Submitted by Noel Michaels on Friday, May 9, 2014 at 12:00 AM
WATCH AND WAGER THE SEASON’S BEST RACING AT BELMONT PARK
By Noel Michaels
With all the hub-bub in Thoroughbred racing focused on the Triple Crown, it can be easy to forget that at the same time the Kentucky Derby and Oaks were going on, the premier east coast meet of the season was opening at beautiful Belmont Park.
Six long months at Aqueduct are over and New York is once again the epicenter of east coast racing with the opening of the Belmont Park Spring/Summer meet, which will run from Thursday, May 1 through closing day, Sunday, July 13. The move to Belmont Park each spring is not just a move from Aqueduct to Belmont, but is also signifies the return of the east’s premier race circuit to the Big Apple after winter and spring detours at Gulfstream Park and Keeneland.
At the start of the Belmont Spring/Summer meet, runners will generally come from one of four groups - 1) local Aqueduct horses, 2) horses coming from Keeneland, 3) horses returning to New York directly from Florida, and 4) horses returning from layoffs, often meant for the grass, either immediately or after a prep race or two. These are four importantly different categories of horses, all having their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to betting at Belmont. Read more below in the shippers and layoffs and Belmont winning track trends sections.
The biggest day of the 54-day Belmont meet, of course, will be the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 7. The $1.5 million third leg of racing Triple Crown will be the centerpiece of a revamped Belmont Stakes Day that will include nine other stakes races including the re-positioned Grade 1, $1.25 million Metropolitan Mile Handicap. Other Graded stakes races like the Grade 1 Manhattan Hcp., the Grade 1 Just a Game, the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps, the Grade 1 Acorn, the Grade 2 True North, and the Grade 2 Woody Stephens, will push Belmont Stakes Day’s purses above $8 million, making it the second-richest event in North American racing behind only the Breeders’ Cup.
First off when trying to approach the Belmont meet, horseplayers should take note of the recent trends from the completed Aqueduct spring main track meet.
The jockey standings at Aqueduct this winter were more or less ruled by brothers Irad Ortiz and Jose Ortiz, who finished 1-2 in the Aqueduct jockey race with 106 and 91 wins, for winning percentages of 22% and 21%, respectively. The next winningest rider was Cornelio Velasquez with 76 victories for 20% winners.
These local riders should be the ones to watch at Belmont along with the main contingent of New York’s top riders who will be returning from Florida/Keeneland/Churchill, which includes Javier Castellano, John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, Luis Saez, and Jose Lezcano. The top 10 should be rounded out by Junior Alvarado, who is returning from injury, and one of the top local apprentices such as Taylor Rice.
The Aqueduct main track displayed some daily track biases at the recently concluded meet, which are detailed below. However, there was very little bias in terms of post position draw, especially in sprints, where horses had pretty much equal chances from any part of the starting gate.
Overall, post position preferences were fair in two-turn route races, as well where posts played fairly all the way out to post 8 on both dirt and turf. You had to go all the way outside to posts 9-11 before you noticed a disadvantage, with those outermost posts going 0-for-9 in dirt routes and 0-for-20 in turf routes. It also should be noted that the rail Post 1 was a good advantage on both the turf (21% wins) and the main track (24% wins).
Because of these post position results at Aqueduct, handicappers should make note of Belmont runners coming out of Aqueduct routes. You should upgrade the chances of any horse coming out of an Aqueduct loss where it was encumbered with a post position anywhere outside post 8, because horses from posts 9 and outward were at a definite disadvantage in both turf and dirt routes.
For the most part, the Aqueduct main track is usually a bias-free meet, where horses with all running styles had fair chances to win on both on turf and dirt. However, handicappers should note that there were a few track-biased days at this spring’s Aqueduct main track meet. Those observed track biases are notated below. Pay special attention to the most highly biased time of the meet on April 11-12, when the track displayed its strongest speed bias.
