Submitted by Noel Michaels on Saturday, July 18, 2015 at 12:00 AM
DEL MAR 2015 HANDICAPPING PREVIEW: DIRT RACING RETURNS!
By Noel Michaels
It’s summer in Southern California, and for horseplayers, that can only mean one thing: Del Mar. The annual Del Mar thoroughbred meet opens on Thursday, August 16, and will usher in California’s best and most looked-forward-to eight weeks of racing, five days a week, straight up through Labor Day, Sept. 7. For handicappers, Del Mar will be a welcome change from the small fields, limited race days, and sparse betting opportunities offered at the recently concluded Los Alamitos July meet.
This big news this year at Del Mar, which will strongly affect the racing and wagering, is the return of dirt track racing on the Del Mar main track! After eight years racing on a state-mandated synthetic surface, in this case Polytrack, Del Mar returns to dirt for what will be the historic track’s 76th summer racing season.
This change could throw handicapping into chaos at Del Mar for horseplayers that will have absolutely no recent statistics to base their wagers on whatsoever. Thankfully, however, bettors will not totally be in the dark in the case of this particular surface change, because the new Del Mar dirt track will be comprised of the exact same "El Segundo sand" soil that has been used at Santa Anita for its racing surface the last two years.
Having a uniform racing surface on the Southern California circuit will be a very important positive factor for horseplayers, who in recent years have been forced to deal with constantly changing surfaces from track-to-track - not just between dirt and synthetics, but also between differing synthetic surfaces over the years with tracks like Polytrack, Pro Ride, and even Cushion Track back at the former Hollywood Park.
Handicappers will appreciate the change back to dirt, no doubt making this the best and most successful SoCal summer race meet in quite a while.
DEL MAR WINNING TRACK PROFILE
The effectiveness of front-runners was reduced on Del Mar’s Polytrack, particularly in route races. In sprints, it is worth noting that the decrease in front-running winners was high, but the negative impact was even higher in route races. Now that we are moving back to a dirt main track at Del Mar, look for a much higher percentage of winning front-runners in all dirt races, especially in routes.
With a different track surface but the same track configuration, certain running style preferences may or may not stay the same as in recent years at Del Mar, we will have to watch closely.
If form holds, you should be able to say that short sprint races up to 6 1/2 furlongs will play fairly on Del Mar’s main track. Generally take note that in sprints, the farther you go the worse the front-runners probably will do in Del Mar sprints. In 5 1/2-furlong races, speed tends to do best, and when you get up to 7F the front-runners probably won’t do as well.
Beware at 7F, however, because this distance has usually been quirky at Del Mar. While speed probably won’t be as effective at 7F as it is in the shorter Del Mar sprints, you also don’t want to pick horses that must close from too far behind at this particular distance, either. This is Del Mar’s quirk at 7 furlongs. It’s tough to go wire-to-wire, but it’s also tough to come from far back. The overwhelming majority of all winners at 7 furlongs are mid-pack stalkers that race between 2 1/2 and 6 lengths off the lead at the second call. It is difficult to rally from more than 6 lengths back at the second call at this distance.
In route races, the various different running styles should all enjoy fair chances at Del Mar. Note that this is a distinct change from recent years during the Polytrack era, when it was very difficult to go wire-to-wire in Del Mar main track route races.
As far as post positons go, there probably will be very little advantage or disadvantage to any post position or area of the starting gate, inside-middle-outside in main track sprints. Note, however, that the inside posts should do better in the short sprints, while the posts in the outer half of the gate will do most of their winning in the longer sprints.
In routes, the best place to break from generally should be expected to be the middle posts 4-7, but again, there are no major advantages or disadvantages to any post based on Del Mar history.
Remember, the current main track in place at Santa Anita is now made up of essentially the exact same material as Santa Anita. Horses that did well at Santa Anita therefore probably will be the same horses that will do well at Del Mar. It’s a different kind of climate and track configuration at Del Mar, of course, so there still could be different kinds of running times and track biases and horses for the course. Nevertheless, with a lack of past knowledge about Del Mar’s brand new dirt track and until you start to see the new Del Mar main track establish its own prevailing biases develop over time, the best thing for handicappers to do is to consider that the track will play nearly identical to Santa Anita, which is made-up of the same track surface material.
DEL MAR: "WHERE THE TURF MEETS THE SURF"
Unlike Del Mar’s main track, the good news is that Del Mar’s new turf course already has a year under its belt and is no longer a total unknown. Del Mar cards some of the country’s best turf racing of the summer. Del Mar’s turf racing is great, because among other things, there is little or no bias or favoritism for inside posts as opposed to outside posts. Since the new turf course was installed, Del Mar turf races are now carded for up to a maximum of 14 runners.
