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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 12:00 AM

WINTER HANDICAPPING UPDATE: All Eyes on Top Warm-Weather Tracks

By Noel Michaels - OTBLearningLabs.com

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 and serious horseplayers are basically all focusing on the same six tracks – Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream, Oaklawn, Tampa Bay Downs, and Santa Anita.

With so much good racing taking place in January and February at so few tracks, it becomes relatively easy at this one time of year to keep close tabs on the races and results from the major winter signals, and thereby keep your finger on the pulse of everything that’s important in the sport of racing.

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 major warm-weather circuits and get fully up-to-speed on what it takes to win at the season’s various epicenters of pari-mutuel wagering.

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 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 & 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.

Here is my list of track biases so far from the current 2013-2014 Fair Grounds meet. As you can see, except for a stretch from late-December to early January, when it was advantageous to be on or close to the pace, the track has played remarkably fair:

Fair Grounds Track Biases
Jan. 11 – Speed got good when track upgraded to fast, races 4-10
Jan. 5 – Speed bias
Jan. 4 – Had to be on close to the pace
Jan. 1 – Had to be on or close to the pace
Dec. 31 – Had to be on or close to the pace
Dec. 28 – Had to be on or close on a sloppy track
Dec. 23 – Off-the-pace advantage on ‘fast’ but drying track
Dec. 21 – Helped to be on or close to the pace
Dec. 20 – Front-end bias, had to be on or close to the pace
Dec. 14 – Raining, track became speed biased races 8-13
Dec. 5 – Speed bias

Keep close tabs on horses returning for their next starts coming out of races on those bias days listed above. Upgrade losing horses exiting races on those days that suffered from against-the-bias trips, and downgrade winners exiting races on those days that benefitted from with-the-bias trips.

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 varying abilities in New Orleans for the winter meet. 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 including Steve Asmussen, Cody Autrey, Merrell Scherer, Mike Stidham, Wesley Hawley, Bret Calhoun, Bernie Flint, Larry Jones, and of course, last but not least, Al Stall and particularly Tom Amoss, who has been winning races in bunches around here since some of these other guys were in diapers.  Also, Mike Maker is apt to send a solid string of horses to New Orleans for the winter, and he has been known to do well from a win-percentage standpoint.

Finally, keep your eyes out for Chicago horses, who have done very well at the Fair Grounds meet and have also been in fine form at Oaklawn. The Chicago season is just a month away with the opening at Hawthorne scheduled for Friday, February 14.

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 winter 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.

One reliable rallying cry at Oaklawn is sometimes “Cal-vin Bo-rail.”  Borel will no doubt make a big dent on the jockey standings in Hot Springs, but keep in mind, that along with his many wins will come a caveat for handicappers – his average win-price is likely to be low and his ROI is not something that Oaklawn horseplayers can count on to make money.

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.

Running Style Biases
At Oaklawn, the tried-and-true prevailing running-style bias is always toward horses with early speed or at least tactical speed who can stay within 2-3 lengths of the early lead.  Due to the one-mile track layout and relatively short stretch-run in comparison to other tracks, Oaklawn always has been this way and probably always will be – except on days when the bias changes and noticeably favors one particular running style or part of the track over another.

And speaking of track biases, the early part of the start of the 2014 Oaklawn meet has featured a strong speed bias that should provide savvy bettors with plenty of live bias plays as the horses come back after exiting the opening weekend races to make their next starts.

Early-meet Oaklawn Track Biases
Jan. 12 – Strong outside bias
Jan. 11 – Outside advantage
Jan. 10 – Dead rail, outside bias

Use this track bias information in your continued handicapping at Oaklawn.  When you see a horse exiting a race on a bias day, check the horse’s running style, post position, or inside/outside trip on the bias day in question.  When a horse exits a race where it benefited from running with a track bias, downgrade that horse in the race you’re currently handicapping. When you see a horse that exits a race where it was hurt by running against a track bias, then go ahead and upgrade that horse in the race you’re currently handicapping.  This is a great way to find good-odds winners and to ensure that you are betting live overlays while at the same time ignoring bad underlays.


