Submitted by Noel Michaels on Wednesday, July 20, 2016 at 10:40 AM
The summer racing seasons at Del Mar and Saratoga are all about the top horses, trainers and jockeys in horseracing, and the top-notch handicapping and betting opportunities that go along with them. The fields will be huge, the competition will be stiff and evenly-matched, and the payoffs will often be pricey and loaded with good value for horseplayers who are willing to put in the necessary effort.
Del Mar is already underway and Saratoga is ready to kick-off its 2016 meet on Friday, July 22. Both meets will last the remainder of the summer up through Labor Day.
Del Mar and Saratoga are the ideal meets for horseplayers who follow track trends and do their homework, because you know that so many novice handicappers and tourists will be pumping so much money into the pools at the highly-anticipated race meets throughout the heart of the summer. For handicappers, the Del Mar and Saratoga meets provide nearly non-stop action (Saratoga runs six days a week), and it's easy to see why horseplayers look forward to these annual centerpieces on the annual Thoroughbred racing calendar.
Of course, these meets, or any meet for that matter, can sure be made even a lot more enjoyable when you are winning. Therefore, let's take a look at a few short and simple tips that can get you started in the right direction and give you an information edge as you get ready to unleash your bankroll this summer. Read on for some advice on what to look for at "The Spa" and "Where the Turf Meets the Surf," and from there, hopefully we can go on and enjoy profitable meets at Del Mar and Saratoga. Good luck and enjoy the good racing!
It's summer in Southern California, and for horseplayers, that can only mean one thing: Del Mar. The annual Del Mar summer Thoroughbred meet opened on July 15, 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. 5. 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 Santa Anita July meet.
The big news last year at Del Mar was the return of dirt racing on the Del Mar main track! After eight years racing on a synthetic surface, Del Mar hosts its second straight year of dirt racing for track's 77th summer racing season. This is important, because unlike last summer when handicappers had no recent stats or trends to go on, this year we have a full year of information to sink our teeth into in order to help us come up with more winners.
Del Mar's Prevailing Main Track Profile
Del Mar's main track is certainly back to favoring speed a lot more now that it is dirt than it did back in the Polytrack days when speed had difficulty holding up. However, while the slight preference on the Del Mar main track goes to speed, the track overall has played fair, and the front-end preference could not at all be termed a "bias." In fact, most other race tracks, including the others on the SoCal circuit, favor speed much more so than Del Mar.
Let's look at some Del Mar dirt track trends from 2015 and see how they can help us in 2016.
At the most commonly run distance at 6F on dirt, Del Mar will favor horses with tactical speed, capable of leading, pressing or stalking, but certainly not as much as at Santa Anita. Effectively, this means that come-from-behind horses will have better chances at Del Mar than at the previous Santa Anita meet. At Del Mar in 2015, 21% of all 6F races were won wire-to-wire as opposed to 31% at the recently concluded SA meet.
At this distance, horses definitely want to race within 3 lengths of the pace at the first call. At Del Mar, 75% of these races are won by horses within 3 lengths of the lead, versus 83% of such winners at SA.
If you want to bet against front runners, it is much better to do so at Del Mar at the distances of 6½F and 7F. At Del Mar, front runners win only 19% and 18% respectively at 6½F and 7F. At Del Mar, it is still important to race within 3 lengths of the lead at these distances (70% wins and 87% wins, respectively), meaning it is tactical speed and not front-running speed that wins the races. Front-running speed is much more important at SA, where 23% of 6 1/2F races are won wire-to-wire and where 7F races were highly biased toward front runners (38% wins) and horses within 3 lengths (94% wins).
And so, this gives us our first bug betting angle at Del Mar: Downgrade front-runners who won at SA at 6 1/2F and 7F, and upgrade horses coming from SA with tactical speed that came-up a little short.
Here is another Del Mar betting angle: At the distance of one mile (two turns), tactical speed is a money-losing disaster. According to the stats from 2015, there are two ways to win at Del Mar at one mile on the dirt, wire-to-wire (44% wins), or closers coming from more than 3 lengths off the pace (37% wins). That makes this particular distance the best for closers on the Del Mar main track, and by far the worst for pace pressers and close-up stalkers, who win only at a money-burning 19% clip.
