All Eyes on Six Tracks During the Winter Season

ALL EYES ON SIX TRACKS DURING THE WINTER SEASON

With so much good racing taking place in January and February at so few tracks, it becomes relatively easy during the winter months to keep close tabs on the races and results from just about every major track racing at this time of year. This is an advantage for horseplayers and handicappers, who get a better chance to keep their fingers on the pulse of everything that's important in the sport of racing all at once.

Although it is not often regarded as such, the winter is perhaps the best time of the year for horseplayers.  As opposed to other times of the year when good racing and wagering are scattered all around the country at various far flung race circuits, and the stakes races take center stage every weekend, the winter is a time of the year when hardcore handicapping for serious horseplayers is basically all focusing on the same six tracks - Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream, Oaklawn, Tampa Bay Downs, and Santa Anita.

While AQUEDUCT continues to battle the elements of the long cold New York winter, facing small fields and various cancellations, racing at other winter racetracks continues to rev-up for the best season of the year. So therefore, let's take a tour around this season's five other major warmer-weather circuits and get fully up-to-speed on what it takes to win at the season's various epicenters of pari-mutuel wagering.

 

GULFSTREAM

Gulfstream Park is the Eastern epicenter of Thoroughbred racing during the winter, and another exceptional and challenging south Florida meet is now upon us. As always, Gulfstream offers the best horses, trainers, jockeys, grass races, and stakes races of the winter season with the top barns from New York and Kentucky and all points in-between all converging on South Florida for a sensational sunshine-filled standout race meet.

Gulfstream once again is playing host to the wintertime's best trainer line-up and jockey colony. After sitting out the December portion of the Gulfstream meet, already rocketing up the jockey standings is Javier Castellano, who already has 18 wins thru January 10 from his first 60 mounts for a big 30% win percentage.

The current jockey standings, as of Jan. 10 are led mostly by riders who rode all of the December portion of the meet like present leader Luis Saez (31 wins from 128 mounts, 24%), and past multiple Gulfstream riding title winner Paco Lopez, who is off to a 28-for-152 start for 18%.  Those win percentages will now dip now that Castellano and others like John Velazquez and Corey Lanerie are back in town. Corey Lanerie, who enjoyed a breakout second-half of 2015 and continues his hot riding at Gulfstream with 15 wins from 98 mounts for a 15% win percentage. Lanerie is already 13-for-60 for 22%, and Velazquez is 10-for-58 for 17%.

Veterans like Velazquez and also Joel Rosario aren't accepting as many mounts these days, but they're still winning plenty of races and their win percentages at this meet can be counted on to be relatively high.

When it comes to trainers at the Gulfstream meet, especially since the last three seasons' runaway wins for the training title, the story again is all about perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher, who has served notice and is off to another dominant start this season with 24 wins from his first 71 starters for a giant 34% strike rate. That is even better than his start last season when he clicked for 22 victories from his first 72 starters for 31% wins through this same date.  Pletcher's numbers are good in almost every category, mostly with main man Velazquez, Castellano, or leading rider Saez aboard.

It is an absolute scramble behind Pletcher in the trainer's standings, with Jorge Navarro, currently sitting in second. He got off to a strong start here the last two years and is at it again with 12 wins from 52 starters for 23%. Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey are the leading owners, in the country and at Gulfstream Park, where they'll rack up tons of wins with trainer Mike Maker. Notably, the Ramseys are off to a slow start at the 2016-17 meet in terms of wins (6 wins through Jan. 10) because their horses have had bad luck and keep finishing second (13 seconds from 41 starters.  That means to start betting the Ramsey colors, because those second will soon be turning into wins from a stable full of horses that are fit and ready to roll.

Some of the other barns that can make the most headlines over the winter at Gulfstream also include Wesley Ward, and Chad Brown, but both are off to a strangely slow starts at the current Gulfstream meet. Keep in mind that annually, this meet is not the best for the Chad Brown barn, which is always dangerous but usually better and stronger at other times of year. Another slow starter this year is Christophe Clement also should begin to heat-up, especially with his turf horses at Gulfstream from now until the end of March.

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 rail post #1.

The Gulfstream prevailing biases are always a strong handicapping factor on the main track, so go ahead and stick with the time tested and proven axioms that work. 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 make money at Gulfstream Park.