Aqueduct Main Track Biases
Apr. 26 - Helped to be on or close in the mud
Apr. 23 - Outside good, slow rail
Apr. 16 - Helped to be on or close, couldn’t come from far back
Apr. 12 - Speed good, front-end bias
Apr. 11 - Speed good, had to be on or close to the pace
Apr. 9 - Outside good
Apr. 4 - Helped to be on or close to the pace
Apr. 3 - Helped to be on or close to the pace
Apr. 2 - Inside was best part of the track
Many trainers enjoyed solid and successful winters/springs at Aqueduct, and they will be joined by the best trainers and racing stables in the country who are now back in New York from their winter bases at Gulfstream and their spring stopovers at Keeneland.
The dominant Aqueduct trainers once again this year were leading trainer David Jacobson (77 wins and 25% win percentage), and Rudy Rodriguez (61 wins and 28% win percentage). Just because all the big-name stables are back in town now, don’t expect these guys to stop winning. Yes, their win percentages will probably go down and they will win fewer allowance races, but these trainers will continue to win tons of races and probably will finish the Belmont meet second and third in the trainer standings by the time it’s all said and done.
Belmont’s training title should again belong entirely to Todd Pletcher, who displayed his usual domination in Florida over the winter while racing a much smaller string of horses at Aqueduct this winter with 25 local victories.
Second-place and third place, as mentioned, will likely be up for grabs amongst local claiming heroes David Jacobson, and Rudy Rodriguez. Jacobson, in particular, should to continue to do well with his patented claim-and-drop methodology that he works to perfection in the claiming game.
The next trainers you’ll want to focus on will be Linda Rice and Chad Brown. Linda Rice, split her winter stock between New York and Florida over the winter, and actually won enough races at Aqueduct to place her a distant third in the trainer standings there with 28 wins. She wins a bunch of turf races at Belmont with horses either coming off winter layoffs, coming from Florida, or who’ve been racing on the wrong surface in New York all winter. As always, Rice can be counted on to be deadly with turf sprinters at all distances.
Chad Brown has emerged as one of the premier trainers on the national scene year-round the last few years. Brown is lethal on the grass and in routes, and also wins a lot of maiden special weight races. While Chad Brown is always dangerous and must always be respected, you can expect him to do much of his Belmont Park winning early in the Spring/Summer meet. Bet him during the first half of the Belmont meet, because starting in late June, Brown will start to quiet down as be begins ramping-up his stable for his top annual meet at Saratoga.
Kiaran McLaughlin had his typical high win-percentage seasons in both New York and Florida this winter, and his winning ways should continue at Belmont - the longer the race the better. Rick Violette has been reloading for what should be a big season, and Jason Servis should also win a ton of races. Bruce Brown is sometimes a force in New York with claimers, Graham Motion is always dangerous, especially on grass, and Tony Dutrow can always be counted on for his share of victories at this meet.
Turf ace trainer Christophe Clement’s grass string will be as powerful as ever this season at Belmont. Clement will lead the parade of top stables returning full force to New York after spending the winter and spring elsewhere, along with trainers like Bill Mott and Shug McGaughey, who can be counted on for high winning percentages at Belmont.
Steve Asmussen, will have a string of horses at Belmont this season, but his barn has been embattled with drug allegations and has performed poorly at times this winter and spring, with the exception of the barn’s right spot, Kentucky Oaks winning filly Untapable.
Instead of Asmussen, why not focus in on others like the Jerkens clan, father Allen and son James, who will both be trainers to watch at Belmont. You can also expect Bruce Levine to be prominent and prolific as always at Belmont.
Looking for a few high-percentage trainer angles? Stay away from Bruce Brown first-time starters, and hop onboard the bandwagon with James Jerkens- and Kiaran McLaughlin-trained maiden second-time starters. Also bet on all Bruce Levine horses that are adding first-time Lasix (the first-time "Bruce Juice").
SHIPPERS AND LAYOFFS
Evaluating out-of-town and returning-to-town talent is one of the keys to handicapping the Belmont Park meet, because when it comes to figuring out where the winners at Belmont will come from, the local horses who’ve spent the winter at Aqueduct are not necessarily the horses you want to watch for at Belmont. This is especially true on turf.
