Submitted by Noel Michaels on Friday, June 28, 2019 at 9:40 AM
By Noel Michaels
If you are a serious horseplayer and you are not already looking forward to the Saratoga meet, it might be time to check your pulse because Saratoga is the summer place to be for all handicappers and horse racing aficionados alike. The highly looked-forward-to and anticipated 40-day Saratoga racing season lasts throughout the heart of the summer, but with some notable scheduling changes this season. The 2019 meet starts earlier than in the past on Thursday, July 11, and will run five days a week (Wednesdays through Sundays) instead of six days a week, which had been the case previously. As usual, the meet runs until Labor Day, which this year falls on Monday, Sept. 2.
Saratoga’s biggest weekend, of course, is Travers weekend on Saturday, August 24. The Grade 1 $1.25 million “Mid-Summer Derby” will headline a day of $4.8 million in stakes purses including 6 Grade 1 races, which figures to the best day of racing and wagering of the entire summer.
Saratoga, however, is not only about the Travers and the boatload of other stakes races. The daily meat-and-potatoes racing is incredible too. Let’s look at some categories that handicappers can focus on to help narrow down the choices and find the kinds of good-priced winners you see popping-up each and every day of the Saratoga meet. Here are some of the top tips and trends to look for at o make you a winner and give you the edge all season long at Saratoga.
SARATOGA HANDICAPPING GUIDE
Saratoga Trainers to Watch
The first thing that should be mentioned in any Saratoga handicapping guide for 2019 should have to do with the trainer’s race. It is a safe bet that the top of the trainer’s standings will be dominated by Chad Brown, and that the “exacta” in the trainer’s race should be rounded-out by Todd Pletcher. That projected 1-2 finish atop the trainer’s standings would probably be the safest exacta box at the entire Saratoga meet.
Chad Brown dominated the trainer’s standings like never before in 2018, winning 46 races which set the all-time Saratoga training record and was more than double the amount of winners Pletcher had in second place with 19. Rudy Rodriguez was next with 14 winners, followed close by Bill Mott and Steve Asmussen, each with 13 wins. Brown accomplished his 46-win season from 171 starters, with a strong win percentage of 27% and a startling in-the-money [ITM] rate of 64%.
Pletcher had edged out Brown by a single win on the final day of the meet back in 2017, and Brown had won the training title at Saratoga the year before in 2016 meet with 40 wins. Pletcher had won the title for five consecutive seasons from 2011 to 2015 (13 overall Saratoga trainer titles.
Behind Pletcher and Brown last season, it once again should be a battle between Rodriguez, Mott, and Asmussen as well as other Saratoga stalwarts like Linda Rice and Kiaran Mclaughlin. Jason Servis also had a giant meet at Saratoga in 2018, going 10-for-40 in the win column and an amazing 20-for-40 in the exacta. Jeremiah Englehart also much be respected after a big 2018 meet in which he went 12-for-84 in the win column, good for sixth in the standings.
All of the aforementioned trainers should be respected in all spots, but all have their specialties. Brown wins turf routes and stakes races at an alarming rate. Pletcher reels off 2yo maiden wins and stakes wins like they are going out of style. Asmussen wins with 2yos and maidens and a variety of sprinters mainly. Rudy Rodriguez wins mostly claiming races and New York-bred races, as does Englehart. Linda Rice is the queen of the turf sprints and also wins with NY-bred maidens. Mott wins mainly turf routes, and McLaughlin is one to watch in turf sprints and dirt route races. Jason Servis loves turf sprints. The last slot in the trainer’s top 10 is up for grabs and could go to any one of a dozen or more top trainers. Perhaps turf ace trainer Christophe Clement is due for a rebound meet with the help of a live string of turf sprinters, or maybe it will be Joe Sharp, who is lethal in one-mile turf races and turf sprints. Mark Casse’s national profile has also risen to elite status the last to years.
Saratoga Winning Track Profile
In terms of a winning track profile at Saratoga, there are five key points to concentrate on. 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 dirt sprints shorter than 6F. Pressers and the occasional stalker tend to win the rest. Speedsters and pressers also do exceptionally well at the commonly-run distance of 6F.