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.

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. Look and see if the turf rails are moved out from the hedge before you back a turf front-runner in routes, which include 7 1/2F races which run like routes at Gulfstream and not like turf sprints.

Turf sprints at GP are at 5F, and in those races, you always want to bet speed horses because the races at that distance are dominated on the front-end.


FAIR GROUNDS

The Fair Grounds has long been one of the best fall-winter race meets in the country, yet it is often overlooked on the winter wagering landscape that also includes other popular, more high-profile tracks.  Nevertheless, the Fair Grounds is a quality track with big, competitive fields that most bettors love. Plus, the track also hosts quality wintertime grass races, not to mention a solid stakes line-up with a good 3-year-old stakes program that leads to the meet's premier event, the Louisiana Derby.

One of the most notable things for handicappers to discover when it comes to the aptly-named Fair Grounds, is that the track is one of the most fair tracks in the country when it comes to running styles because the Fair Grounds seems to remain one of the few tracks that legitimately does not provide a consistent edge to any one running style, or inside or outside paths.  No matter if your horse is a front runner, a pace-presser, a stalker, or a closer, you should indeed have a fair chance to win at the Fair Grounds.

Even at fair race tracks, however, it is always worth looking at the long term trends and statistics to try to determine what running styles and post positions give horses their best chances at success. Certain prevailing biases can be arrived at by a careful look at the results from the past several years.

In Fair Grounds sprints, both early speed/pressers and the closers can usually be depended on to run well from just about any post position. The segment of horses at the most risk from bad trips in Fair Grounds sprints are the mid-pack stalkers, who could get caught in a bad spot wide on the turn if they draw outside posts in big fields. These horses often have to be used too hard to gain position going into the turn, or else end up falling into the Fair Grounds trap of trying to make their middle moves while wide on the turn instead of using the more prudent strategy of waiting until the long straightaway before launching their late bids.

Meanwhile, in Fair Grounds route races run at 1 mile, 1 mile & 70 yards, and 1 1/16-miles, post position is a key issue thanks to the short run up to the first turn due to the starting gate's close proximity to the turn. Horses that break from wide posts in these races usually suffer wide, ground-losing trips - especially at a 1m & 70 yards when speed horses and pressers who break from the inside enjoy a huge tactical advantage.

Switching gears now to the human connections at Fair Grounds, you can bet there is always a strong crew of Midwestern and national barns wintering in New Orleans with strings of horses of various abilities. You can usually count on a few big-name out-of-towners showing up for the Fair Grounds meet with a few horses, however, these horses usually have varying degrees of success in relation to the local blue chip barns that can always be counted on to win here at huge percentages.

The 2016-17 Fair Grounds meet is off-and-running and it is already apparent that a few barns will be dominating the rest of the way with a tight trainer's race that should come down to the finish. Mike Stidham, last year's runaway leading trainer at this point in the meet has a battle on his hands this year amongst a group of trainers who have all set their sights on the New Orleans title this winter. This group includes Brad Cox (16 wins through Jan. 11), and Tom Amoss (15 wins from only 53 starters for 28%). The other win percentage and ROI leader currently among the top trainers to watch is Al Stall with 11 wins from 44 starters for 25%.

Guys off to slow starts at Fair Grounds this season include a pair of guys gearing up for Oaklawn - Larry Jones and Steve Asmussen. Jones' barn is more well-suited to success at the dirt-only Oaklawn meet, and Asmussen was cold at Fair Grounds at this point last year (4 for his first 33 last year versus 8 for his first 52 this year) before going on to dominate the entire season at Oaklawn.

Instead of focusing your bets on them, why not instead try betting Joe Sharp, who has rapidly expanded on the national scene during the last couple years and already has 14 wins and 26 exacta finishes from his first 69 FG starters this season. He's good in all kinds of situations, particularly on grass and in turf sprints.  Finally, local guy Ron Faucheux has gotten off to a slow start this season with 5 wins from 31 starters, but he is bond to heat-up and really improve his win percentage and ROI.

 

OAKLAWN PARK

Oaklawn Park generally does not get the notoriety of the other key winter meets from around the country, due in large part to the fact that Oaklawn does not have a turf course.  Nevertheless, the day-to-day racing at Oaklawn is good and bettable, and as the meet progresses from January into spring in late March and early April, the quality of the racing there will end-up nearly on par with anywhere else running at that time of year. 

