Submitted by Noel Michaels on Friday, April 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM
HANDICAP THE SEASON’S BEST RACING AT BELMONT PARK
By Noel Michaels
Six long months at Aqueduct are over and New York is once again poised to become the epicenter of east coast racing with the opening of the Belmont Park Spring/Summer meet, which will run from Friday, April 26 through closing day, Sunday, July 14. 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 56-day Belmont meet, of course, will be the 145th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 8. The $1 million third leg of racing Triple Crown will be the centerpiece of a weekend of seven Graded stakes races along with the Grade 1 Manhattan Hcp., the G1 Just a Game, the G2 True North Hcp., the G2 Wood Stephens, and Friday’s G2 Brooklyn Hcp. And G3 Jaipur Stakes.
The other most looked-forward to dates of the Belmont Park season will be Memorial Day weekend, when the Grade 1 season in New York formally opens with the $400,000 Ogden Phipps, the $300,000 Acorn, and the $750,000 Met Mile, all on Monday, May 27.
BELMONT JOCKEYS AND TRAINERS
One cannot begin to talk about the upcoming Belmont meet without mentioning the conspicuous absence of New York racing’s biggest name – Ramon Dominguez. This season’s Belmont meet will have a distinctly different flavor than in years past. The biggest change to get used to this season is in the jock’s room, where perennial leading rider Ramon Dominguez will be absent for the entire meet as he continues his recovery from a fractured skull suffered in a spill on the Aqueduct inner track on January 18.
John Velazquez has also been injured and will be out perhaps for the opening days of the meet before he is able to return. Other top jockeys like Jose Lezcano, Javier Castellano, and Edgar Prado, will be back in New York, too, after spending their winters riding well at Gulfstream Park, and then riding extensively this spring at Keeneland and likely spending the first weekend in May under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
When the big names in the jockey colony do all return, don’t forget about the standouts who dominated Aqueduct. The jockey standings on the Aqueduct inner track this winter were more or less been ruled by brothers Irad and Jose Ortiz, who finished 1-2 in the inner track jockey race with 79 and 76 wins respectively. The next winningest rider was Cornelio Velasquez with 66 victories on the inner track. Cornelio (24 wins at the Big A) then went on to runaway with the Aqueduct main track riding title by a wide margin over a resurgent Rajiv Maragh (16 wins) and a consistent Junior Alvarado.
Those riders, plus apprentice Keiber Coa (8 wins), and Luis Saez, who has moved his tack to New York full time this season and won 8 races, including 4 in one day, on the Aqueduct main track, should more or less make up the top 10 riders at Belmont Park. Others to consider? How about Alan Garcia, who had a terrific Keeneland meet, and guys like David Cohen and Eddie Castro.
The other departure from normal at the upcoming Belmont meet will be in terms of the trainer standings, where perennial leader Richard Dutrow is suspended and out indefinitely and perhaps permanently. The current flag-bearer in the Dutrow training tree – Rudy Rodriguez – is back from a recent suspension but is now facing perhaps another long suspension for two new drug positives. If Rodriguez is out, expect his brother and assistant, Gustavo Rodriguez, to handle his remaining racing stable.
With no Dutrow and perhaps no Rodriguez, the Belmont training title will probably belong entirely to Todd Pletcher, who displayed his usual domination in Florida over the winter while racing a much smaller but high-percentage string of horses at Aqueduct this spring. Second-place will likely be up for grabs this season amongst local claiming heroes like David Jacobson (34 wins on the inner track, leading trainer with 12 wins on the Aqueduct main track), and Linda Rice, who split her winter stock between New York and Florida and was second in the Big A training standings with 10 wins last month.
Jacobson should to continue to do well with his patented claim-and-drop methodology that he works to perfection in the claiming game. However, at this time of year the focus will switch to trainers like Pletcher, and Chad Brown, who has emerged as one of the premier trainers on the national scene year-round. 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. Starting late June, however, Brown will 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, often sneaking under the radar despite a breakout winter in 2012 and a red-hot spring of 2013. Bruce Brown is sometimes a force in New York with claimers, Graham Motion is always dangerous, and Tony Dutrow can always be counted on too for his share of victories.
Turf ace trainer Christophe Clement’s grass string will be as powerful as ever this season at Belmont. He has been quiet in New York, but perhaps even better than ever so far in 2013 with his strong showings at Gulfstream and Keeneland, both in terms of winners and ROI. 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 Park.
Steve Asmussen, will have a big winning string of horses at Belmont this season, and the Jerkens clan, father Allen and son James, will both be trainers to watch. You can expect Bruce Levine to be prominent and prolific as always at Belmont. His horses enjoyed a great winter in the Aqueduct inner track before largely disappearing for last month or so on the Aqueduct main track. Finally, Midwest Thoroughbreds and trainer Jamie Ness now appear to be fixtures in the New York entries. Ness is active at the claim box and is known for his high percentage of winners in his first start off the claim.
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. Bet on all Bruce Levine horses that are adding first-time Lasix (the first-time “Bruce Juice”).
First off when trying to approach the Belmont meet, horseplayers should take note of the recent trends from the recently completed Aqueduct main track meet.
The Aqueduct main track meet 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 two-turn routes where posts played fairly all the way out to post 8 (posts 9-11 were a combined 0-for-11).
In Aqueduct main track sprints, the inside posts 1-4 offered the best advantage, with each of those gates winning at percentages between 17-20%. Basically any post position from 1-7 was also okay at all distances, however, do note that any horse at Aqueduct on the main track breaking from outside post 7 in sprints was at a strong disadvantage. Post positions 8-12 were a combined 1-for-42 (2.3% wins) in those races.
Because of this inside and middle bias in main track sprints at Aqueduct, handicappers should make note of Belmont runners coming out of Aqueduct main track sprints. 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 7, because horses from posts 8 and outward were at a definite disadvantage.
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 day of the meet on March 21, when the track displayed an extreme inside speed bias:
Aqueduct Main Track Biases
Apr. 11 – Helped to be on or close on drying track races 4-9
Mar. 28 – Outside rally wide trips preferred
Mar. 21 – Inside speed bias
Mar. 16 – Helped to be on or close to the pace
Mar. 9 – Outside advantage
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 the grass.
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 a bad effort in one of those kinds of starts 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. Two-thirds through the 2013 Keeneland Spring meet, the rail post position has been great in routes (24% wins), and post positions have played fairly in sprints. In Keeneland turf routes, horses breaking from the inside five posts 1-5 have been dominating. You might want to consider giving horses shipping from Keeneland to Belmont excuses if they broke from far outside posts in recent Keeneland turf route losses.
As a matter of fact, all Keeneland main track results should 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 are usually 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, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Kiaran McLaughlin, Tom Albertrani, Christophe Clement, Shug McGaughey, and Steve Asmussen. 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 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 New York Post, New York Daily News, and 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 publications), 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.