With more horses in the turf races, the increased field sizes have had an effect on the importance of drawing a good post position. This is particularly true in turf routes longer than 1 1/16 miles, in which no horse won any race at any distance from outside post 8 last year (summer and fall meets combined).
At the most commonly-run turf route distance of one mile, where there were a total of 54 races run in 2014 between the summer and fall meets combined, the surprising post position revelation was that the inside two posts, posts 1-2, were a disadvantage, with only a total 8 wins from 108 starters in 54 races for a combined 7% win percentage from the posts a lot of people would falsely assume provide the greatest advantage at that distance.
See below for a breakdown of the post position records for each turf route distance at Del Mar during 2014, inclusive of both the summer and fall meets:
2014 Del Mar Post Position Stats
Del Mar Turf Routes at 1 Mile
Del Mar Turf Routes at 1-1/16 Miles
Del Mar Turf Routes at 1-1/8 Miles
Del Mar Turf Routes at 1-3/8 Miles
Del Mar’s top turf trainers often include Richard Mandella, Mike Puype, and Jerry Hollendorfer.
Trainers who may perform poorly on the Del Mar lawn include Steve Knapp, David Hofmans, and Bob Baffert. Surprisingly Neil Drysdale has not done his best work on the Del Mar turf the last few of years, and John Sadler, who annually battles it out in the race for top trainer, wins at a much lower percentage on the lawn.
Turf sprints are nothing new at Del Mar, but they have become a big part of the Del Mar condition book and even more turf sprints are expected this season. Turf sprints in general have become more popular across the country, and now that the division is represented by a Breeders’ Cup race, the trend is likely to continue at tracks like Del Mar, where turf sprints have basically been little more than a novelty.
When horseplayers think of Southern California turf sprints, we invariably think of Santa Anita with its extensive program of 6 1/2-furlong races run down-the-hill on its unique turf course. These days, however, the SoCal turf sprint season no longer begins and ends with the races run at Santa Anita. Del Mar, too, will run its fair share these days with its own expanding program of turf sprints.
Del Mar turf sprints are all run at 5 furlongs. Del Mar’s short turf sprints featuring a relatively short run into a tight turn tend put an extreme emphasis on speed and athleticism much more than the turf sprints being run elsewhere on the circuit. Small, agile, quick horses do much better than their big bulky rivals.
Del Mar’s turf sprints are usually filled with horses, with a field size averaging about 8 starters per race these days. Del Mar’s turf sprints are usually over in the blink of an eye, and that kind of race dynamic favors speedy running breaking from inside posts who can get out front, get to the rail, cut the corner, and hold on to the wire.
2014 Del Mar Turf Sprint Winning Posts
True, we now have a new, wider turf course at Del Mar to consider now than in years past, but over the years, the majority of Del Mar’s turf sprints have been won from the four inside posts. Posts 1-4 normally account for two-thirds of Del Mar’s turf sprint wins with only about 53% of the starters, which amounts to a solid wagering advantage. In 2014, 8 of 13 turf sprints were won from inside posts 1-4.
At Del Mar, one trainer that has asserted himself in turf sprints has been low profile Brian Koriner. What other trainers can you rely on if you are looking for turf sprint winners? Well, the best lately have included Mike Mitchell and Peter Miller.
Trainers to avoid in these turf sprints may include Steve Knapp, Jack Carava, Robert Hess, Ron McAnally, and Richard Mandella.
DEL MAR TRAINERS
One big loser during the Del Mar Polytrack era who will be happier than anyone to see the return of late summer dirt racing in SoCal will be Bob Baffert, who trains his horses for speed and for dirt and has occasionally suffered where the Surf Meets the Turf in recent seasons. This was so bad the last several years, that Baffert was forced to send big strings of his best juveniles to Saratoga in order to be able to excel on the dirt. Now that dirt racing is returning to Del Mar, look for Baffert to benefit, train many more 2-year-old winners at Del Mar, and therefore again challenge for leading trainer at the 2015 summer meet.
At this corresponding summer Del Mar meet in 2014, Baffert was only sixth in the trainer standings, far behind the top two leading trainers in the win standings at Del Mar, Jerry Hollendorfer and Peter Miller, at 20 wins apiece. In other recent years, trainers Doug O’Neill and John Sadler have also led the way.
