays being added for the remainder of the meet. Also new this year will be an earlier post time of 12:35, with post times coordinated with Aqueduct throughout the day resulting in races from the two tracks every 15 minutes, and the first introduction of 1 1/16-mile two-turn racing since the track was configured to its current layout seven years ago.
The meet customarily begins with horses shipping to Florida from all over the East and Midwest to join the cream of the local crop that has been competing at Calder during the rest of the year and especially in November at Calder's Tropical meet. Generally speaking, the shippers from places like Kentucky and New York often have a class edge on the local horses, but that is not always automatically the case anymore with competitive horses at nearly all levels being sent out by several local trainers, especially early in the meet (which may extend from 1-2 months this season) when many of the snowbirds are coming off layoffs and are still shipping in and getting acclimated.
The middle part of the Gulfstream Park meet is when the action really starts to happen. Late January ushers in the time when the out-of-town barns really come to life as the quality of racing elevates to its highest level of the year in South Florida. This is usually from the second half of January until the end of March.
Gulfstream's season will include 53 stakes races - 33 graded - worth more than $9 million. Total purses for the meet will be in excess of $30 million. Just some of the key dates of Gulfstream's 87-day meet will include:
March 31: The $1 million Florida Derby (G1) will be one of seven stakes races (six graded) worth nearly $1.9 million. Other races include the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) for 3-year-old fillies, the $100,000 Skip Away (G3) for older horses on the dirt, the $150,000 Rampart (G3) for older fillies on the dirt, and the $150,000 Orchid (G3) and $100,000 Appleton, both contested on the turf.
Jan. 1: The inaugural running of the $100,000 Gulfstream Park Derby, the first derby in the country for 3-year-olds.
Jan. 29: The $400,000 Holy Bull (G3) attracts some of the most promising 3-year-olds, while the top 3-year-old fillies contest the $200,000 Forward Gal (G2).
Feb. 11: The afternoon includes four graded-stakes races, including two Grade I events: The $500,000 Donn Handicap (G1) for older horses on the dirt, and the $300,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap (G1) for older horses on the turf.
Feb. 26: The $400,000 Fountain of Youth (G2), the last major prep for the Florida Derby, will be one of five graded-stakes races over the weekend, including the $250,000 Davona Dale for 3-year-old fillies on Feb. 25.
Jan. 28: The Florida Sunshine Millions has been re-formatted this season, and will be run in its entirety this year at Gulfstream Park. The new-look Sunshine Millions will be made up of six races for Florida-breds worth $1.45 million.
With most of the best East and Midwest trainers and horses wintering in Florida, it's no surprise that the top jockeys will all be there, too. A strong case can be made that during the past decade, the Gulfstream Park jockey colony has become the best jockey colony in the country during the winter, and arguably the best anywhere at anytime of the year along with Saratoga's summer meet.
The Gulfstream Park jock's room will be headed by two-time defending meet champion Paco Lopez, who should get off to a blazing hot start and do most of his winning at the meet during the months of December, January, and April. Gulfstream will also be the winter home of a who's who of top jockeys nationally including John Velazquez, 2009 Gulfstream riding leader Jose Lezcano, plus Joe Bravo, Julien Leparoux, Javier Castellano, Cornelio Velasquez, Rajiv Maragh, and Hall of Famers Edgar Prado and Kent Desormeaux, in addition to many more solid jockeys all vying to win their share of races including Manoel Cruz, Alex Solis, Luis Saez, Elvis Trujillo, and Jesus Castanon. Calvin Borel - an Oaklawn Park fixture - will even ride a December stint here prior to the opening of the Hot Springs meet in mid-January.
GULFSTREAM PARK'S PREVAILING BIASES
Any meet, no matter how good or bad it is, 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 pay attention to trainer trends and certain other meet-specific handicapping tips that have proven themselves to be profitable over the recent past since Gulfstream Park's main track was reconfigured to a mile-and-an-eighth oval prior to the 2005 meet.
There are a variety of good tips to give handicappers so they can establish a winning edge at Gulfstream Park, including certain trends focused in the areas of running styles, post positions, and turf racing, which are all designed to give handicappers their best chance to win at Gulfstream from start to finish.
