Saratoga Handicapping Tips And Stats For The Winning Edge

Saratoga is America's premier annual horseracing meet, and there is no better place for race fans and handicappers to watch, wager, and enjoy the best summertime racing than at "The Spa" meet, which annually brings together the best horses, trainers, and jockeys in North American racing.  The competition on the track is stiff and evenly-matched, and a lot of rookie handicappers are adding money to the pari-mutuel pools. Therefore, you can expect the payoffs at Saratoga to be loaded with good value.  Opportunities always abound for serious horseplayers to get their share of profits over the course of the seven-week upstate New York race meet.

You only have to look at the star-studded list of top trainers that includes most of the best in the business from several regions to understand the high quality of the summer season at The Spa, including Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Christophe Clement, Kiaran McLaughlin, and too many more to mention.

It's not just the horses and horsemen that are the best at Saratoga, the betting is also top-notch.  There is so much betting value at Saratoga, due primarily to two main factors; 1) field sizes are large and the horses have all been pointed for this meet, and 2) there is more novice money bet at Saratoga than anywhere else.

Please refer to the following chart of recent average payoffs at Saratoga for an illustration of the value that awaits horseplayers who can cash tickets at the Spa:

Saratoga Average Payoffs for $2 Wagers (5-year averages)

     Turf Routes
 Dirt SprintsDirt RoutesTurf SprintsOuter TurfInner Turf
Win$12.60$11.50$13.00$13.80$14.80
Exacta$105$90$130$95$140
Trifecta$710$465$830$595$1,175

(* Note: A few exceptionally large payoffs were omitted from these calculations to avoid skewing the averages.)

You can see all the value to be had in the winning pari-mutuel averages from recent Saratoga meets. The value is especially evident in the turf sprints, which most people still don't properly understand at Saratoga, and also the Inner Turf route races, which have big fields and big payoffs.

And so, with all that money floating around upstate New York during July & August along with so many novice handicappers and tourists pumping money into Saratoga's mutuel pools, you certainly will have your chances to get your hands on some of the big-time profits available at Saratoga.

SARATOGA STATISTICAL ADVANTAGES AT VARIOUS DISTANCES

There are so many different elements that go into successfully handicapping at Saratoga. The horseplayers who do the best at this meet will be the ones who pay the closest attention to details, do the most homework, and know the facts. Some of the things you have to ask yourself when handicapping, particularly at Saratoga, include:

Which horses have the talent and conditioning to win?

Which horses are best suited to the course and distance of the race?

Who drew a favorable post?

Who is running with the track biases, and who is running against them?

Who is rounding into form and ready for a peak effort?

These can be difficult questions to answer, and that, in part, is why it's so tough to win money consistently at Saratoga, where racing only runs for seven weeks a year and where so many horses of so many varying ability levels are coming to town from so many different locations.

One area where you can gain an advantage over the betting public is by knowing the statistics, starting in the area of winning post positions. An examination of these figures from recent meets can offer astute handicappers a reliable outline from which to draw some solid conclusions on the advantages and disadvantages of certain post positions winning at certain distances on Saratoga's different surfaces. This can help you narrow down the list of contenders in any given race.

The post position numbers can then be broken down into a post position analysis. This analysis, when coupled with what we have learned in recent years about winning running styles at Saratoga, can help any handicapper willing to take just a few moments to examine and digest the figures that we've seen over the course of a recent five-year period.

DIRT SPRINTS

The most commonly run races at Saratoga, by category, are dirt sprints, in spite of the fact that Saratoga regularly cards as many or more turf races than any other track.  Just like other places, the dirt sprints are still the backbone of daily racing - even though this is Saratoga.

The Saratoga main track is usually regarded as being very speed favoring at all sprint distances. The cheaper the race, the more speed-favoring it probably will be. 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 or at most two lengths of the lead at the first call win 50% of all short sprints. The exceptions to this will often be in races where there is an overabundance of speed entered in the field. When speed duels happen, closers and stalkers can rally.

TIP: Pace makes the race in Saratoga sprints.  Always give preference to front-runners and pace pressers on the main track, unless the field appears overloaded with speed, or if it appears a speed duel is likely to develop.

Five-Furlongs on the Dirt
Saratoga cards much fewer five-furlong sprints than it used to, and in fact, they've become so rare that only a few of these races are carded each year, mainly for 2-year-olds. These 5 furlong sprints might be rare, but they are still worth keeping an eye out for when you can find one, because the 5F distance at Saratoga is one of the most speed-biased trips in all of horseracing.

TIP: Nearly all 5 furlong races at Saratoga are won wire-to-wire, and it's nearly impossible to win from off the pace. The five-furlong post position winning percentages show very little post position preference, so just try to handicap the early leader and you should have yourself a winner.

