IT’S TIME TO START LOOKING FORWARD TO SARATOGA
Saratoga is the most important meet of the summer season for horseplayers, who will invariably need to handicap well at The Spa if they hope to make big money. The highly looked-forward-to and anticipated 40-day Saratoga racing season lasts throughout the heart of the summer, running six days a week (every day except Tuesday) from Friday, July 21 until Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 4.
If you are a serious horseplayer and you are not already looking forward to the Saratoga meet, it might be time to check your pulse because Saratoga is the summer place to be for all handicappers and horse racing aficionados alike. Saratoga's biggest weekend, of course, is Travers weekend. Travers Day on Saturday, August 26, figures to the best day of racing and wagering of the entire summer.
Let's look at some categories that handicappers can focus on to help narrow down the choices and find the kinds of good-priced winners you see popping-up every day of the Saratoga meet.
Here are some of the top long-term trends to look for at Saratoga to give you the edge.
SARATOGA HANDICAPPING GUIDE AND WINNING TRACK PROFILE
The first thing that should be mentioned in any Saratoga handicapping guide for 2017 should have to do with the training race. It is a safe bet that the top of the trainer's standings will be dominated by Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, or Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher. That 1-2 finish atop the trainer's race, as turf writer Mike Sherack pointed out, would be the safest exacta box at the entire meet.
Chad Brown won the training title at Saratoga and set a record at the 2016 meet with 40 wins, finally getting over the hump after finishing second to Todd Pletcher in five consecutive seasons before last year. Brown accomplished his 40-win season from 164 starters, with a strong win percentage of 24% and a startling in-the-money [ITM] rate of 60%. Pletcher, the six-time defending champ with a record 12 overall titles, was a clear second in the 2016 trainer's race with 31 wins from 149 starters (21% wins / 50% ITM). It was a long way back to the third-leading trainer, Kiaran Mclaughlin, who had 13 wins.
In terms of a winning track profile at Saratoga, first off, Saratoga's main track is speed favoring at all distances, no doubt about it. 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 of the lead at the first call win nearly 50% of all dirt sprints shorter than 6F. Pressers and the occasional stalker tend to win the rest. Speedsters and pressers also do exceptionally well at the commonly-run distance of 6F.
Second, with the move to Saratoga, the focus in route racing flip-flops from benefiting one-turn route specialists at Belmont to favoring route horses that do their best running around two turns - and at 1 1/8 miles - as opposed to 1 mile or 1 1/16 miles. Look down the past performances and bet horses whose best route races came on more traditional two-turn layouts such as Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Churchill, Keeneland, the mid-Atlantic region, or in past races at Saratoga, but not at Belmont. This is particularly true if a horse has run past races around two turns at 1 1/8 miles (Saratoga cards no dirt races at 1 mile and 1 1/16 miles). Give these two-turn distance horses the edge against overbet horses that do their best running in Belmont's one-turn route races.
Third, as detailed thoroughly later in this article in the turf sprint section, downgrade the three inside posts in turf sprints, particularly the rail, while upgrading horses drawing far outside posts in those races. This is especially important in large fields with more than eight runners.
Fourth, outside posts are negative factors on the Saratoga turf courses in routes to varying degrees. Posts 8 and outward are slight disadvantages on the turf at most distances, while far outside posts 10 and outward are usually 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.
And finally, in Saratoga grass races, speed generally plays a little better on the Mellon course than on the inner course. The pace profile of the average turf winner at Saratoga is a horse that is roughly about 4 lengths off the pace at the first call and 2 1/2 lengths off the pace at the second call. Hold more strictly to this pace preference on the Mellon course, where deeper-closing winners happen less frequently than on the inner turf.
If you can get to the paddock for inner track turf races, look for physically small, athletic-looking horses instead of large, long-striding horses. The little guys handle the tight inner course turns nicely, while the big bulky horses generally don't.
Now let's look at some key elements that handicappers will need to navigate successfully if they hope to go home a winner at Saratoga. These handicapping elements, or sub-categories, play a huge role in the day-to-day racing at Saratoga. The ones I will focus on are 2-year-olds, first-time starters and first-time turf, and turf sprints.
Betting Saratoga 2-Year-Old Races
Saratoga is home to some of the country's best 2-year-old races, and you are more likely to see next year's Kentucky Derby starters and Grade 1 winners in action there than at any other race meet at any other track at any time of year.
