Home Cookin' At The Spa
HOME COOKIN' AT THE SPA
Home cooking has been the favorite flavor through the first eleven days of the Saratoga Thoroughbred meet.
Through Wednesday there have been 109 races at the Spa. 69 of them were won by horses which last raced at a New York track. Most of those (64) were horses last seen at Belmont Park. The remainder were refugees from Aqueduct (2), Saratoga 2010 (1), and Saratoga 2011 (2).
Not counted among the New York majority were first-time starters which trained for their debut on an in-state track. There have been 13 first-out winners, most of which came from New York-based trainers.
Twelve other racing venues produced the remaining 27 winners. New Jersey's Monmouth Park is the pro-tem leader of this group, having sent 6 winners to Saratoga. Churchill Downs' runners have been a disappointment. Only 3 have been successful at the Spa. That's equal to the winners which have come in from Delaware Park and Gulfstream. Lesser-regarded venues like Indiana Downs, Suffolk, and Prairie Meadows have had success as well.
In contrast to the slow start this season, Kentucky-based horseman have done well in recent years. Two of them won Thursday, although neither horse had raced in the Commonwealth.
Ken McPeek had gotten off to the slowest start of the meet. There were 18 starters from his barn, with zero winners, through Wednesday's races. Just 4 of the 18 finished in the money. Only one of those, Tahoe Lake, seriously threatened to win. Tahoe Lake was beaten a short head here on Saturday of opening week. Coincidentally, the gelding is entered in Saturday's opening race at the Spa.
The racing Gods threw McPeek a bone Thursday when his first-time starter, Why Take a Chance, stormed home as winner of the fifth race. The daughter of Successful Appeal paid $22.60.
In McPeek's defense it should be noted only 3 of his starters went to post lower than 5-1 odds. In addition to Tahoe Lake, Bunker's Ledge ran well in her first local start. The 29-1 first-time starter led most of the way before losing by two and one-half lengths for a $50,000 claiming tag.
Dale Romans broke his Saratoga schneid with a victory in Thursday's third race. Xunlei, a juvenile filly sired by D'Wildcat, was Romans' ninth starter of the meet. She had made her debut at Belmont Park.
The Romans stable is based in Kentucky. Unlike most of his colleagues from the Commonwealth, he ships horses to Belmont Park for the final weeks of that meet. When Belmont ends, most of the animals which stopped over downstate come up to the Spa and join up with their Kentucky counterparts.
With the exception of Xunlei, there has been no advantage yet at this meet to Romans for bringing an early string to Belmont. His only second-place finisher was a first-time starter, while his third-place finisher last raced at Churchill Downs.
Eddie Kenneally is among the most successful of the Kentucky-based trainers who come to New York. Over the last five years he has started 97 horses at the Spa, winning with 12. Another 30 finished in the money.
Kenneally has done equally well with turf and dirt performers. His half-dozen starters this year have produced a win and two third-place finishers.
Steve Margolis is a well-regarded horseman who does most of his racing in the Midwest. About one-third of his 1,300 starters over the last five years raced at Churchill Downs. Over that time Margolis has had an excellent 20 percent hit rate overall.
Here in New York, he's been much less successful. Starting only 18 horses in New York over the last five years, Margolis has managed just a single winner. 14 of those starters ran at Saratoga. None of them were victorious.
5 of his 14 Spa runners finished third, but only two of them were legitimate win threats. The most egregious loss came a year ago when Pistols At Dawn shipped from Churchill Downs sporting a big-figure maiden victory in his debut. That prompted bettors to send him off at 55 cents on the dollar. The colt finished a bad third, beaten more than five lengths.
During the years 2007-2010, Mike Maker's horses won at a 20 percent clip at the Spa. He's zero for 7 this year. His best result came from first-time starter Queen for Life, who managed a third-place finish.
Maker is a high percentage hitter most of the time. His stable has a high percentage of claiming and lower allowance stock, which should set him up well for the new realities of racing at Saratoga. I'll be very surprised if he doesn't win a bunch of races before Labor Day.
The point isn't to criticize or embarrass the trainers involved. Instead, it demonstrates the difficulty involved winning away from your home circuit. Horses are creatures of habit. Slight changes in their feeding, training, or treatment times can have an impact on performance.
Additionally, trainers who know exactly what kind of Thoroughbred is needed to win a $30,000 claimer going a mile on Churchill Downs turf might not know it could take a different horse to win that same event at Saratoga.
That's why local horsemen have an edge, at least during the first half of the meet.
Although Churchill Downs has a similar one and one-eighth mile dirt track layout like the Spa, there are subtle differences. It often seems Kentucky riders are still basing their style on now-retired Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day. That is, they take back, relax their mount, then make a late run. That works better at Churchill than it does at Saratoga. It's one of the reasons why Kentucky horsemen often use New York-based riders
by Nick Kliing
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