Last season there were only 11 dirt races run at 1-1/16 miles and beyond, so we still have no reliable statistical information for those races.
Del Mar Turf Races
Del Mar's new turf course already has two years under its belt and is no longer a total unknown. Del Mar cards some of the country's best turf racing of the summer. 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 in 2014 (summer and fall meets combined). In 2015, the outside posts remained a disadvantage.
At the most commonly-run turf route distance of one mile, it is also worth noting the surprising post position revelation that the inside two posts, posts 1-2, can often be a disadvantage (only a total of 8 wins from 108 starters in 54 races fin 2014 for example, or a combined 7% win-percentage from the posts a lot of people would falsely assume provide the greatest advantage at that distance).
Therefore, in terms of post draws in turf routes overall, the best positions to break from are posts 3-8. This is particularly true at one mile and 1-1/8 miles.
In terms of running style preferences in turf routes, 16 percent of Del Mar's races are being won wire-to-wire, while 36% of these races are being won by horses that are still more than three lengths back at the quarter pole. This means two things: 1) Turf closers do much better at Del Mar than at SA and should therefore be upgraded, and 2) The pace pressers and stalkers in these races do the best, accounting for 48% of the victories.
Turf sprints have been unpredictable in the two years of Del Mar's new turf course, shifting from year-to-year with how they favor either speed or closers, or inside posts versus middle or outside posts. Keep an eye on this as the 2016 season progresses. Meanwhile, one thing does seem certain, SA turf sprint form (from the 6 1/2F downhill turf course) does not translate to Del Mar. Different horses win on these very different turf courses, so expect a lot of form reversals - both good and bad - from horses' recent turf sprints at SA. And also upgrade speed which has a much better chance to hold on in Del Mar's shorter turf sprints as opposed to Santa Anita's.
The 40-day Saratoga racing season lasts throughout the heart of the summer, running six days a week (every day except Tuesday) from Friday, July 22 until Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 5. The 2016 Saratoga meet will feature 69 stakes races worth $18.7 million, including the country's most tightly-packed Graded stakes program loaded with Grade 1s.
While the Saratoga stakes program is certainly great, the real money for horseplayers will be won and lost in Saratoga's daily meat-and-potatoes racing, which is still unrivaled by any other track at this or any other time of year.
Here are some of the top long-term trends to look for when handicapping at Saratoga, meant to give you the edge.
First off, Saratoga's main track is speed favoring at all distances, no doubt about it. The speed bias is especially prevalent in races at 6 furlongs and shorter, particularly with 2-year-olds. Early speed horses on or within a length of the lead at the first call win nearly 50% of all short dirt sprints (5½F and shorter), while pace pressers and the occasional stalker tend to win the rest. Also, speedsters and pressers both do exceptionally well at the commonly-run distance of 6F.
Second, with the move to Saratoga, the focus in New York racing flip-flops from benefiting one-turn route specialists at Belmont to favoring route horses that do their best running around two turns. Look down the past performances and bet horses whose best route races came on traditional two-turn layouts or in past races at Saratoga, particularly if those past races were at Saratoga's extended route distance of 1-1/8 miles (Saratoga cards no dirt races at 1 mile and 1-1/16 miles). Give these two-turn distance horses the edge against overbet horses that do their best running in Belmont's one-turn (mainly shorter) route races.
Third, downgrade the three inside posts in turf sprints, particularly the rail, while upgrading horses drawing far outside posts in those races. This is especially important in large fields with more than seven or eight runners.
Fourth, outside posts are negative factors on the Saratoga turf courses in routes to varying degrees. Posts 8 and outward are slight disadvantages on the turf at most distances, while far outside posts 10 and outward are usually poor bets. The inside three posts can offer a good advantage to horses running on the inner turf course at the distances of 1 mile and 1-1/16 miles.
And finally, in Saratoga grass races, speed generally plays a little better on the Mellon course than on the inner course. The pace profile of the average turf route winner at Saratoga is a horse that is roughly about 4 lengths off the pace at the first call and 2½ lengths off the pace at the second call. Hold more strictly to this pace preference on the Mellon course, where deeper-closing winners happen less frequently than on the Inner turf.
