Belmont Fall Handicapping Preview – Win with Track Trends and Trainer Tips
By Noel Michaels
There are few race meets as important as the Belmont Fall Championship Meet, which follows Saratoga and contains all of New York’s key prep races for the Breeders’ Cup. Besides just stakes races, Belmont also offers top-notch racing day-in-and-day-out throughout the season. Every serious horseplayer plays Belmont races at this time of year, so it will pay quick dividends for horseplayers who keep abreast to the goings-on in order follow the handicapping trends that will prevail at the Belmont meet this fall.
The Saratoga meet has come and gone and taken summer racing along with it, much to the chagrin of racing fans and handicappers who relished the full fields, 11- and 12-race cards, and excellent wagering opportunities that the Spa is known for. Thankfully for horseplayers, however, no sooner does Saratoga close than it’s time for the next big meet to begin at Belmont. Belmont begins its eight-week run starting on Friday, Sept. 5 and continues through the fall to closing day on Sunday, October 26, as Thoroughbred racing marches steadily onward toward the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita.
The recently concluded Saratoga meet was just as high-quality as ever, and we all will be hoping for a Belmont fall meet featuring a similar program of stakes races, turf races, and the best juvenile racing at this time of year. The field sizes at Belmont can be expected to be somewhat smaller than they were at Saratoga, but Belmont still will have plenty to offer horseplayers, especially when weather conditions permit a full array of turf racing.
Some of the biggest days of the meet will include Breeders’ Cup Preview Super Saturday on September 27 – when there will be six Breeders’ Cup prep races including FIVE Grade 1 races and a Grade 2 led by the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup (prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic). Other Super Saturday stakes will include the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (prep for the Turf), the Flower Bowl (Filly & Mare Turf), the Beldame (Distaff), and the Vosburgh (Sprint), plus the Grade 2 Kelso Handicap (Dirt Mile).
Another big weekend on the fall meet calendar will be on October 4-5, with five more Graded stakes including more Breeders’ Cup preps like the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes (Juvenile), and the Grade 1 Frizette (Juvenile Fillies).
BELMONT FALL HANDICAPPING GUIDE
As always, one important thing to remember and keep in mind at this time of year in New York racing is just how dramatically different Belmont Park is from Saratoga. At Belmont, the route races return to being one-turn events, and 1-mile and 1 1/16-mile route races re-enter the picture on the dirt (distances not run on dirt at Saratoga). Usually, a horse’s two-turn record, especially in mile races, is irrelevant for the purposes of evaluating Belmont’s one-turn routes. When handicapping those races, scan the pp’s for horses’ past performances in one-turn routes, and don’t give as much weight to other mile results run at two-turn layouts such as at places like Monmouth Park and Saratoga and elsewhere.
Saratoga’s nickname is “The Graveyard of Favorites,” and it has that reputation for a reason. Much of it has to do with horses’ one-turn form from Belmont being misinterpreted – either too good or too bad – on Saratoga’s totally different two-turn layout. The same is true in the reverse direction every fall when the New York circuit returns to Belmont Park. Horseplayers consistently lose money over-betting horses based on their Saratoga form, when the best thing to do, both from an ability and a value perspective, would be to go back to horse’s form when they last ran at Belmont, and evaluate them based on those past performance lines, whenever possible.
Plus, also keep in mind that Saratoga’s track layout forces many horses to run at less-than-optimal distances upstate because there are no mile and 1 1/16-mile dirt races. A lot of horses must either cutback to 7F (too short for them), or stretchout to 1 1/8 miles (too long). Running at the wrong distances, their past performances often indicate they have gone out of their best form, when in reality, many of those horses were simply at the wrong distances at Saratoga. Look for these kinds of overlay horses when they return to Belmont and enter one mile and 1 1/16-mile races on the dirt.
Two-turn route races have always been a big element of handicapping at Saratoga, unlike at New York’s bookend race meets at Belmont Park. Saratoga cards roughly 40 two-turn dirt routes a season – an average of one per day – and those events are quite different than the dirt route races run around one turn at Belmont.
