Submitted by Noel Michaels on Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 3:28 PM
New York racing once again moves downstate for the start of the Belmont Park Fall Championship Meet, which begins on Friday, Sept. 8 and continues through to October 29. Following Saratoga, there are few race meets on the calendar as important as the Belmont Fall Championship Meet, which contains all of New York's key prep races for the Breeders' Cup. Plus, don't forget that besides just stakes races, Belmont Park also offers top-notch racing day-in-and-day-out all throughout the early fall season.
Every serious horseplayer plays Belmont during the fall of each year, so it will pay quick and important dividends for any handicapper to keep abreast to the goings-on, tips, trends, and winning track profiles at Belmont in order to be able to win.
By the time the racing season rolls into town for the Belmont Fall Championship Meet, Saratoga, has come and gone and taken the summer racing season along with it. Horses that were drawn to Saratoga from out of town mostly go back to where they came from at this time of the year, especially to Kentucky for Churchill and Keeneland. Nevertheless, it is Belmont that is the beacon that ushers in the best of fall racing throughout September and early October, giving Belmont's fall season its own different flavor than New York racing the rest of the year.
Much to the chagrin of racing fans and handicappers who relish the six-day-a-week 10- and 11-race cards that are commonly featured at Saratoga, the racing schedule is more condensed at Belmont, meaning that even though fall racing at Belmont isn't Saratoga, it is still the best racing to be found at this time each fall. And for the average horseplayer, Belmont is a better meet even than Saratoga, because it is easier to nail down winners at Belmont thanks to a smaller more concentrated sample of horses and horsemen that are easier to keep tabs on.
In reality, with the exception of large crowds in attendance for live racing, the Belmont Fall Championship Meet really isn't much of a letdown at all in terms of quality from the season up at Saratoga. Belmont features a similar program of stakes races and turf races as at Saratoga, and in many ways the Belmont Fall Meet shares even more similarities with the Saratoga meet than it does with the Belmont Spring/Summer Meet. This is because the 2-year-old program is such a big part of racing during the fall at Belmont Park, but virtually non-existent at Belmont in the spring. Not only is there juvenile racing at Belmont in the fall, the track's 2-year-old racing program happens to be the best juvenile racing in the country at this time of year.
So yes, we all agree that racing at Belmont Park in the fall is not the same as at Saratoga – the field sizes at Belmont can be expected to be somewhat smaller than they were at Saratoga, especially on the dirt, and there will be fewer shippers from other circuits – but nonetheless, Belmont still will have plenty to offer horseplayers including the best 2-year-olds, the best turf racing of the season, and the best and most widely-inclusive stakes program of the fall season.
Trainer, Jockey, and Post Trends from Saratoga to use at Belmont
The discussion of handicapping the Belmont fall meet must begin with a look at the trends from the Saratoga meet directly preceding it.
Many jockeys and trainers enjoyed success – or at least hot streaks – during the course of the Saratoga meet. Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher battled all season long atop of The Spa trainers' standings until Pltcher came out on top with 40 winners, and Irad Ortiz and Jose Ortiz continued their reign atop the jockeys' standings for yet another NY meet with a battle to be Saratoga's winningest rider. Jose was the winner with 58 victories. Both Brown and Pletcher, and Jose and Irad can be banked-on to continue their current dominance throughout the Belmont Fall meet.
The full human story of the Belmont Fall meet does not just begin and end with Pletcher and Brown and the Ortiz brothers, however. Many others will make their mark and it is with them that will determine whether a handicapper and bettor will make money at the meet. It is important to note that Brown started 73 favorites at Saratoga and Pletcher 61. To put that in perspective, all of the other top trainers at Saratoga started between 7-14 favored horses apiece all meet long.
In terms of trainers, at various times of the Saratoga meet, several horsemen enjoyed blazing hot streaks at one time or another, including guys like Kiaran McLaughlin, Danny Gargan, and Jason Servis. In the latter stages of the Saratoga meet, Linda Rice seems to be the hottest of all heading into the Belmont fall meet. She upped her win total to 16, and for bettors, the take-away on Rice is that 15 of her 16 Saratoga wins came on the turf (she was only 1-for-24, 4% on the dirt!). At Belmont, expect Rice to keep winning turf races throughout the fall, particularly in turf sprints.
The previously-mentioned Jason Servis should be followed at Belmont based on his 31% Saratoga win percentage and 60% in-the-money (ITM) percentage. Servis is also deadly in turf sprints, and can reliably be counted on to win at a high percentage with payoffs much better than Brown and Pletcher. Another reliably high-percentage winner is Charlton Baker, who won 28% and was 56% ITM at The Spa with an average win mutual of $11.70.
Remember that while Pletcher and Chad Brown will win the most races at Belmont, their average win prices will be in the $6.00 range, so handicappers will need to find opportunities beyond that pair in order to make any real money.
Other trainers to key on at Belmont also will include David Jacobson, who never has the kind of stock to excel very much at Saratoga (claimers, dirt), but still had 5 wins from 37 starters (14%) and did a lot of claiming during the second half of the meet, indicating he'll be ready to roll at Belmont.
Another interesting case from Saratoga is Rudy Rodroquez, who was in a large group of trainers vying for fourth in the Spa trainer rankings. Rudy won 12 races from 99 starters for only 12%, however, he was a staggering 0-for-33 on the grass. In dirt races on the other hand, that means his record was very solid at 12-for-66 for 18%. Ignore Rodriguez runners on the turf, and focus on them on the dirt, especially now that we're back at Belmont which runs many more of the types of races that he excels in for cheaper horses.