Here are some Gulfstream handicapping tips that should come in handy for the entirety of the Gulfstream meet through the end of April.
Some of the prime golden rules at Gulfstream Park are to stay away from outside posts in main track two-turn routes, and to stay away from far inside posts in dirt miles. Don't bet the rail horse in any sprint at 6 1/2 furlongs or longer, and stack your bets against front-runners on the turf (unless the turf rails are out - the further the better). These axioms cannot be repeated often enough, because these elements, when added together with winning running styles and trainer trends, can provide you the framework of everything you'll need to win money at Gulfstream Park.
The rail post is, at times, absolutely awful at Gulfstream Park in one-turn races between 6 1/2 furlongs and a 1 mile on the main track (Post 1 at 6 1/2 furlongs during the 2009 meet, for example, won 2-of-49 races for 4% - other years haven't been much better). Often, the anti-rail disadvantage is enough that a reasonable player would be forced to think twice before betting any horse from the wood no matter how good it looks on paper.
In Gulfstream miles, the three inside posts are also much more of a disadvantage than an advantage. Note, however, that the far outside posts in those races aren't great either. Mid-pack posts from 4-7 seem to be the dominant gate slots at one mile.
These post position trends are not solely based on short-term statistics. It has always been this way on Gulfstream's current track layout to one degree or another since 2005.
The win percentages for inside posts would be much worse than the overall numbers for one-turn races if just one mile races were considered. While the inside - and the rail in particular - aren't that bad at 6 furlongs, they get worse and worse as the sprint distances increase to 7 furlongs, 7 ½ furlongs, and one mile.
In two-turn routes run at 1 1/8 miles, once again this season, you probably will need an inside post to have an optimal chance to win one of Gulfstream's two-turn routes at 1 1/8 miles and further. In the 2011 meet, the rail post itself was a particular advantage with a big win percentage around 25%. Will this same inside bias play out in the new two-turn route races to be carded this season at 1 1/16th miles? Probably, but we'll have to wait and see.
Finally, when handicapping at Gulfstream, always be acutely aware that one-mile races on the main track are one-turn races. This makes a big difference, because the one-mile races at Gulfstream therefore play much more like sprints than like other routes races at Gulfstream that are run around two turns. Two-turn races, understandably, favor inside posts, while the one-turn races, including one-mile races, give an advantage to outside horses.
Additionally, at Gulfstream Park like at other tracks that run one-mile races around one-turn (i.e. Arlington, Belmont, Churchill, Laurel, and the Aqueduct main track), horses who've done well in the past specifically in one-turn mile races have a decided edge over stretched-out sprinters who may be overextended at a mile, or cutting back route horses who specialize in two-turn races, and come into these one-turn miles with largely irrelevant two-turn mile form, especially from Calder.
RUNNING STYLE PREFERENCES
The prevailing running style preference in Gulfstream dirt races 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 good bets at Gulfstream, except on days when a temporary anti-speed bias occasionally develops to help-out closers.
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 far inside rail post.
Beyond just considering the prevailing biases and running style preferences, don't overlook the 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 daily 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.
WINNING POSTS AT SOME SPECIFIC DISTANCES
6 ½ and 7 Furlongs, Dirt
Even though the 7 furlong and 6 1/2 furlong distances share a common disadvantage for rail starters, these two distances otherwise tend to favor horses breaking from different parts of the gate. At 7 furlongs, as mentioned, the outside posts 9-12 are the best, but at 6 1/2 furlongs, however, this outside advantage does not hold. Instead, posts 9 and outward have been big disadvantages at Gulfstream Park going back to 2005 when the track was reconfigured to its current 1 1/8-mile layout.
So, if the rail post and any post outside post 8 aren't the places to be at 6 1/2 furlongs at Gulfstream Park, then where are the places to be at this distance? Looking at the statistics from the last seven years, the answer is that any inside and middle post other than the rail can all do okay at 6 1/2 furlongs. Therefore, at this specialist distance, we recommend upgrading any horse breaking from posts 2 through 8, and downgrading all other post positions.