If you can get to the paddock for inner track turf races, look for physically small, athletic-looking horses instead of large, long-striding horses. The little guys handle the tight inner course turns nicely, while the big bulky horses generally don't.
Here is a closer look at the above-mentioned angles:
The most commonly run races at Saratoga, by category, are dirt sprints, in spite of the fact that Saratoga regularly cards as many or more turf races than anyone else. Just like any other track, the dirt sprints are the backbone of daily racing at Saratoga.
The cheaper the race, the more speed-favoring it probably will be. The speed bias is especially prevalent in races at 6 furlongs and shorter, particularly with 2-year-olds. Early speed horses on or within a length or two of the lead at the first call win nearly 50% of all short sprints.
Saratoga cards much fewer five furlong sprints than it used to, and in fact, they've become so rare that only a few of these races are carded each year, mainly for 2-year-olds. These 5 furlong sprints might be rare, but they are still worth keeping an eye out for when you can find one, because the 5F distance at Saratoga is one of the most speed biased trips in all of horseracing. Five furlong races at Saratoga are carded almost exclusively for juveniles, so often the entrants in these races will be first starters. In lieu of any past performances to go on, instead try to focus on horses with fast and/or bullet blowouts at 3 or 4 furlongs leading up to the race, and key exclusively on "win-early" trainers.
Looking at the post position stats for 5 ½ furlongs from Saratoga, we see very little favoritism for any particular post. Posts outside post 9 seem to account for the lone disadvantage. The rail generally is little or no benefit.
One interesting note in five-and-a-half furlong races at Saratoga is that the rail and the inside posts do not enjoy the same advantage at this distance as they do at other sprint distances.
Six furlongs is the most frequently run distance at Saratoga (as with all tracks), and therefore the sample size is the best when trying to decipher which posts are the most advantageous.
While the inside posts are the best at six furlongs, no posts could really be considered death sentences. When in doubt, give the horses from the inside posts an advantage over the outside at 6 furlongs.
At 6½ furlongs on Saratoga's main track, once again, the rail seems like the best place to be. The sample size at 6½ furlongs is smaller than at 6 furlongs, so therefore statistical anomalies can happen. Based on the figures, it seems that there is little or no post position bias at 6½ furlongs at Saratoga, with a good amount of winners regularly coming from inside, middle, and outside posts.
Finally, a good amount of races are run at 7 furlongs at Saratoga, and the numbers seem to suggest two things: First, that the inside two posts are the best post positions, and second, that it's difficult to win from a draw anywhere outside post 9.
Two-Turn Dirt Route Racing Returns to New York at Saratoga
Oftentimes the New York horses that come to Saratoga with the best form from Belmont are horses that have been excelling, in part, thanks to their preference for one-turn races. At Saratoga, this factor flip-flops away from the one-turn specialists who've excelled at Belmont, and instead favors two-turn horses that like the routes at Saratoga, and other more traditional track layouts including at Aqueduct.
This adds an interesting handicapping wrinkle in this track change situations to- and away from- Belmont Park. This move in New York racing from Belmont to Saratoga is one of those pertinent times of year.
If you see a horse that has demonstrated its best route form at Belmont going 1 mile, 1-1/16 miles, or 1-1/8 miles, then that horse can probably be termed a "one-turn router." However, if you see a horse whose best route races came on more traditional layouts such as Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Monmouth, the mid-Atlantic region, Churchill Downs, Keeneland, or in past races at Saratoga, then you have a potential key play or wake-up horse at Saratoga, particularly if the horse's past good two-turn efforts came at or near 1-1/8 miles.
Remember also, that at Saratoga, because of the track layout, there are no one-mile races and no 1-1/16-mile races. The vast majority of all main track routes are run at 1-1/8 miles. This creates lots of problems for horses whose best distances are one mile and/or 1-1/16 miles. Those horses must either stretchout to 1-1/8 miles (perhaps too long), or cutback to seven furlongs around one turn (too short).
In addition to looking for two-turn-type horses, you need to work on eliminating horses that just-plain don't want to go 1 1/8 miles on the dirt. Many horses are much the best at one mile and/or 1-1/16 miles, but those options are closed to them at Saratoga. Bet against those horses that prefer the shorter dirt route distances, and upgrade the chances of horses that are proven at 1-1/8 miles and beyond.