Oaklawn regularly features big wide-open fields, a real dirt main track, and plenty of the nation's top racing stables, much to the delight of Midwestern horseplayers and handicappers at this time of year who must go without racing in Chicago and without a top-quality option to wager on in Kentucky.

Handicapping at Oaklawn Park has its nuances, and it's worth paying attention to the daily happenings at the meet. While the racing surface is mostly regarded as fair at Oaklawn, the track does have some prevailing biases to watch out for, in addition to some occasional daily track biases that tend to pop-up in terms of inside or outside paths, or speed or off-the-pace running style biases, as the weather tends to change track conditions from day to day.

The Oaklawn dirt course is a one-mile oval with two different finish lines - the traditional finish line and an auxiliary finish line at the sixteenth pole which serves as the finish for one-mile races. This makes the run-up into the first turn longer at a mile and therefore slightly lessens the disadvantages to outside posts.

Oaklawn's inside posts, and particularly the rail, are still good at all distances.  In addition to using post positions to help you narrow down the fields when handicapping Oaklawn, you can also use a horse's running style. Then combine this with a careful eye on the track's changing track biases when hunting for Oaklawn winners.

At Oaklawn, the tried-and-true prevailing running-style bias is always toward horses with front-running speed or at least tactical speed who can stay within 2-3 lengths of the early lead.  The fat outside posts are also difficult to overcome in two-turn races. Due to the one-mile track layout and relatively short stretch-run in comparison to other tracks, the prevailing Oaklawn bias always has been this way and probably always will be.

Use this prevailing bias information in your continued handicapping at Oaklawn.  When you see a horse exiting a race where pace, running style, or post position could have played into its results, positive or negative, use that information to search for overlays on the tote board next time out.

Trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. both enjoyed highly successful meets in 2016, topped by Creators's victory in the $1 million Arkansas Derby. Asmussen earned his seventh leading trainer title with 46 wins and an Oaklawn record $3,448,729 in earnings, while Santana earned his fourth straight leading riding title with 80 wins and $4,064,073, also an Oaklawn earnings record.

Both Asmussen and Santana should be able to once again lead the way in their respective leaderboards throughout the Oaklawn season.

In the jockey standings, the real battle probably will be for second between Ramon Vazquez and a guy like Channing Hill, who was fourth in the 2016 standings with 33 wins including four stakes. Vazquez, however, should get the best mounts behind Santana after racking up 42 wins in 2016, just a year after losing the jockey title by only two wins to Santana in 2015. In terms of win percentages, it is all Santana on top with 22% wins in 2016.  Vasquez earned only 14% wins, and it was Hill actually who was second behind Santana in this category amongst regular riders with an 18% win percentage.

Trainer Steve Asmussen, as mentioned was 2016's leading trainer and won his third Arkansas Derby in 2016 with Creator. If anyone is to challenge the new hall of famer, it probably will be Chris Hartman who was a distant second to Asmussen in 2016 but before that had been 2015's leading trainer at Oaklawn with very strong numbers. The top five trainers are likely to be rounded out by Brad Cox (23 wins and a 26% win percentage in 2016), Federico Villafranco (22 wins, 17%), and Ron Moquett (24 wins, 18%).

Two trainers you definitely want to wager on at Oaklawn, who may or may not be in the top 5 in the standings but will have high win percentages, are Larry Jones and Al Stal.  Stall was extremely dangerous in 2016 with 7 winners from 20 starters for a big 35% win percentage, and will be worth betting in 2017.

 

SANTA ANITA

Along with Gulfstream and Aqueduct, Santa Anita is one of the country's premier annual winter race meets, offering big purses and high-quality racing on both its turf course and on its dirt main track.  In fact, this Santa Anita meet's status is not only one of the best winter season race meets, but one of the year's best race meets of any season.

Good-priced winners can always be found at Santa Anita if you know how to find them. For horseplayers, one of the key challenges at the Santa Anita meet is heavily weight a horse's dirt ability, particularly at Santa Anita, while largely ignoring past performances that were established at the other California circuit tracks that are either synthetic (Golden Gate), or lower caliber racing (Los Alamitos, for example). In fact, in order to get a really good gauge on a horse's ability, you really must heavily rely on a horse's past performances specifically at Santa Anita, which are necessary for an apples-to-apples comparison of a contender's ability and chances of winning.