A few trends to watch for horses coming in from out of town include some post position angles pertaining to horses coming from Gulfstream. At Gulfstream, horses that drew outside posts in 1 1/8-mile dirt races were at an enormous disadvantage, and horses who drew inside in one-mile dirt races and in sprints at or beyond 6 1/2 furlongs were also at disadvantages. Therefore, if you see a Belmont starter exiting bad efforts in one of those kinds of races at Gulfstream, you should remember to give that horse an excuse for a loss.
As for the horses who will come to Belmont from Keeneland, keep in mind that the Polytrack has actually begun to "break in" during recent meets and no longer can consistently be counted on to favor outside closers and hinder inside speed like it once did. However, Polytrack results from Keeneland and elsewhere should always be taken with a grain of salt at Belmont due to the surface change from Polytrack to dirt. Horses who lost at Keeneland might not have liked the artificial surface, and horses who won at Keeneland might have benefited from the synthetic track and might not do as well - often as underlays - next time out at Belmont.
Other Belmont entrants to watch for in the spring are the ones who’ve been given the winter off, and are fresh and ready to roll, particularly on the grass. The best strategy with these sorts of layoff horses is to bet them once they’ve gotten a prep race or two under their belts, either here or during the Aqueduct spring main track meet. Give horses with a prep the advantage over horses coming back off winter layoffs.
The out-of-town shippers who return to New York directly from Florida in the spring are usually best suited for winning early at Belmont Park. The big name trainers at Belmont usually are the same trainers who have been the big names all winter at Gulfstream and then in the spring and fall at Keeneland. This group includes Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Kiaran McLaughlin, Tom Albertrani, Christophe Clement, and Shug McGaughey. These trainers are all going to win a significant percentage of their races at Belmont, because their horses either are fit and ready after running at big meets over the winter, or have been pointed to this Belmont meet all along.
BELMONT WINNING TRACK TRENDS
Of course, nothing beats a good old horse-for-the-course when handicapping Belmont dirt races. Belmont Park’s main track, also known by the nickname "Big Sandy," is a dramatically different surface from Aqueduct’s main track, and especially the inner track, and is obviously very, very different from Keeneland’s Polytrack. Good and bad performances from Keeneland are always important, but Belmont horseplayers should nevertheless temper their opinions of Keeneland shippers based on the horses’ performances on Keeneland’s Polytrack, since Polytrack racing bears little resemblance to the dirt racing conducted at Belmont Park. If anything, the Polytrack results from Keeneland should be considered more applicable to Belmont’s turf racing than its dirt racing.
Belmont runs almost exclusively one-turn races on dirt at all distances ranging from 5 furlongs to 9 furlongs. A horse’s two-turn record is not as important as its one-turn record for the purposes of evaluating Belmont’s one-turn miles. So, when handicapping those races, scan the past performances for horses’ past one-turn miles at Belmont and on Aqueduct’s main track as well as places like Churchill, Arlington, Laurel, and Gulfstream, and weight them as more important than a horse’s two-turn past performances in other races and from other tracks such as Monmouth, Pimlico, Philadelphia, Calder, and the Aqueduct inner track.
On the Belmont dirt track, speed is an extremely handy commodity. Other tracks such as Monmouth, Pimlico, and the Aqueduct inner track have more of a reputation as being speed biased tracks, but Belmont Park can be right up there with those other tracks at certain times when it comes to favoring speed. Sure, late runners will have every opportunity to close at Belmont with its wide sweeping turns and long stretch, but you always must be wary of the times when Belmont’s main track bias kicks into effect and strongly favors front runners. When those biases appear, they can stay in place for up to a week at time when the weather goes several days without changing.
When it comes to post position angles on the Belmont main track, remember that Belmont runs almost no two-turn races due to its 1 1/2-mile circumference. This nearly negates any inside bias the track might have in route races, which are all one-turn affairs up to 1 1/8 miles.
