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SARATOGA HANDICAPPING TIPS TO GIVE YOU THE WINNING EDGE

By Noel Michaels

Saratoga is America’s premier annual horseracing meet, and there is no better meet for race fans and handicappers to watch, wager, and enjoy in the summertime than Saratoga, which annually brings together the best horses, trainers, and jockeys in North American racing.  The fields are huge and the competition is stiff and evenly-matched. Therefore the payoffs are often pricey, and loaded with good value for horseplayers who are willing to put in the effort.  Opportunities always abound for serious horseplayers to get their share of profits over the course of the seven-week meet.

You only have to look at the star-studded jockey colony to know what the Saratoga meet means to the top-rung names in the sport of Thoroughbred racing.  The jock’s room is led by regulars who are the best in the game like Javier Castellano and Irad Ortiz, who just finished tied for the meet riding title at Belmont, and John Velazquez, Cornelio Velasquez, Joel Rosario, and Jose Lezcano, plus many others, including some top out-of-town jockeys (plus Euro star rider Frankie Dettori, (who will ride at Saratoga opening week), who spend all or part of the their summer season at the Spa.

It’s not just the horses and horsemen that are the best at Saratoga, the betting is also top-notch.  There is so much betting value at Saratoga, due primarily to two main factors; 1) field sizes are large and the horses are evenly-matched and have all been pointed for this meet, and 2) there is more novice money bet at Saratoga than anywhere else.

Please refer to the following chart of recent average payoffs at Saratoga for an illustration of the value that awaits horseplayers who can cash tickets at the Spa:

Saratoga Average Payoffs for $2 Wagers (5-year composite averages) Turf Routes

  Dirt Sprints Dirt Routes Turf Sprints Outer Turf  Inner Turf
Win  $12.80 $12.80 $13.00   $13.60 $15.00
Exacta $106  $90 $140 $95   $138
Trifecta  $711 $463 $842 $596 $1,177

 (* Note: A few exceptionally large payoffs were omitted from these calculations to avoid skewing the averages.)

And so, with all that money floating around upstate New York during July & August along with so many novice handicappers and tourists pumping money into Saratoga’s mutuel pools, you certainly will have your chances to get your hands on some of the big-time profits available at Saratoga.

There are so many different elements that go into successfully handicapping at Saratoga. The horseplayers who do the best at this meet will be the ones who pay the closest attention to details, do the most homework, and know the most facts when it comes to winning trainers, running styles, and track biases and how to use them to their advantage.

Some of the things you have to ask yourself when handicapping, particularly at Saratoga, include, which horses have the talent and conditioning to win? Which trainers have done all the right things to prepare their horses for success? Which horses are best suited to the course and distance of the race? Who drew a favorable post? Who is running with the track biases, and who is running against them? Who is rounding into form and ready for a peak effort?  These can be difficult questions to answer, and that’s, in part, why it’s so tough to win money consistently at Saratoga, where racing only runs for seven weeks a year and where so many horses of so many varying ability levels are coming into town from so many different locations.

BELMONT MEET REVIEW

Obviously, the main place where most of the horses racing at Saratoga will be coming from will be from the recently concluded Belmont Park Spring/Summer meet, and it will help to have as much knowledge as possible from the Belmont meet that you can apply to your handicapping at Saratoga.

First off, let’s take a look at the daily track biases that affected the racing at Belmont this past meet.  For the most part, the Belmont main track was a fair surface for much of the recently concluded race meet.  Of course, there were days here and there where the track favored one running path or running style over another, but it was certainly no more than usual this spring/summer.

Please see below for my exclusive track bias ratings for the Belmont Spring/Summer meet.  Dates that are not listed I considered to be fair racing days void of track bias.  On my list, you will notice that perhaps the main bias of the meet took place in the final week, where the racing on July 9-11 was affected by an outside bias and a slow rail.  This is important to note, because many of the horses exiting those races will be making their next starts at Saratoga.

Belmont Track Biases (2014 Spring/Summer meet)

July 11—Outside bias
July 10—Outside good
July 9—Outside good
July 5—Off the pace advantage on ‘fast’ but drying track
July 3—Speed good, had to be on or close to the pace
June 27—Speed good
June 20—Speed good
June 19—Anti-speed bias
June 8—Speed good, couldn’t close from far behind
June 5—Rally wide advantage on wet drying track
May 26—Speed good
May 24—Outside was best on drying out track
May 15—Off the pace advantage
May 9—Outside preferred on wet sealed track
May 8—Outside good, slow rail in the slop
May 7—Speed good, 5 of 6 races won wire-to-wire
May 2—Outside good, slow rail

As far as the jockey and trainer standings from Belmont, note that the jockey colony was ruled by co-leading riders Javier Castellano and Irad Ortiz Jr., who each had fantastic meets at Belmont. Joel Rosario is also riding in fine current form at present.