Aside from running styles and deciding which of a horse's past performances to trust and which ones not to, a lot of other valuable information can be gleaned for the purposes of winning at Santa Anita by studying winning post position trends, winning trainer trends, and the predominant running style preferences.

Santa Anita runs so many of its dirt races at its most common distances of 6 furlongs and 6 ½ furlongs. At Santa Anita in these sprint races, there is a predicable increase in the emphasis for early speed, especially at the track's two most popular sprint distances of 6 furlongs and 6 1/2 furlongs.

The average beaten lengths at the first call at the 6- and 6 ½ furlong sprint distances is about 2 lengths behind at the quarter-mile mark.  Horses definitely don't want to be too far back, however, based on the fact that about 85 percent of the dirt sprint winners have raced within 5 lengths of the lead at the first call (quarter mile). It has been difficult to win from very far back in the pack on the Santa Anita dirt based on these stats, and clearly the need for good tactical speed is alive and well at Santa Anita.

Where post positions are concerned, usually the rail and inside posts (1-3) are the preferred spots on dirt. But overall, there hasn't really been any big advantages or disadvantages in terms of post positions on the main track. The possible exception would be posts 7 and wider in dirt routes, which often can be difficult to win from.

Bob Baffert is currently off to a surprisingly slow start at the Santa Anita meet with a 1-for-16 record, but that means he hasn't burned his conditions and will be ready to heat up, especially with newly-turned 3yo maidens. and the top spot in the standings is currently going to Doug O'Neill and Peter Miller, but of those two the hot one is Miller who is winning at 23% to O'Neill's 15%. John Sadler is on fire with 5 wins from his first 13 starters for a 38% win percentage through Jan. 11. Along with Baffert, another trainer who you want to be on board with when he starts to get hot, which will be soon, is Richard Baltas , who so far has only won 4-of-30 for 13%. Jerry Hollendorfer will also heat up from his slow 4-for-27 (15%) beginning.

When it comes to jockeys, the old days of Rafael Bejarano domination seem to be behind us. handicappers can narrow down the top choices really fast in Southern California. It is Tyler Baze (9 wins, 19%), Flavien Prat (9 wins, 20%), and Norberto Arroyo (7 wins, 18%) who are the hottest jockeys at Santa Anita to start this season his season. Rafael Bejarano is just 4-for-38 (11%).

Finally, one tried-and-true handicapping angle at Santa Anita has continued its long-term trend this season, proving perhaps that the more things change the more things stay the same.  The inside posts, and particularly the rail, remain big disadvantages in Santa Anita's signature down-the-hill 6 ½-furlong down-the-hill turf races. Always bet the outside posts (not posts 1-3) in Santa Anita's plentiful turf sprints.

 

TAMPA BAY DOWNS

Tampa Bay Downs offers increasingly good quality racing in the shadow of the more high-profile race meets down in South Florida, and more and more horseplayers are beginning to take note of the big Field sizes at Tampa Bay Downs, especially in maiden races and turf races, which always feature full fields and juicy betting opportunities.

It never ceases to amaze how many serious horseplayers continue to ignore Tampa Bay Downs when the track continually churns out a better quality product year after year. Shippers come to Tampa Bay Downs from all over this time of year, which makes handicapping contenders quite difficult. However, once horses have had their initial outs over the track (i.e., this time of the year), the races actually start to become rather form-full.

In general, the track at Tampa Bay Downs plays fair for all running styles on turf and dirt. Big fields result in horses drawing far outside posts, however, so if anything, you'll usually want to proceed with caution when it comes to horses drawing far outside posts in two-turn races. They can be at a disadvantage from wide trips unless they have enough speed to clear the field, or else have a late-rallying running style that allows then to drop back in the field and save ground into the first turn.

Whatever warm-weather locations you prefer for your winter racing and wagering - whether it be at Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream, Santa Anita, Oaklawn, and/or Fair Grounds, or at a combination of all of them - I wish you best of luck.  Enjoy the best winter racing!

By Noel Michaels

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