5 Furlongs - 6 Furlongs, Dirt
Gulfstream short sprints up to and including the most commonly run distance of 6 furlongs are amongst the fairest races run at Gulfstream Park in terms of post position favoritism. Unlike the other sprint distances, the inside posts, and in particular the rail post, and not a disadvantage. In fact, not only aren't inside posts bad, the 2005-2011 statistics point out that the inside posts are all good, and the further inside you move, the better.
Generally speaking, the overall statistics from the seven years from 2005 to 2011 indicate that the track plays fairly at these distances, and that the inside posts - including the rail - perform just fine in relation to middle and especially outside posts in Gulfstream short sprints up to and including 6 furlongs.
1 1/8 Miles
There are few distances run at few tracks in North America where the post position draw means as much as it means in 1 1/8-mile races run at Gulfstream Park, where it usually helps to draw posts 1-3 and where any post position outside post seven spells almost certain doom.
In the first five-years of Gulfstream Park's current track layout, only a combined total of 14 runners in 227 races were victorious from posts 8 and outward for a win rate of 6% for outside posts at this distance. In 2009 alone, only one two-turn route winner in 39 races won from posts 8 and outward (2.5%), and that lone winner came from post 8, meaning that posts 9-12 completely struck out, going a combined 0-for-37.
In the five years 2005-2009, only one horse, Big Brown in the 2008 Florida Derby, won from posts 11 or 12 at 1 1/8-miles on the Gulfstream main track. That fact further underscores the enormity of Big Brown's accomplishment, and the absolute loss of almost any chance that any horse faces who is unfortunate enough to get marooned outside in one of those gates.
In the 2010-2011 seasons, the outside posts in these two-turn Gulfstream routes continued to perform poorly, even though they did show a slight amount of improvement over the first five years mentioned above. Nevertheless, as a general rule, you still would be well advised to think twice before betting a horse outside post 5 in these routes - now including 1 1/16 - until you start to see reliable evidence that this tried-and-true bias is no longer relevant.
Now let's move to the grass, where a large part of the action takes place each winter at Gulfstream. Like many turf courses, the Gulfstream turf usually favors horses with good turn-of-foot acceleration in the stretch. Much moreso than elsewhere, however, it is difficult to go wire-to-wire on the Gulfstream turf course, and Gulfstream's turf course is definitely not friendly to early speed horses of any kind. Through the last couple years, the Gulftsream grass course has became one of the most difficult courses in the country on which to win going wire-to-wire.
If you must bet a Gulfstream turf front-runner, try to make sure 1) The horse is the lone speed in the race, preferably from an inside post, 2) The horse has a solid class edge on the rest of the field, and 3) Look and see if the turf rails are moved out from the hedge. The further out the turf rails are, the more advantage there may be for front-runners. Turf rails are always publicly announced everyday.
The position of the turf rails on the Gulfstream grass course, which has been divided into inner and outer turf courses to help the condition of the course stay good throughout the long meet, is key for the chances of an early speed grass horse. Since they are always moving the turf rail around, always be aware of where the turf rail is before you consider a front-runner's chances on turf.
At Gulfstream on the grass, unlike on the dirt, a horse's chances of success are based more on running style than post draw. Running style has been a key determining factor how well a horse is expected to run on the Gulfstream lawn with pressers and stalkers having the best chances overall.
In Gulfstream's increasing number of short turf sprints, it is very much unlike turf sprints at other tracks where the inside posts are strong detriments to a horse's chances, however, very much like turf sprints at many other tracks, the rail post 1 itself is still a bad proposition. In GP turf sprints, the best posts have been posts 2-4, while the rail Post 1 is a dismal 9%.
Interestingly, unlike in Gulfstream's dirt route races, outside post positions generally have not been much of a detriment for horses in two-turn turf routes, although the inside posts 1-5 did perform well at the 2011 Gulfstream meet.
Turf Route Post Positions
Unlike many other turf courses, the Gulfstream Park grass does not seem to favor the far inside posts over the middle gates, and this has stood true in the overall statistics from the last seven years, 2005-2011. The reason why the far inside does not seem to play favorably at Gulfstream probably has much to do with the fact that early speed horses really don't enjoy an advantage on this course. Since horses have a difficult time going wire-to-wire, the winners are often pressing, stalking, or rallying off the pace, and the best places to press, stalk, or rally from are middle gates that give horses good striking position without losing too much ground.