In the trainers ranks, Todd Pletcher once again took top honors at Belmont, beating out Chad Brown 28 wins to 24 wins in a tight trainer’s race that should repeat itself at Saratoga, where these two barns are especially dominant and do their best racing and winning of the entire year.  The other top trainers at Belmont should also be expected to do well at Saratoga this season.

Belmont Final Trainer Standings (2014 Spring/Summer)

Rank Trainer Wins Win%
1 Tood Pletcher 28 23%
2 Chad Brown 24 32%
3 Christophe Clement 21 19%
4 David Jacobson 19 17%
5 Linda Rice 18 18%
6 Gary Contessa 16 20%
7 Bill Mott 16 20%
8 Bruce Brown 13 20%
9 Mike Hushion 10 22%
9t Rudy Rodriguez 10 11%

The final part of the Belmont recap pertains to the post position trends at the recently concluded meet.

On the dirt at Belmont, the rail and inside posts were all good places to be on the main track in both sprints and routes. Outside posts really did not pose much of a disadvantage in those races, however, with fair chances for all runners all the way out to posts 11 and outward.

Turf route races at Belmont were overwhelmingly fair on both the inner and Widener turf courses in terms of post positions, with all post positions enjoying a fair chance on the Widener (outer) turf course, and only posts 10 and outward suffering from a disadvantage on the inner turf course. When you see a horse exiting a Belmont inner turf route making its next start at Saratoga, upgrade that horse’s chances if it broke from posts 10, 11, or 12, because horses breaking from those posts at Belmont went a combined 0-for-25.  Those horse may be underestimated in their next starts.

Finally, in terms of post positions from the Belmont meet, the biggest disadvantages were the inside posts from the turf sprints. In Belmont inner turf sprints at the recently concluded meet, posts 1-2 were only a combined 4-for-74 (5.5% wins).  In Widener turf course sprints at Belmont, all of the inside posts from 1 thru 4 all accounted for some degree of disadvantage, winning only a combined 11 races of the 32 turf sprint races on that course, from a combined total of 128 starters.  When you see a horse exiting a Belmont turf sprint making its next start at Saratoga, upgrade that horse’s chances if it broke from posts 1-2 on the inner last time, or posts 1-4 on the Widener last time, because all of those horses breaking from those posts at Belmont were at a disadvantage in terms of post position.

Is Saratoga a Booby Trap or Bonanza?
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SARATOGA STATISTICAL ADVANTAGES AT VARIOUS DISTANCES

One area where you can gain an advantage over the betting public is by knowing the statistics, starting in the area of winning post positions. An examination of these figures from recent meets can offer astute handicappers a reliable outline from which to draw some solid conclusions on the advantages and disadvantages of certain post positions winning at certain distances on Saratoga’s different surfaces.

The post position numbers can then be broken down into a post position analysis, and this analysis, when coupled with what we have learned in recent years about winning running styles at Saratoga, could only help any handicapper who will just take a few moments to examine and digest the figures from what we’ve seen over the course of a recent five-year period.

DIRT SPRINTS

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 Saratoga main track is usually regarded as being very speed favoring at all sprint distances. The cheaper the race, the most 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. The exceptions to this will often be in races where there is an overabundance of speed entered in the field. When speed duels happen, closers and stalkers can rally.

TIP: Pace makes the race in Saratoga sprints.  Always give preference to front-runners and pace pressers on the main track, unless the field appears overloaded with speed, or if it appears a speed duel is likely to develop.

Five-Furlongs on the Dirt

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.

TIP: Nearly all 5 furlong races at Saratoga are won wire-to-wire, and it’s nearly impossible to win from off the pace. The five-furlong post position winning percentages show very little post position preference at that distance, so just try to handicap the early leader and you should have yourself a winner.

Five furlong races at Saratoga are carded almost exclusively for juveniles, so often times 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.

Five and a Half Furlongs on the Dirt

Looking at the post position stats for 5½ 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.

TIP: The inside posts are not as good at 5 ½ furlongs as they are at other sprint distances at Saratoga. The best posts statistically at this distance on the main track are posts 7, 8 and 9.

Six Furlongs on the Dirt

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.

TIP: Based on the percentages, the rail is the best post at 6 furlongs. Beyond just the rail, you can make a case that all of the inside four posts provide some advantage over the middle and outside posts.

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.

Six and a Half Furlongs on the Dirt

At 6½ furlongs on Saratoga’s main track, once again, the rail seems like the best place to be. The sample size at 6 ½ 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 6 ½ furlongs at Saratoga, with a good amount of winners regularly coming from inside, middle, and outside posts.

Seven Furlongs on the Dirt
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.