Five furlong races at Saratoga are carded almost exclusively for juveniles, and often the entrants in these races will be first starters. In lieu of any past performances to go on, instead try to focus on horses with fast and/or bullet blowouts at 3 or 4 furlongs leading up to the race, and key exclusively on "win-early" trainers.

Five and a Half Furlongs on the Dirt
Looking at the post position stats for 5 ½ furlongs from Saratoga, we see very little favoritism for any particular post. The only real disadvantage in these races goes to posts 10 and higher. The rail generally is little or no benefit.

One interesting note in five-and-a-half furlong races at Saratoga is that the rail and the inside posts do not enjoy the same advantage at this distance as they do at other sprint distances.

TIP: The inside posts are not as good at 5 1/2 furlongs as they are at other sprint distances at Saratoga. The best posts statistically at this distance on the main track are posts 7, 8 and 9.

Six Furlongs on the Dirt
Six furlongs is the most frequently run distance at Saratoga (as with all tracks), and therefore the sample size is the best when trying to decipher which posts are the most advantageous.

TIP: Based on the percentages, the rail is the best post at 6 furlongs. Beyond just the rail, you can make a case that all of the inside four posts - 1-2-3-4 - provide some advantage over the middle and outside posts.

While the inside posts are the best at six furlongs, no posts should really be considered death sentences. However, when in doubt, give the horses from the inside posts an advantage over the outside at 6 furlongs.

Six and a Half Furlongs on the Dirt
At 6 ½ furlongs on Saratoga's main track, once again, the rail seems like the best place to be. The sample size at 6 ½ furlongs is smaller than at 6 furlongs, so therefore statistical anomalies can happen. Based on the figures, it seems that there is little or no post position bias at 6 ½ furlongs at Saratoga, with a good amount of winners regularly coming from inside, middle, and outside posts.

Seven Furlongs on the Dirt
A good amount of races are run at 7 furlongs at Saratoga, and the numbers seem to suggest two things: First, that the inside two posts are the best post positions, and second, that it's difficult to win from a draw anywhere outside post 9.

TIP: Post positions matter in seven-furlong dirt races at Saratoga.  The best posts are 1 and 2, while the worst posts are anything outside post 9.

 

TWO-TURN DIRT ROUTES

Two-turn route races have always been a big element of handicapping at Saratoga, unlike at New York's bookend race meets at Belmont Park. Saratoga cards roughly 40+ two-turn dirt routes a season - an average of one per day - plus, even more are run when off-the-turf races are factored into the mix. These dirt route events are quite different than the dirt route races run around one turn at Belmont. Oftentimes the New York horses that come to Saratoga with the best form from Belmont are horses that have been excelling, in part, thanks to their preference for one turn races. At Saratoga, this factor flip-flops away from the one-turn specialists, and instead favors runners who do their best running at two-turns.

Mile-and-an-Eighth on the Dirt
When it comes to post positions, the inside four posts historically have had a slight advantage in all two-turn dirt races at Saratoga, particularly at the most common dirt route distance of 1 1/8 miles, but this factor has seemingly played a smaller role in recent Saratoga meets, perhaps because of some kind of difference with the recent track superintendents as opposed to former track maintenance crews.

A look at the post position stats at the most commonly run two-turn distance of 1 1/8 miles reveals, surprisingly to many, that there is very little post position advantage in these races, with plenty of winners originating from all posts from the inside on out.

The rail post in Saratoga dirt routes has been bad at time over the past five years or so, but the rail was very good at this distance in 2014 with 18% wins (11-for-62).  In 2015, the rail was again excellent with 12 wins in 51 races for a 24% win percentage. In 2013 at Saratoga, however, the rail was awful in dirt routes, winning just 2-for-44 for a win percentage of 5%.  So you see, the numbers can vary greatly in this category, however, based on 2014-15, it seems like the track crew has ironed out the problem with the rail and the 1-hole probably will be good again in dirt routes in 2016.

The other inside posts 2-5 usually are pretty good as well, as a whole.  The stats for the outside posts can often look bad, but remember that there are much fewer starters from those outside posts in Saratoga turf routes which usually draw 7- or 8-horse fields.  In 2015, the outside posts were trouble in two-turn dirt routes at Saratoga, winning a total of 1 race from 31 starters from posts 8-thru-11 combined.

TIP: The post position trend in Saratoga dirt routes the last two years shows that the best post is the rail, the other inside and middle posts are good, and the outside posts 8 and upward are bad news.