When it comes to those expensive spa baby races, speed always helps. Most 2-year-old sprints are either won wire-to-wire, or are won by an early speed horse or pace-presser capable of staying within a couple lengths of the lead at the first call. Sometimes you will see a juvenile and/or a first-time starter win from off the pace in Saratoga sprints, but you can't really rely on these types of horses. When you see one, you might want to take note of him or her, because you might be looking at a next-out winner, and/or a horse destined for stakes or next spring's classics.
It's not a surprise that Todd Pletcher wins a lot of 2-year-old races and also wins with a lot of first-time starters. You can expect his numbers in this regard to be between 25-30%. Pletcher won a total of 15 baby races at The Spa at the 2016 meet (31% wins), and his total was nearly twice the next winningest 2-year-old trainer, which was Mark Casse in 2016 with 8 juvenile wins from 24 starters for a big 33% win rate. Pletcher won three times as many baby races as the third-leading trainer in that category, Chad Brown, who won five but yet recorded a much lower 18% win percentage than his over percentage at the meet. In 2015, Chad Brown was only 3-for-23 with his juveniles for a negative ROI, meaning that this is definitely one of the categories in which you want to steer clear of Brown's horses.
At The Spa in 2015, Pletcher was leading trainer with 34 wins and a 20% win percentage. In 2-year-old races alone, he scored 14 wins that year for a 25% win percentage. His percentage with 2YO maidens was even higher.
The great thing about betting Pletcher's Spa babies is that, even if they lose their first career race, they will usually graduate in their second career race. Bet Pletcher's juvenile maidens in their first or second starts. If a Pletcher baby has not graduated in either or its first or second start, then stop betting it.
Other trainers that did well with juveniles in 2016 included Steve Asmussen (4 juvenile wins), and most notably George Weaver, who went 4-for-16 in 2-year-old races for a 25% strike rate.
In spite of Pletcher's big win percentages, his Saratoga 2-year-olds are so well bet that they often result in a flat return on investment (ROI). Therefore, you'll need to dig a little deeper than just Pletcher in order to make money with Spa 2-year-olds. Some of the Saratoga ROI leaders with 2-year-olds in 2015 might surprise you. Annually one of the best in this regard is Barclay Tagg, who struck out in 2016 but had gone 3-for-4 with juveniles at Saratoga in 2015. Other trainers who can reward you with a positive ROI with their 2YO Spa babies, based on 2015 stats, include Linda Rice , who won only one juvenile race at the 2016 meet but was 4-for-15, +52% ROI in 2015 and has been winning 2-year-old races at The Spa with regularity since before many of today's trainers got their training licenses. As mentioned, George Weaver did well in 2016 and also did well in 2015 with a record of 3-for-13, +130% ROI). Mike Hushion was also good at The Spa with juveniles in 2016, winning 2-of-10, but hitting the exacta in 5-of-10 tries for 50%.
If Mark Casse can come anywhere close to his 2016 numbers in 2017, you will definitely want to be betting on his 2-year-olds. With a 33% win percentage in those races last year, and not being one of the most high-profile trainers on the grounds, his backers made an absolute mine betting his juveniles last season.
Other dangerous 2-year-old trainers at Saratoga include Ken McPeek, Wesley Ward, and James Jerkens.
First-Time Starters and First-Time Turfers
In terms of stats for all first-time starters, regardless of age or surface, Todd Pletcher led the way at the 2016 Spa meet with 7 winning first starters from 33 horses for a win percentage of 21%. That's good, but not in terms of ROI with Pletcher firsters getting bet down with regularity. You also won't make money betting Chad Brown in this category. Yes he tied for second with 4 winning first starters in 2016, but his horses are bet and his win percentage was only 15% a -- a money-losing proposition.
To make money with first starters, consider George Weaver as your potential go-to guy. Weaver won 4-of-12 (2 on grass, two on dirt) in this category for 33% wins. That makes him a strong play. Mark Casse won 2 races with first starters from 6 runners … that would work in terms of ROI, as would betting Charlton Baker's first starters. He won 2 of 4 races with first starters in 2016
On the grass, Saratoga, when the weather holds, probably runs a higher percentage of turf races than any other major meet of the year thanks to its two turf courses, classy barns, large horse population, and influx of top turf trainers from all over the eastern half of the country.