In order to figure out if a horse prefers one turn or two turns, scan down its past performances and see where its past route wins (if any) and/or its highest route speed figures have come from in the past. If you see a horse that has demonstrated its best route form at Belmont going 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, the mid-Atlantic region, or in past races at Saratoga, then you potentially have a horse with a two-turn preference that would do better at Saratoga and not as well at this meet at Belmont Park.
TIP: With the move to Belmont, the focus in New York racing flip-flops from benefiting two-turn route specialists up at Saratoga (and other tracks like Monmouth) to favoring route horses that do their best running around one turn in the unique races at Belmont. Bet horses who seem to do their best running in one-turn races and/or specifically at Belmont.
Trainers are an important handicapping factor at this Belmont meet even more so than usual. When it comes to trainer trends, you always want to keep on the lookout for at least two categories: 1) Who are the hot trainers? And; 2) Who are the trainers who have already fired all their best bullets at Saratoga and will inevitably go cold at this Belmont meet? Correctly differentiating trainers in both of those categories and staying ahead of the public’s learning curve annually are amongst the strongest keys to winning for handicappers at the Belmont Fall meet.
Here is the list of top trainers from the recently concluded 2014 Saratoga meet:
Top Trainers – Saratoga 2014
Trainer Wins Win% ITM%
Todd Pletcher 28 21% 53%
Chad Brown 23 23% 53%
Bill Mott 13 16% 44%
Mike Maker 12 20% 47%
Graham Motion 11 16% 41%
George Weaver 11 20% 48%
Rudy Rodriguez 11 15% 46%
Bruce Levine 10 23% 49%
6 trainers tied with 9 wins
Based on the chart of top trainers at the most recent Saratoga meet, it is safe to assume that Todd Pletcher will once again dominate the 2014 Belmont Fall meet. Pletcher is coming off another great season at Saratoga with 28 wins, but it should be noted that he did not win nearly as much as in either of the last two years, when he won 36 races both years at Saratoga. This means that Pletcher has not even fired all his bullets at Saratoga and will be overloaded with live horses at Belmont. The same is true for Chad Brown, who enjoyed a good meet at Saratoga, particularly in the last five weeks of the meet), but nevertheless did not win as many races as in years past and should therefore continue to have an absolutely loaded barn at the Belmont Fall Meet.
Pletcher and Chad Brown should be far and away the 1-2 trainers at Belmont this fall.
Linda Rice, notably, had a slow Saratoga meet again this year with only 8 wins from 59 starters for a so-so win percentage of 14%, with a low 37% in the money. She usually dominates the turf sprint category, so my guess is that her barn wil rebound at the upcoming Belmont Fall meet, especially in the turf sprints, where her horses may be less heavily-bet than usual. The Belmont fall meet is traditionally a slow meet for Rice when she does well at Saratoga, but she tends to do better at Belmont in years after she’s had a quiet summer at Saratoga.
My top choice for other trainers to bet at the Belmont Fall Meet based on having lukewarm summers at Saratoga that have left them with barns full of live runners starts off with Christophe Clement, who did okay at Saratoga but nevertheless was much quieter than usual upstate this summer. Clement won eight races up at Saratoga (the same amount as the last two years, but with a low 13% win percentage because a very unlucky 11 places and 13 shows. While that would be considered very good for most of the conditioners on the backstretch, those numbers must be considered modest by Clement’s standards. Therefore, I have to expect him to be loaded with ready-to-win horses now heading into the Belmont meet, especially with all of those second- and third-place finishers from up at The Spa.
Another trainer I would bet this fall at Belmont is David Jacobson, who was much more quiet than usual at Saratoga with only 9 wins. He will have his barn loaded with ready-to-win horses saved for Belmont, and like Clement, Jacobson also had a ton of 2nds at Saratoga (14), and he is ready to turn those 2nds into 1sts at Belmont Park.