GULFSTREAM

Gulfstream Park is the Eastern epicenter of Thoroughbred racing during the winter, and another exceptional and challenging 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’s 50-cent bets, including Pick 3’s, Pick-4s and a daily Pick-5 bet, with a low 15 % takeout on the day’s last five races, also keep the action pumping at Gulfstream, which has to be considered the most player-friendly meet to bet at during this time of year.  There are even 50-cent trifectas that offer unrivaled value at Gulfstream, not-to-mention the 20-cent Rainbow Pick 6, with a jackpot that will only be awarded to a winner with one unique ticket. On days when there are multiple winners, 60% of the pool will be shared equally while 40% goes into a carryover pool.

Gulfstream once again is playing host to the wintertime’s best trainer line-up and jockey colony. The distinction of Gulfstream leading rider can be expected to go to Javier Castellano, who is leading the jockey standings with 37 wins from 131 mounts for a 28% win percentage after running away from the pack in the jockey standings to win the meet title in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.

Castellano is comfortably 8 wins ahead of current second-leading rider Paco Lopez, who has 29 wins and a 17% win percentage while riding quite a few more horses than Castellano.

Lopez won the Gulfstream riding titles in 2011 and 2010, and can be expected to be near Castellano atop the standings all winter long, especially with the injury to John Velazquez expected to keep Johnny V. sidelined all or most of the Gulfstream meet. Without Velazquez in the picture, Castellano rides the coveted first-call for the Todd Pletcher barn, which once again this season is expected to run away with the winter meet training title and already leads in terms of winners by a large margin through the first half of January.

Right behind Lopez in the standings are Luis Saez (21 wins), and Joel Rosario (18 wins through mid-January), who are both enjoying solid meets so far at Gulfstream Park. Dylan Davis is a hot young rider who continues to make a name for himself nationally, and he is currently riding well at Gulfstream, fifth in the early standing with 15 wins through Jan. 15.

When it comes to trainers at the Gulfstream meet, especially since last season’s runaway win for the training title, the story is all about perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher, who is off to another dominant start this season with 24 wins from 84 starters for 29% victories.  Pletcher’s numbers are good in almost every category, mostly with leading rider Castellano aboard.

The Frank Calabrese effect, most recently with trainer Kirk Ziadie, is down a bit this season as compared to some recent years when his stable has won 30-40%. This season so far, Calabrese is the second-leading owner behind Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey. Calabrese and Ziadie 7 wins from 28 starters for a still very high 25% win percentage.

Trainer Peter Walder, who has been up-and-down at Gulfstream in recent years, is having a slow start to the current meet. He may yet begin to pick things up, however, after enjoying one of those “up” times last season with a win percentage that reached 44% at one point in 2013 thanks to wins with a lot of turf sprinters and young horses.  If you’re keeping score at home, that was two straight seasons that Walder has racked-up those kinds of numbers up above the 40% mark in 2012-2013 and 2011-2012.

Aside from Pletcher and Walder, the barns can should make the most headlines include Mike Maker, who is second to Pletcher with 15 wins and has an even better 31% win percentage as the trainer for the leading owners, the Ramseys. Also, Wesley Ward, has had a hot start to the meet to help him to 10 wins and a win percentage of 23% so far. Others to watch include Chad Brown (6 wins, 20% so far, but expected to heat-up), especially in turf races, and Christophe Clement (6-for-22, 27% so far), especially with turf horses.

Running Styles and Biases
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.

Much to the adulation of both horsemen and bettors beginning two season ago, Gulfstream runs 1 1/16-mile races on the main track with an alternate finish line. This has greatly increased the number of two-turn races being run at Gulfstream just by utilizing a new alternate finish line further up the stretch, Gulfstream has been able to card this distance that was overlooked for the first six years after the track was re-configured by Frank Stronach.