Many of the turf races each year are won by first-time turf starters, which are often some of the most difficult turf winners to handicap - but often pay premium mutuel prices. Some of the top trainers in this regard are certainly no surprise, with Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott leading the way over the course of the last several years. Pletcher leads all trainers recently with Spa first-time turf winners. It is Bill Mott, however, who has been much better in terms of ROI.
Other top trainers with first-time turfers at the Spa the last nine years have included Chad Brown (better in turf routes), and Linda Rice (better in turf sprints). As mentioned before, Barclay Tagg has won a lot of Spa baby races in recent years, and many of his wins have been with first starters and/or first-time turfers. Overall with first-time starters at Saratoga in 2015, Tagg was 4-for-5, including 2-for-2 with first starters on the turf.
The list of top ROI trainers with first-time turfers at Saratoga the last ten years has included Bill Mott, Chad Brown, Graham Motion, George Weaver, Christophe Clement, Barclay Tagg, Wesley Ward, and Mike Maker. John Kimmel also has some good numbers with first-time turfers at Saratoga, but doesn't have as many starters in the category as the other trainers mentioned above. Gary Contessa also can spring to life in this category from time-to-time, even though he is not generally known for first-time turf winners, or turf winners in general for that matter. This results in high mutuel payoffs on Contessa's turf winners, so pay attention.
Combining these two categories - first-time starters and first-time turfers - gives us the category of first time starters on the turf. In this department, in 2016, Mark Casse and George Weaver led the way, both with 2 winners from 5 starters apiece.
Saratoga Turf Sprints
Anyone who follows New York racing knows that turf sprints have become a giant part of the Saratoga landscape over the past decade+. Even if you don't like them, you ought to at least get used to the turf sprints, because they have become so firmly entrenched in Saratoga racing since 2005.
Saratoga turf sprints are all run at 5 1/2 furlongs. 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 turn in Saratoga turf sprints seems to come-up much quicker than the turn for Belmont's turf sprints, and Saratoga's turns are obviously much tighter than Belmont's. The different turns, along with the shorter distance, puts a much higher importance on tactical speed in Saratoga's turf sprints as opposed to Belmont's.
The first 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 much better-than-usual showings at the 2014-16 meets where inside posts were a bit more fair. The reason that inside turf sprint posts have statistically done better at Saratoga the last two years is because they are running more turf sprint races with shorter fields. In larger turf sprint fields with more than eight horses, winning from the inside posts is still nearly impossible unless you are a lone speed horse.
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 post draw.
I recommend steadfastly sticking with this turf sprint post position angle 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 to overlook. Examples of this inside post futility in turf sprints included Post 1 winning 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%). Other years have been terrible too, especially when you're talking about big fields over eight horses.
What are the reasons that inside posts are bad and outside posts are good in Saratoga's 5 1/2F turf sprints? Well, if you are a late-running horse with an inside post, it can be very difficult to drop back, work your way outside, and then circle around the field and get up in time with so little real estate to work with. If you are a stalker with an inside draw, you risk getting buried down on the rail behind the speed horses who send from the rail or drop over from the outside. As for speed horses, unless a horse is the flat-out lone speed in the field, an inside speed horse is forced to "send" and ends-up at the mercy of the speed horses from the outside who have the advantage of being able to control the pace. No matter which way you slice it, the inside few posts can be a difficult hurdle to overcome in Saratoga turf sprints - especially the rail!
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.
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.
However, it should be noted that at the 2015 Saratoga meet, the best turf sprint trainer was a king - not a queen. He was Christophe Clement, who won 6 turf sprints in 2015 - twice the wins of any other trainer in those races. Clement has stayed strong in this category ever since, both at Saratoga and elsewhere, and much be bet accordingly. Midwest trainer Joe Sharp also specializes at turf sprints when he ships to NY for Saratoga. He won with 3-of-10 starters for a strong positive ROI in 2015 and posted similar numbers in 2016. Actually, Sharp, a former assistant to Mike Maker, can never be overlooked with anything on the grass at distances up to and including one mile.
The summer at Saratoga is not only about the top horses, trainers and top jockeys, it's also about the top-notch betting and handicapping. The fields are huge, the competition is stiff and evenly-matched, and competitors come from almost everywhere. Races are loaded with good value for horseplayers who are willing to put in the effort.
Saratoga is the ideal meet for handicappers 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.
I hope you can benefit from this Saratoga handicapping primer and use the information to your best advantage. Have a great time, and good luck!
By Noel Michaels
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