One other trainer poised for a big Belmont meet, if you only consider dirt races, is Steve Asmussen, who was ice cold early at Saratoga but finished the meet with 9 victories for 14%. If you take away his 1-for-18 record on the grass, Asmussen's Saratoga dirt-only record rose to 8-for-46 for a much better 17% win percentage.
If you want some big-name trainers to bet at Belmont who might offer some value based on below-par meets at Saratoga. There are plenty of op barns worth mentioning. Remember, when trainers win big at Saratoga they'll have less ammunition at Belmont after their best horses have already won or run through their logical current conditions upstate. But the opposite is also true. Trainers who were quiet at Saratoga return to Belmont with barns that are brimming with horses ready to win at their current conditions, and since these trainers are not named Pletcher of Brown, you can still get decent or at least fair prices on all of them.
Graham Motion, who won only 4-for-52 (8%) but was in the money 27 times for a 52% ITM percentage. Mark Casse struggled early in the meet but heated up ended winning a total of 6 races at Saratoga with only a 7% win percentage overall, but 5 of those 6 wins came during the second half of the Spa meet. Both of these trainers have stables full of horses ready to win. The same can also be said of Shug McGaughey and Christophe Clement. McGaughey was only 4-for-42 at Saratoga, but reliably always does better in the fall at both Belmont and Keeneland. Clement won 4 races from 44 Saratoga starters (9%), but had 10 place horses who are essentially all sitting on wins or high placings at Belmont.
In the Belmont jock's room, all of the top mounts from the top barns, of course, will continue to go to Jose Ortiz, Irad Ortiz, John Velazquez, and Javier Castellano. Winners ridden by Velazquez and Castellano, believe it or not, still pay less on average than both of the Ortiz brothers, however, and Castellano in particular comes off an uncharacteristically mediocre Saratoga and will need to heat up again at Belmont if he is to become a difference-maker for bettors.
What handicappers really need to know is where to land other than Jose, Irad, Javier, and Johnny V. in terms of the Belmont jockey colony. Here are a few suggestions:
Luis Saez is a great bet on the New York circuit, because you get quality rides from him consistently, but without a name that drags down your odds on the tote board. He'll ride for some top barns, including Kiaran McLaughlin, yet his average winner at Saratoga still paid $12.90. The other hot rider to watch currently is Jose Lezcano, who has had a career resurgence, mostly thanks to Linda Rice who is keeping him aboard many of her most live runners, particularly in turf sprints where he is coming up big in the turf sprint specialist role formerly filled by Cornelio Velasquez. It also helps that Lezcano's name no longer has any star power. His average Saratoga winner paid $15.40. Finally, you should also get on the Manny Franco bandwagon at Belmont, which is his best track on the circuit. He had a stellar Saratoga despite his 13% win percentage (31-for-243) when you consider that his average winner paid-off at a big $17.80.
Post and Running Style Trends
When evaluating horses' form from Saratoga when they show up back at Belmont Park in the fall, one final set of trends to learn from are the post position and running style trends that affected the recent Saratoga meet. Many horses racing at Belmont will show up with PPs that look either better, or worse, than they really are based on their favorable or non-favorable trips from recent starts up at Saratoga.
Saratoga dirt sprint post positions were fair overall, but the track favored front runners and tactical speed, and/or inside paths for many of the race days during the month of August. In Saratoga routes, you couldn't be drawn outside post 7 if you hoped to have a chance to win. So when you see a horse at Belmont exiting a Saratoga dirt route from a position outside post 7, go ahead and upgrade that horse next time out.
On the turf, remember that at Saratoga, just like at Belmont, inside posts, particularly the rail, are bad in turf sprints. The rail did win 6 of the 59 turf sprints run at Saratoga, but posts 1, 2 and 3 were all very bad in turf sprints with fields with more than 8 starters. Therefore, upgrade the chances of any horse that was disadvantaged with an inside turf sprint post at Saratoga when they make their next starts at Belmont, unless those horses once again draw inside in a turf sprint at Belmont.
In turf routes run at Saratoga this year, post positions were remarkably fair except on the Mellon (outer) course, where anything outside post 7 was a disaster. Horses breaking outside post 7 on the Mellon turf at Saratoga went only a combined 5-for-99 (5%). Upgrade those horses when you see them at Belmont.
For horses exiting Inner turf course races at Saratoga, there will be an even better angle for bettors at the Belmont fall meet. It doesn't involve post positions, but rather, running style.
The main bias that affected all of racing at Saratoga in 2017 had to do with the Inner turf course carrying speed under firm conditions basically the entire meet. These horses are going to come back in droves at Belmont and provide the strongest betting angle of all this fall. When you see horses at Belmont (or Churchill or Keeneland for that matter) who won or ran big with front-running efforts on Saratoga's Inner turf, you can downgrade those horses in their next starts. Conversely, when you see a horse exiting a Saratoga loss or sub-par effort(s) at Saratoga with a late-closing running style, you can go ahead and upgrade those horses at Belmont because they basically had no chance with kind of running style on the Inner turf at Saratoga this year.
This running style angle on the turf is likely be the main money-making angle of the season this fall at Belmont.
I hope these tips and trends give you an edge at the betting windows for a successful and enjoyable 2017 Belmont Fall Championship meet. Best of luck!
By Noel Michaels