Second, with the move to Saratoga, the focus in route racing flip-flops from benefiting one-turn route specialists at Belmont to favoring route horses that do their best running around two turns – and at 1 1/8 miles – as opposed to 1 mile or 1 1/16 miles. Look down the past performances and bet horses whose best route races came on more traditional two-turn layouts such as Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Churchill, Keeneland, the mid-Atlantic region, or in past races at Saratoga, but not at Belmont. This is particularly true if a horse has run past races around two turns at 1 1/8 miles (Saratoga cards no dirt races at 1 mile and 1 1/16 miles). Give these two-turn main track distance horses the edge against overbet horses that do their best running in Belmont’s unique one-turn route races.
Third, as detailed thoroughly later in this article in the turf sprint section, 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 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 fifth, 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 winner at Saratoga is a horse that is roughly about 4 lengths off the pace at the first call and 2 1/2 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.
3 KEY ELEMENTS
Now let’s look at 3 key elements that handicappers will need to navigate successfully if they hope to go home a winner at Saratoga. These handicapping elements, or sub-categories, play a huge role in the day-to-day racing at Saratoga. The ones in focus are 2-year-olds, first-time turfers, and turf sprints.
Betting Saratoga 2-Year-Old Races
Saratoga is home to some of the country’s best 2-year-old races, and you are more likely to see next year’s Kentucky Derby starters and Grade 1 winners in action there than at any other race meet at any other track at any time of year.
When it comes to those expensive spa baby races, speed always helps. Most 2-year-old sprints are either won wire-to-wire, or are won by an early speed horse or pace-presser capable of staying within a couple lengths of the lead at the first call. Sometimes you will see a juvenile and/or a first-time starter win from off the pace in Saratoga sprints, but you can’t really rely on these types of horses. When you see one, you might want to take note of him or her, because you might be looking at a next-out winner, and/or a horse destined for stakes or next spring’s classics.
It’s not a surprise that Todd Pletcher wins a lot of 2-year-old races and also wins with a lot of first-time (and second-time) starters. You can expect his numbers in this regard to be between 25-30%. Pletcher won a total of 15 baby races at The Spa at in 2016 (31% wins), which was nearly twice the next winningest 2-year-old trainer. His numbers in 2017 and 2018 were a bit short of that high-water mark, but not by much. The great thing about betting Pletcher’s Spa babies is that, even if they lose their first career race, they will usually graduate in their second career race. Bet Pletcher’s juvenile maidens in theirfirst or second starts. If a Pletcher baby has not graduated in either or its first or second start, then stop betting it.
Mark Casse brings good 2-year-olds to Saratoga and should win quite a lot of those races. In 2016 he had 8 juvenile wins from 24 starters for a big 33% win rate. With Casse, however, keep in mind that he is a major tortoise at Saratoga (wins later in the meet, in horses’ second or third starts of the season at Saratoga).
Chad Brown is great with turf 2-year-olds at Saratoga, but the betting public doesn’t seem to differentiate his turf starters from dirt starters and his 2-year-old dirt horses at Saratoga thereby get severely overbet. That category is one of the few in which you want to steer clear of Brown’s horses at Saratoga. What you want to do with Brown is bet his first starters on the turf, but bet against them on the dirt at The Spa.
Other trainers to do well with juveniles should include Steve Asmussen, the unheralded George Weaver, Ken McPeek, Wesley Ward, and Jimmy Jerkens.
Saratoga First-Time Turfers
On the grass, Saratoga, when the weather holds, probably runs a higher percentage of turf races than any other major meet of the year thanks to its two turf courses, classy barns, large horse population, and influx of top turf trainers from all over the country.
Many of the turf races each year are won by first-time turf starters, which are often some of the most difficult turf winners to handicap – but often pay premium mutuel prices. Some of the top trainers in this regard are certainly no surprise, with Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott leading the way over the course of the last several years. Pletcher leads all trainers recently with Spa first-time turf winners. It is Bill Mott, however, who has been much better in terms of ROI.
Other top trainers with first-time turfers at the Spa the last 10 years of course have included Chad Brown, but it should be noted his success comes in turf routes, not turf sprints. Many other trainers who excel at Saratoga with first-time turf horses often do so more often in sprints, such as Linda Rice.