Finally, another trainer I am putting on my trainers-to-bet-at-Belmont list this fall is Kiaran McLaughlin, who did not do badly at Saratoga with 9 winners, but was certainly much more quiet than usual upstate where he started only 46 runners. This means his barn is loaded with horses that are ready to win and they should win at McLaughlin’s traditional high winning percentage at this meet, particularly with his maiden second-time starters.
In this same handicapping vein as betting the barns that are still loaded on the heels of the Saratoga meet, generally speaking, it is also usually a good idea to start betting against trainers who made a lot of noise at Saratoga once they return downstate to Belmont. Many trainers’ winning percentages inevitably will go down at Belmont after winning a lot of races and exhausting a lot of their horses’ conditions at Saratoga. This gives you a good chance to try to buck a lot of chalk on the tote board while trying to look elsewhere for the new “hot hand.”
Some trainers that may suffer dips in their winning percentages at Belmont this fall include Bill Mott, James Jerkens, Graham Motion, and Bruce Levine. This is an exceptionally strong group of trainers and I am in no way telling you not to bet them. However, I am saying that as a group, their horses ran big at Saratoga and perhaps are in for a little bit of a letdown in terms of winning percentage and ROI at the upcoming Belmont meet.
On the Belmont dirt track, speed is an extremely handy commodity. 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 the front runners regardless. When those biases appear, they can stay in place for up to a week at time when the weather goes through a stretch without changing. Otherwise, always assume the prevailing main track bias at Belmont, favoring speed horses and horses able to stay within 2 1/2 lengths of the early pace in sprints and within 4 lengths of the early pace in routes.
Most of the horses running at the Belmont Fall Meet will be exiting races at Saratoga for one or more of their most-recent outings. This is important, because it will give handicappers a great chance to cash-in on overlays and overlooked horses based on the track biases from the 2014 Saratoga meet, which concluded on Sept. 1.
For example, a Saratoga winner might look nearly unbeatable based on a recent win upstate, but that when that win turns out to have been bias-aided, that horse is likely to be a giant underlay, and in fact very beatable, when it runs back at Belmont. Conversely, a horse that has a seemingly dreadful or disappointing loss in its last race at Saratoga might just have been hurt by running against a track bias, and thus be better than he or she actually looks and actually a live overlay on the tote board at Belmont.
See the chart below for a list of main track biases compiled at the recent Saratoga meet. This information will be invaluable throughout the first month of action at Belmont:
Noel Michaels’ exclusive Saratoga Daily Main Track Bias List – 2014 Meet
Sept. 1 – Speed bias on drying track
Aug. 31 – Speed bias
Aug. 30 – Speed bias
Aug. 25 – Rally wide advantage
Aug. 24 – Anti-speed advantage
Aug. 23 – Outside bias on drying track
Aug. 22 – Outside good in mud; speed dominated in sprints
Aug. 21 – Front-end bias on sloppy track
Aug. 17 – Outside rally wide advantage
Aug. 13 – Helped to be on or close in the mud; outside preferred
Aug. 11 – Speed good
Aug. 10 – Gold rail inside bias
Aug. 9 – Front-end bias
Aug. 8 – Outside preferred
Aug. 7 – Outside was the best part of the track
Aug. 6 – Off the rail preferred
July 31 – Outside good, slow rail on fast but drying track
July 30 – Outside good, slow rail on muddy sealed track
July 28 – Outside good, horses avoided the rail on muddy sealed track
July 27 – Outside good, horses avoided the rail on muddy sealed track
When betting horses at Belmont who are exiting races on any of the above-listed bias days at Saratoga, I recommend upgrading horses that are coming out of losses in against-the-bias efforts, while at the same time downgrading horses coming out of wins in efforts that may have been aided by running with the biases listed above.
I hope these tips and trends give you an edge at the betting windows for a successful and enjoyable 2014 Belmont Fall Championship meet. Best of luck!
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