7 ½ Furlongs - 1 Mile, Turf
Gulfstream's most common turf distance is one mile, and for the purposes of these post position statistics and analysis, the many one mile races have been lumped in together with the relatively new 7 1/2 furlong turf races that Gulfstream has taken to running over since roughly 2008. Since these 7 1/2 furlong races are run around two turns, they can not be lumped into the category of "turf sprints,"and they tend to play much the same way flat mile races play on the Gulfstream lawn.
Much more so than in Gulfstream's 1 1/16-mile and 1 1/8-mile turf races, Gulfstream's 7 1/2 furlong and one mile turf races play more favorably to the inside posts than the other turf route distances. Common sense dictates that the rail would do better at these distances, anyway, due to the shorter run into the first turn, especially at 7 1/2 furlongs.
Again, as no surprise, the outside double-digit posts 10-13 don't do well at 7 1/2 furlongs and one mile on the grass. However, while these gates are, in fact, disadvantages, they are not as bad, perhaps, than at other tracks where horses drawing posts 10-13 on the turf might as well not even run the race. At Gulfstream, these posts win less often than the inside and middle grass posts, but much more often than at other tracks where they are often death sentences.
Turf sprints have become an increasingly big part of the Gulfstream Park landscape over the past few years, just like they have at other major racetracks. Even if you don't like turf sprints, now is about the time you should at least think about getting used to them, because turf sprints are officially here to stay at Gulfstream Park.
Gulfstream Turf Sprint Logistics
For the purposes of this preview, turf sprints at Gulfstream officially encompass only races run at 5 furlongs and not the two-turn races run at 7 1/2 furlongs which much more correctly should be lumped into the route category. Elsewhere you will see these post position stats incorrectly stated with both 7 1/2 furlong and 5 furlong stats combining to form the turf sprint figures, but here you will get a much clearer picture of the turf sprint scene at Gulfstream by looking at statistics solely for the 5 furlong turf sprints without the numbers for the 7 1/2 furlong turf races mixed in.
The turf sprint program has rapidly expanded since 2009. The average field size has continually increased in these races over the last few years, and these races more-and-more can be counted on to feature full fields.
Turf Sprint Post Positions
The fact that Gulfstream's short turf sprints are all run at 5 furlongs is an important factor into understanding the types of horses that tend to win these races. Unlike a lot of other tracks that run their turf sprints at 5 1/2 furlongs, or 6 furlongs or longer, Gulfstream's 5 furlong turf sprints put a premium on speed and inside posts.
Oftentimes turf sprints at other tracks will play kindly toward outside posts, and no public handicapper is as big a proponent of outside posts in turf sprints as I am. However, due in large part to the 5 furlong distance of Gulfstream Park's turf sprints, the common outside bias in terms of turf sprint post positions cannot be applied to Gulfstream's short turf sprints. Instead, Gulfstream Park's turf sprints are usually all about two things; 1) speed or tactical speed, and 2) inside posts.
Beyond just the rail post alone, all of the inside posts have always been good in these 5 furlong Gulfstream turf sprints. Inside posts did well in these races in 2010 and 2011, and through the five years spanning 2005-2009, it should be noted that 133 of the 191 turf sprints run during that time were won by the inside posts 1-5, accounting for nearly 70% of the overall winners of these races. In contrast, all other gates have accounted for 45% of all turf sprint starters, but only 31% of the winners.
In summation, when in doubt, always lean toward the horses with speed or tactical speed who can make their moves on the outside. Use this rule in conjunction with certain tried-and-true post position rules like staying away outside posts in main track routes, staying away from far inside posts in dirt miles, not betting the rail horse in any sprint at 6 1/2 furlongs or longer, and stacking your bets against front-runners on the turf, and you'll have the beginnings of a winning recipe for success at Gulfstream Park.
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 better positions to perform optimally than others who may not be in quite as good situations due to either their running style, their post positions, and whether or not their recent past performances were earned with or against the help of any track bias.
Good luck at the newly expanded meet at Gulfstream Park, and enjoy the new month of top-class racing in Florida for the month of December beginning on December 3. I hope you enjoy a profitable meet.
By Noel Michaels - OTB Learning Labs
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