The list of top ROI trainers with first-time turfers at Saratoga the last ten years has included Bill Mott, Chad Brown, Graham Motion, George Weaver, Christophe Clement, Barclay Tagg, Wesley Ward, and Mike Maker. John Kimmel also has some good numbers with first-time turfers at Saratoga, but doesn’t have as many starters in the category as the other trainers mentioned above. Gary Contessa also can spring to life in this category from time-to-time, even though he is not generally known for first-time turf winners, or turf winners in general for that matter. This results in high mutuel payoffs on Contessa’s turf winners, so pay attention.
Combining the two categories of first-time starters and first-time turfers – gives us the category of career first time starters on the turf. In this department, Chad Brown, Mark Casse and George Weaver lead the way.
Saratoga Turf Sprints
Anyone who follows New York racing knows that turf sprints are a giant part of the Saratoga landscape over the past decade and a half since becoming firmly entrenched starting in 2005. 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 turn in Saratoga turf sprints seems to come-up much quicker than the turn for Belmont’s turf sprints, and Saratoga’s turns are obviously much tighter than Belmont’s. The different turns, along with the shorter distance, puts a much higher importance on tactical speed in Saratoga’s turf sprints as opposed to at Belmont. This results in form reversals, both positive and negative, with different horses winning at The Spa than at Belmont.
The first thing to understand about New York turf sprints, especially at Saratoga, before anything else, is that outside posts rule. In larger turf sprint fields with more than eight horses, winning from the inside posts is still nearly impossible unless you are a lone speed horse.
Pass on betting the inside horses in Saratoga turf sprints, and then take note of those horses and bet them back next time out, if and when they get off the inside.
I recommend steadfastly sticking with this turf sprint post position angle because it has been too much a part of being able to be a winning handicapper at Saratoga over the course of more than a decade. Examples of this inside post futility in turf sprints included Post 1 winning 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%). Other years have been terrible too, especially when you’re talking about big fields of over eight horses. The numbers look a little bit better in recent years, but that’s only because Saratoga will run a lot of turf sprints these days with less than eight starters. Inside posts have a shot in those smaller fields.
What are the reasons that inside posts are bad and outside posts are good in Saratoga’s 5 1/2F turf sprints? Well, if you are a late-running horse with an inside post, it can be very difficult to drop back, work your way outside, and then circle around the field and get up in time with so little real estate to work with. If you are a stalker with an inside draw, you risk getting buried down on the rail behind the speed horses who send from the rail or drop over from the outside. As for speed horses, unless a horse is the flat-out lone speed in the field, an inside speed horse is forced to “send” and ends-up at the mercy of the speed horses from the outside who have the advantage of being able to control the pace. They get caught by the outside stalkers/closers. No matter which way you slice it, the inside few posts can be a difficult hurdle to overcome in Saratoga turf sprints – especially the rail!
Something like post position seems like such a trivial handicapping tool, but in these wide open Saratoga turf sprints, any way you can narrow down the field can be helpful.
The same set of trainers tends to win the overwhelming vast majority of Saratoga turf sprints, and you should expect this to continue in 2019. Trainers to bet in Saratoga turf sprints are led by all-time Spa turf sprint queen Linda Rice, as well as Jason Servis, Christophe Clement, and Kiaran McLaughlin, who each can win in the 25% range in these races throughout the Spa meet. Joe Sharp also specializes at turf sprints when he ships to NY for Saratoga. Actually, Sharp, a former assistant to Mike Maker, can never be overlooked with anything on the grass at distances up to and including one mile.
The summer at Saratoga is not only about the top horses, trainers and top jockeys, it’s also about the top-notch betting and handicapping. The fields are huge, the competition is top-notch and evenly-matched, and competitors come from almost everywhere as legitimate contenders. Races are loaded with good value for horseplayers who are willing to put in the effort.
Saratoga is the ideal meet for handicappers who follow track trends, because so many novice handicappers and tourists will be pumping 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 meet. I hope you can benefit from this Saratoga handicapping primer and use the information to your best advantage. Have a great meet, and good luck!