As for the day-to-day changing track biases at Gulfstream this season, there have been many more daily Gulfstream biases than last season. The main track has been affected by topsy-turvy South Florida weather for much of the period from late December to mid January. Here are the Gulfstream track biases noted so far this season:

Gulfstream Track Biases
Jan. 12 – Outside preferred
Jan. 10 – Outside preferred on a drying track; rally wide trips best
Jan. 9 – Outside preferred on a sloppy sealed track
Jan. 5 – Speed good, helped to be on or close
Jan. 1 – Helped to be up close and outside
Dec. 27 – Outside good
Dec. 26 – Anti-speed bias on good (wet but not sealed) track; outside good
Dec. 22 – Speed good, had to be on or close to the pace
Dec. 21 – Speed bias
Dec. 6 – Helped to be on or close to the pace

As you can see, the 2013-2014 Gulfstream season has been mainly fair, with the recent mid-January bias trending toward favoring the outside posts and outside paths on the main track.

Daily biases or not, 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.

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 best gate slots at one mile.

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. 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. 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 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.

SANTA ANITA

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 has increased now that Santa Anita has gone back to dirt.

Now that Santa Anita is again a dirt track for keeps, handicappers can again take advantage of daily track bias information affecting the main track. Here are the track biases from the first part of the current Santa Anita meet, which began on Dec. 26:

Santa Anita Track Biases
Jan. 12 – Outside preferred
Jan. 5 – Outside advantage
Jan. 4 – Inside speed bias
Jan. 3 – Outside rally wide bias
Dec. 28 – Helped to be on or close to the pace
Dec. 26 – Anti-speed bias, rally wide bias

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.

The best way to proceed with your Santa Anita dirt track handicapping is to toss out the artificial track races a horse has run (at Hollywood, for instance), while instead focusing your attention on either a horse’s most recent dirt races, if any, or else waiting for horses to compile past performances on the dirt during the course of the Santa Anita meet.

Bob Baffert is currently the co-leading trainer at the current Santa Anita meet with a 11 wins, along with Jerry Hollendorfer. It isn’t surprising to see Baffert’s name on top of the standings (he often wins and also won the most recent training title at the 2013 Santa Anita fall meet), but what is surprising is that he is not the clear leader this season. Instead of the usual Baffert runaway, we seem to be in for a tight trainer’s race with Hollendorfer, who may have the guns to stay with Baffert the whole way.  Other trainers such as John Sadler, and Doug O’Neill can also be counted on to win plenty of races at the Santa Anita winter/spring meet in spite of relatively slow starts this season.

When it comes to jockeys, handicappers can narrow down the top choices really fast in Southern California, starting with Rafael Bejarano, Mike Smith, and Joe Talamo. It is this group, along with Martin Garcia riding for Baffert that figures to totally dominate the top of the jockey’s standings.

Also headlining the high-quality Santa Anita jockeys’ colony are names like Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, Victor Espinoza, the up-and-coming Edwin Maldonando and Irving Orozco, plus Corey Nakatani, and Martin Pedroza.

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.

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 formful.

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.

So far at the 2013-2014 Tampa Bay Downs meet, the main track has been at the mercy of daily track biases much more often than usual. This has been due to a persistent problem down on the inside part of the dirt track this season. Take note of the list of daily track biases below for the current Tampa Bay Downs season, and you will see a lot of days where the inside was the worst part of the track.

Tampa Bay Downs Track Biases
Jan. 12 – Outside preferred; had to be on or close to the pace
Jan. 11 – Outside bias, horses avoided the rail
Jan. 10 – Outside good on drying track
Jan. 8 – Speed bias
Jan. 5 – Outside rally wide bias
Dec. 29 – Outside advantage
Dec. 28 – Outside advantage
Dec. 27 – Outside preferred
Dec. 26 – Speed good, had to be on or close w/4-of-6 winners wire-to-wire
Dec. 21 – Outside preferred
Dec. 20 – Outside preferred
Dec. 18 – Outside good
Dec. 14 – Outside bias and rally wide advantage
Dec. 13 – Had to be on or close to the pace
Dec. 11 – Front-end bias, had to be on or close to the pace
Dec. 6 – Outside good

Until this bias situation gets ironed out (IF, it gets ironed out, Churchill Downs, for example, as had this problem persist for three years now…) go ahead and upgrade horses from outside posts on the dirt and downgrade rail horses.  Also, keep on the lookout for horses exiting the above-listed bias days, and downgrade horses in their next starts that benefitted from with-the-bias trips, while also upgrading horses whose chances were hurt by against-the-boas trips.

Whatever warm-weather locations that you do your winter racing and wagering in – 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. 

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