TIP: Post positions matter in seven-furlong dirt races at Saratoga.  The best posts are 1 and 2, while the worst posts are anything outside post 9. 

TWO-TURN DIRT ROUTES

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. 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, and instead favors runners who do their best running at two-turns.

Mile-and-an-Eighth on the Dirt

When it comes to post positions, the inside four posts historically have had a slight advantage in all two-turn dirt races at Saratoga, particularly at the most common dirt route distance of 1 1/8 miles, but this factor has seemingly played a smaller role in recent Saratoga meets, perhaps because of some kind of difference with the recent track superintendents as opposed to former track maintenance crews.

A look at the post position stats at the most commonly run two-turn distance of 1 1/8 miles reveals, surprisingly to many, that there is very little post position advantage in these races, with plenty of winners originating from all posts from the inside out.

Surprising also is the relatively low percentage of winners from the rail at 1 1/8 miles. The rail post in Saratoga dirt routes the past five years wins only around 10% of the time, despite having much more than 10% of the overall starters in those races.  In 2013 at Saratoga, the rail was awful in dirt routes, winning just 2-for-44 for a win percentage of 5%.  The other inside posts 2-5 all seem to do better than the far inside rail post position.  The stats for the outside posts don’t look bad, but remember that there are much fewer starters from those outside posts in Saratoga turf routes which usually draw 7- or 8-horse fields

TIP: The post position trend in Saratoga dirt routes shows that the preferred post positions are posts 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Winning Post Positions 2013 Saratoga Dirt Routes

1 2-for-44 5%
2 9-for-44 20%
3 6-for-44   14%
4 6-for-44 14%
5 11-for-43 26%
6 6-for-35 17%
7 3-for-22  14%
8 1-for-9 11%
9 0-for-4   0%

TURF ROUTE RACING

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.

TIP: When it comes to Saratoga’s two turf courses, early speed generally plays a little better on the Mellon course than it does on the inner. As a rule, early speed horses win roughly 25% of all races on the inner turf course, and at a slightly higher percentage on the Mellon course.  The average Saratoga turf winner (either course) is about 4 lengths off the pace at the first call and 2 ½ lengths off the pace at the second call.

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.

TIP: Outside posts are negative factors on the Saratoga turf courses in routes to varying degrees. Posts 8 and outward are a slight disadvantage on the turf at most distances, while far outside posts 10 and outward are often 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.

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.

TURF SPRINTS

Anyone who follows New York racing knows that turf sprints have become an increasingly big part of the Saratoga landscape over the past several years. Even if you don’t like them, you ought to at least be used to them by now because turf sprints have become so firmly entrenched in Saratoga racing since 2005.

The number of turf sprints run at Saratoga has quickly multiplied from 11 in 2005, to a giant 61 races at the 2013 Saratoga meet.  That’s an average of 1½ turf sprints per day, every day. This makes turf sprints one of the most important segments of racing and handicapping at Saratoga, and underscores how important it has become for horseplayers to have a good handle on these kinds of races.

Saratoga turf sprints are all run at 5½ furlongs on the main turf course, with none being carded on the inner turf. 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 nearly all of Belmont’s 6 furlong turf sprints run on the inner turf.

The Saratoga turf sprint turn comes 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 Belmont’s.

The first thing to understand about New York turf sprints (especially at Saratoga) before anything else, is that outside posts rule. This reality in some ways is contrary to conventional wisdom that would lead uninformed bettors to conclude that the inside posts are the places to be.

TIP: If you religiously abide by no other handicapping angle at Saratoga, you must abide by this one—don’t bet the rail horse in Saratoga turf sprints!

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. Flat-out one of the best ways to narrow down these races in recent years has been to toss out the inside three runners, at least to win.

The post position statistics really give you the full picture of the advantage outside posts have in Saratoga turf sprints. For starters, Post 11 is much more likely to yield a winner than Post 1. In fact, Post 1—a draw that I call “The Death Post”—is one of the worst posts in all of Thoroughbred racing. It is one of the easiest toss-outs in handicapping.

In terms of the in-the-money percentage and ROI (as opposed to just looking at winning percentage) for all posts, 1-12, in Saratoga turf sprints, three of the six best posts are 9, 10, and 11, and four of the six best starting draws come from posts 6 and outward.

SUMMARY

Saratoga is the ideal meet 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 seven-week meet because the payoffs are often pricey, and loaded with good value for horseplayers who are willing to put in the effort. 

I hope you can benefit from this Saratoga handicapping primer and use the information to your best advantage when trying to make money at racing’s top summer destination—Saratoga.

If you still need help, have no fear: you can call upon my expertise and get with me all summer long at Saratoga for value-priced winners and exotics! Click here or call 1-866-903-6449!


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