BELMONT TURF RACES
On the Belmont turf courses, both the inner turf and the outer turf tracks are big, wide, fair courses with long stretch runs. Outside turf posts are a concern, however, between one mile and 1 1/8 miles. Horses breaking from the far outside in one-mile races and 1 1/16-mile races can be most negatively affected by outside posts. At one mile on the Widener turf course at the Spring/Summer meet, posts 8-12 should win for about a combined 5%, while posts 9-12 should win about 6% at 1 1/16-miles. On the inner turf course at 1 1/16-miles, horses from posts 8-10 can be expected to win only about 5% at a time. At 1 1/8-miles, posts 8-11 may win only about 7%.
Notably, weather has a big impact on Belmont turf racing, and it’s something worth looking out for. For the first half of the Belmont Spring/Summer Meet, temperatures can still be chilly at times and the area is often affected by spring showers which keep the courses a bit moist, even under "firm" conditions. Belmont firm turf in May and early June is far different from Belmont firm turf for the second half of the meet after the Belmont stakes when heat, lack of rain, and heavy use usually begin to take their toll on the turf courses by baking them into rock-hard, grassy paved highways. Because of these course conditions, handicappers should upgrade turf closers during the first half of the meet, and then begin to downgrade those horses in favor of turf speedsters during the second half of the meet.
This angle is a particularly effective moneymaker when you see late-running horses that benefited from the course conditions early in the meet that you can downgrade as likely underlays during the second-half of the meet when the turf plays kinder to speed. At the same time, you can also catch overlay prices on live turf front runners and up-close pace-pressers who win later in the meet after flopping earlier in the meet in May and early June.
As a side note, when it rains, the inner turf typically dries out faster than the outer course, so always try to keep that in mind when evaluating horses that prefer good, yielding, or soft turf.
In the increasingly popular turf sprint department, Linda Rice and Anthony Dutrow do particularly well, as does Kiaran McLaughlin. Contrary to what you might expect, "The Chief," Allan Jerkens, is also a high win percentage force in turf sprints, and usually offers more value than the other high percentage trainers - especially Linda Rice.
Logic would dictate that inside posts would be preferential in turf sprints, due to the short run-up to the first turn and the fact that ground-saving trips always seem to work well in the longer turf races. However, not only aren’t inside posts better in New York turf sprints, but, in fact, the OPPOSITE is actually true. Outside posts (often the far outside post) are the best post position draws in Belmont turf sprints. Inside posts are the worst. This is not just a short-term trend either. The outside posts have always done better than the inside posts at each and every Belmont spring and fall meet since turf sprints became a big part of the local racing landscape a few years ago.
The anti-rail bias is particularly prevalent in Belmont turf sprints on the Widener course, where the rail Post 1 customarily wins at only 4-5% at both 6 furlongs and 7 furlongs on the Widener (outer) turf.
On the inner turf course, the turf sprint inside vs. outside bias is still there, but it just works a little differently than on the outer turf. In inner turf sprints at Belmont, the rail post itself is not bad, but instead it is all of the other inside posts that are terrible including posts 2-5. Post position seems to mean more in these kinds of races than in any other locally, so bet the large amount of Belmont turf sprint races accordingly.
I have been the number one advocate of this angle for several years, but for some reason, people just don’t get it - including people who should know better such as the turf writers and handicappers from mainstream publications like the Daily Racing Form. Since the betting public evidently still has not caught on to this reality (thanks in part to the mis-information spread by the handicappers at aforementioned publication), this angle still produces solid overlays and plenty of winners meet after meet. Remember, in Belmont turf sprints on both courses, downgrade horses breaking from posts 1-3, and upgrade horses breaking from posts 8 and outward, especially the far outside post in any given race.
Spring racing is now revved up to full throttle on the New York circuit, and Belmont is always the place to be at this time of year as world class racing returns along with the attention of most of the country’s serious horseplayers. Enjoy the annual renaissance of New York racing with the return to racing Belmont Park. Best of luck, and enjoy the show.