Winning Post Positions
Saratoga Dirt Routes
Last 3 seasons (2013-2015 combined)

125-for-15716%
224-for-15715%
320--for-15713%
416-for-15710%
531-for-15220%
620-for-13515%
714-for-8816%
86-for-4713%
9-111-for-313%

 

TURF ROUTE RACING

All running styles have a fair chance at winning in Saratoga turf route races, no matter if a horse is a speed horse, a presser, stalker, or closer. This is important to note, because some other turf courses tend to play one way or another.  The Gulfstream turf routes, for example, play against speed and tend to favor stalkers. Belmont's grass courses are more speed-friendly than most when firm, but tend to play more towards late-runners when yielding or less-than firm.

TIP: When it comes to Saratoga's two turf courses, early speed generally plays a little better on the Mellon course than it does on the Inner. As a rule, early speed horses win roughly 25% of all races on the Inner turf course, and at a slightly higher percentage on the Mellon course.  The average Saratoga turf winner (either course) is about 4 lengths off the pace at the first call and 2 1/2 lengths off the pace at the second call.

In turf routes run at Saratoga, the inside and middle posts boast an advantage over the outside gates. This is true in turf routes run on the Mellon (outside) course, and especially true on the inner turf course where the inside three posts definitely do the best and any post 8 and outward is a disadvantage. On the Mellon turf, you have to go all the way out to posts 10 and higher to notice a big disadvantage. Remember that if you want to bet horses toward the outside, but not all the way outside, that Posts 8 and 9 may win less often than post 1, for example, but the odds will be better for Posts 8 and 9 and the better odds offered on outside horses often makes up for any win percentage difference between inside and horses on the not-too-far outside up to post 9.

TIP: 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 often 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.

Inside post positions are almost always preferred in two-turn grass races, especially at Saratoga where the fields are usually large, the course is narrow, and traffic is a factor. The first turn has a tendency to come up on the field very quickly after the start of a turf route, and a horse breaking from the inside that is able to hug the rail around the first turn may gain as many as five lengths on a competitor from the far outside who may be destined to lose ground while wide. That many lengths can be very difficult to make up during the running of the race, and the result is that outside horses often end up falling short - even in cases when they may have been the best horse in the race.

Far outside posts - we're talking about posts 10-12 - are not the place to be in turf routes at Saratoga, because they often lead to ground loss and wide trips.  Many turf horses who have lost their last race after breaking from an outside post come back to win their next start at good odds if fortunate enough to get a better post draw.

You may or may not choose to take post positions into account when handicapping turf route races, but one thing you should never ignore is a turf horse making a positive shift to an inside post after breaking from an outside post last time out. There are plenty of times when horses are good enough to overcome outside posts en route to victory. However, when that is not the case, you should be able to identify that information in a horse's past performances in order to take advantage of it next time out.

 

TURF SPRINTS

And then there are the turf sprints - which are run at an average rate of more than one per day at Saratoga throughout the season. Saratoga turf sprints are all run at 5 1/2 furlongs on the Mellon (outer) 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 main thing to understand about New York turf sprints (especially at Saratoga) before anything else, is that outside posts rule. I insist this is still the case in these races despite a much better-than-usual showing at the 2014 meet where inside posts played fairly, and in 2015 where really only the rail was a disadvantage.  Let some other handicappers give up on this angle. I recommend you stick with it, because it has been too much a part of being able to be a winning handicapper at Saratoga over the course of the last decade.  Examples of this were in 2009 when the inside gate in turf sprints won just 1-for-43 in 2009, and 2010 when Post 1 went 2-for-45.  In 2011, the rail was awful again, going just 1-for-41 (2%).

Larger turf sprint fields make the inside posts nearly impossible to win from.  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 are often not much better in Saratoga turf sprints.

TIP: If you religiously abide by no other handicapping angle at Saratoga, you must abide by this one - don't bet the rail horse in Saratoga turf sprints!

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.

In terms of the in-the-money percentage and ROI (as opposed to just looking at winning percentage) for all posts, 1-12, in Saratoga turf sprints, the two best posts to bet on are 9 and 10. Four of the six best starting draws come from posts 6 and outward.

Also worth mentioning is that dating back to the 2005 meet, Linda Rice has been the undisputed queen of the Saratoga turf sprint races, with no other trainer coming even remotely close to putting up her kinds of numbers. In 2015, however, turf ace trainer Christophe Clement put his stamp on Spa turf sprints, winning 6 times accounting for twice as many turf sprint wins than any other trainer at the meet.

 

SUMMARY
Saratoga is the ideal meet for horseplayers who follow track trends because so many novice handicappers and tourists pump so much money into the pools. Opportunities always abound for serious horseplayers to get their share of the pie over the course of the seven-week meet because 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 statistical analysis on running styles and post positions at various distances, and use the information to your best advantage when trying to make money at racing's top summer racing destination - Saratoga.

By Noel Michaels

20
Aug

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