Here is a refresher on the final top 10 of the trainer standings from last year’s Del Mar summer meet:
2014 Del Mar Top Trainer Standings - Summer Meet Only
|John W. Sadler||112||17||15%|
|Doug F. O’Neill||134||16||12%|
|Robert B. Hess, Jr.||62||15||24%|
Based on the stats from the 2014 Del Mar meet, some of the trainers you’ll want to focus on obviously include former leading trainer Doug O’Neill and former Del Mar leading trainer John Sadler, as well as Baffert, and of course Hollendorfer and Miller, who once again will be loaded in 2015. Mike Puype and Carla Gains also can be strong at Del Mar, both in terms of win percentage and positive ROIs.
Trainers who occasionally can flop at Del Mar meet, who may be good to avoid or use caution with, include Jeff Mullins, Barry Abrams, and guys like Rafael Becerra, Bill Spawr, Caesar Dominguez, Patrick Gallagher, Craig Lewis, Steve Knapp, and Sal Gonzalez.
Notably, Robert Hess Jr. had a great summer at Del Mar in 2014 with 15 wins from just 62 starters (24% wins!).
SANTA ANITA / LOS ALAMITOS TRACK BIAS RECAP
As mentioned before, the new Del Mar dirt main track surface is made of the same material as the Santa Anita main dirt track that was installed two seasons ago. Therefore, I expect that you will be able to count on some similarities between how the two tracks play, thereby providing some continuity throughout the year for SoCal handicappers.
What have we seen at Santa Anita in recent meetings? My observation is Santa Anita has been a fairly safe track that has been very fair to horses of all running styles, from early speed horses all the way to late rallying closers. However, the one thing that Santa Anita has been prone to in terms of advantages and disadvantages has been when it comes to outside versus inside biases. In my opinion, the Santa Anita main track has been very susceptible to daily track biases, and when those track biases hit, they are most likely to favor outside trips as opposed to inside ones. Daily speed and anti-speed biases have also popped-up, but less often.
Please refer to my personal chart of SoCal track biases so far this year, provided below:
Noel Michaels’ SoCal Track Biases
(Feb. 2015 to present)
July 12 - Outside and/or rally wide trips preferred
July 11 - Helped to be on or close to the pace, couldn’t close from far back
July 10 - Outside paths preferred
July 9 - Outside advantage
July 4 - Helped to be on or close to the pace
June 18 - Outside preferred
June 14 - Speed good
June 6 - Outside advantage
June 4 - Outside preferred
May 23 - Speed advantage
May 22 - Couldn’t close from far back
May 21 - Outside good; helped to be on or close
May 17 - Helped to be on or close to the pace
May 16 - Speed good
May 9 - Speed good
May 8 - Had to be on or close to the pace
May 1 - Outside rally bias
Apr. 25 - Inside speed bias
Apr. 18 - Outside advantage
Apr. 9 - Speed good, had to be on or close
Apr. 5 - Outside good
Apr. 4 - Outside good
Apr. 3 - Outside rally wide bias
Apr. 2 - Outside good
Mar. 29 - No front-end winners, anti-speed advantage
Mar. 20 - Outside advantage
Mar. 19 - Speed bias
Mar. 15 - Outside advantage
Mar. 13 - Outside good
Mar. 12 - Outside bias
Mar. 7 - Outside good
Mar. 8 - Outside good
Mar. 6 - Outside rally horses had the best chance
Mar. 5 - Outside rally wide advantage
Mar. 1 - Speed good
Feb. 28 - Outside preferred
Feb. 27 - Outside good
Feb. 21 - Outside bias
Feb. 16 - Outside bias
Feb. 15 - Outside advantage
Feb. 14 - Outside bias
Feb. 13 - Outside preferred
Feb. 8 - Outside bias
Feb. 7 - Outside bias
Feb. 6 - Outside preferred
Feb. 5 - Had to be on or close to the pace
Feb. 1 - Rally wide advantage
Time will tell if Del Mar ends up favoring the outside paths as much as the recently concluded Santa Anita meet did. Also, in-between the Santa Anita meet and the Del Mar meet was the brief Los Alamitos July meet. The races at that meet tended to be cheaper fields than what we will see at Del Mar, and many of the races were short sprints run at 6F and shorter. The main prevailing bias at the Los Alamitos all-dirt meet has been an advantage to horses with early speed, or at least to pressers/stalkers with some tactical speed.
By using this information and these simple tips as a rough guideline, I hope you will have a foundation for what it takes to win at the 2015 Del Mar summer meet. Enjoy the next eight weeks in SoCal, Where the Surf Meets the Turf at sunny Del Mar. Good luck!
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