And then there are the turf sprints - which are run at an average rate of more than one per day at Saratoga throughout the season. Saratoga turf sprints are all run at 5 1/2 furlongs. This differs greatly from Belmont, where turf sprints can be either 6 or 7 furlongs - with the 7 furlong Belmont turf sprints being run on the main turf course, and most of Belmont's 6F turf sprints run on the inner turf.
The main thing to understand about New York turf sprints (especially at Saratoga) before anything else, is that outside posts rule. I recommend you stick with this angle in big turf sprint fields, because it has been too much a part of being able to be a winning handicapper at Saratoga over the course of the last decade. Examples of this were in 2009 when inside gate in turf sprints won just 1-for-43 in 2009, and 2010 when Post 1 went 2-for-45. In 2011, the rail was awful again, going just 1-for-41 (2%).
Larger turf sprint fields make the inside posts nearly impossible. Pass on betting the inside horses in Saratoga turf sprints, and then take note of those horses and bet them back next time out when and if they get off the inside. Besides just the rail, the other far inside posts are often not much better in Saratoga turf sprints.
Also worth mentioning is that dating back to the 2005 meet, Linda Rice has been the undisputed queen of the Saratoga turf sprint races, with no other trainer coming even remotely close to putting up her kinds of numbers. In 2015, however, trainer Christophe Clement began to put his stamp on these races, winning twice as many (6 wins) as any other single trainer.
All running styles have a fair chance at winning in Saratoga turf route races, no matter if a horse is a speed horse, a presser, stalker, or closer. This is important to note, because some other turf courses tend to play one way or another. The Gulfstream turf routes, for example, play against speed and tend to favor stalkers. Belmont's grass courses are more speed-friendly than most when firm, but tend to play more towards late-runners when yielding or less than firm.
In turf routes run at Saratoga, the inside and middle posts boast an advantage over the outside gates. This is true in turf routes run on the Mellon (outside) course, and especially true on the inner turf course where the inside three posts definitely do the best and any post 8 and outward is a disadvantage. On the Mellon turf, you have to go all the way out to posts 10 and higher to notice a big disadvantage. Remember that if you want to bet horses toward the outside, but not all the way outside, that Posts 8 and 9 may win less often than post 1, for example, but the odds will be better for Posts 8 and 9 and the better odds offered on outside horses often makes up for any win percentage difference between inside and horses on the not-too-far outside up to post 9.
Inside post positions are almost always preferred in two-turn grass races, especially at Saratoga where the fields are usually large, the course is narrow, and traffic is a factor. The first turn has a tendency to come up on the field very soon after the start of a turf route, and a horse breaking from the inside that is able to hug the rail around the first turn may gain as many as five lengths on a competitor from the far outside who may be destined to lose ground while wide. That many lengths can be very difficult to make up during the running of the race, and the result is that outside horses often end up falling short - even in cases when they may have been the best horse in the race.
Far outside posts - we're talking about posts 10-12 - are not the place to be in turf routes at Saratoga, because they often lead to ground loss and wide trips. Many turf horses who have lost their last race after breaking from an outside post come back to win their next start at good odds if fortunate enough to get a better post draw.
You may or may not choose to take post positions into account when handicapping turf route races, but one thing you should never ignore is a turf horse making a positive shift to an inside post after breaking from an outside post last time out. There are plenty of times when horses are good enough to overcome outside posts en route to victory. However, when that is not the case, you should be able to identify that information in a horse's past performances in order to take advantage of it next time out.
By using this information and these simple trends as a rough guideline, I hope you will have a foundation for what it takes to win at the 2016 Del Mar and Saratoga summer meets. Del Mar and Saratoga are the ideal meets for horseplayers who follow track trends because so many novice handicappers and tourists pump so much money into the pools. Opportunities always abound for serious horseplayers to get their share of the pie over the course of the summer.
Enjoy meets at sunny Del Mar and Saratoga. I hope you can benefit from this statistical analysis and use the information to your best advantage when trying to make money at racing's two top summer destinations. Best of luck!
By Noel Michaels