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SARATOGA MID-MEET HANDICAPPING UPDATE  

SARATOGA MID-MEET HANDICAPPING UPDATE  

By Noel Michaels 

Saratoga is the summer place to be for handicappers and horse racing aficionados. The highly looked-forward-to 40-day Saratoga racing season is in full swing and lasts throughout the heart of the summer, five days a week on Wednesdays through Sundays and ending on Labor Day, which this year falls on Monday, Sept. 5.

The Saratoga meet features 77 stakes races worth a total of $22.6 million in purses. Saratoga’s biggest day is Travers Day set Saturday, August 27. The “Mid-Summer Derby” will headline what figures to the summer’s best day of racing and wagering and will include six graded stakes (five Grade 1).

The 3yo picture is still shaping up as totally wide-open this year with different horses having won each of the Triple Crown races just about every meaningful race in the division all year. Horses pointing for the 2022 Travers include Kentucky Derby 1-2-3 finishers Rich Strike, Epicenter, Zandon, Preakness winner Early Voting, 20-length Dwyer winner Charge It, Haskell winner Cyberknife and Ohio Derby winner Tawny Port. Even with Belmont Stakes winner Mo Donegal injured and out, and last year’s 2yo champ Corniche flopping in his return races, the Travers promises to be not only a memorable race, but a race that will be tremendously important in terms of divisional year-end honors as the scramble for the 3-year-old championship remains wide open.

The Travers headlines the summer’s best day of racing and wagering as one of six graded stakes races on the card with a total of five Grade 1 races. Travers Day undercard features will include the $750,000 Sword Dancer (G1) at 1 ½ miles on the turf, the $600,000 Personal Ensign (G1) for fillies & mares, the $500,000 Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1) at 7F for 3yos, the $600,000 Forego (G1) for older sprinters, and the $400,000 (G2) Ballston Spa for filly & mare turfers. That day, equine luminaries such as Yibir, Jackie’s Warrior, Shedaresthedevil, and Letruska are all expected to be in action in the various races, just to name a few

The Saratoga meet continues until Labor Day on Monday, Sept. 5, and the post-Travers schedule continues to be loaded with stakes. Races on the final weekend agenda will include the $250,000 Prioress (G2) on Sept. 2, the $600,000 Flower Bowl (G2) and the $1.25 million Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) on Sept. 3, the $300,000 Spinaway (G1) on Sept. 4, and the $300,000 Hopeful (G1) on closing day Sept. 5.

The Saratoga racing season attracts the best horses and horsemen, not only from New York but from everywhere. Trainers from many circuits point their best horses to Saratoga, and the competition for winners is stiffer there than anywhere else.

The first thing to mention is that it is a safe bet that the Saratoga trainers’ standings will be dominated by Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher, just as they have for many years. The Brown-Pletcher “exacta” in the trainer’s race is one of the safest bets you can make at Saratoga. Pletcher and Brown have traded the Spa title back and forth for many years. Brown was back on top of the training standings in 2021 with 41 wins, with Pletcher second with 31. Pletcher had one of his best seasons at Saratoga in 2020 when he snatched the title away from Brown, 32 wins to 28. Brown dominated the standings in 2019 with 41 victories, and also in 2018 when he won 46 races to smash the all-time Saratoga win record. Before that, Pletcherhadedged Brown by a single win on the final day of the 2017 Spa meet with 40 wins. Brown won the training title at Saratoga in 2016 meet with 40 wins. Pletcher won the title for five consecutive seasons from 2011 to 2015 (14 overall Saratoga trainer titles).

Don’t just bet Brown and Pletcher indiscriminately, bet them in their best spots. Brown is off to a fast start at the 2022 meet, drawing off to a big early lead in the trainer standings with 21 wins through Aug. 9. Pletcher used this past Belmont season to gear-up his stable for wins at Saratoga and is second in the trainer’s race with 15 wins. Brown leads all trainers, by far, with 13 turf victories. Pletcher leads all trainers with winners on the main track with 12.

Plenty of other trainers are good bets too. Mike Maker is a strong third in the trainer’s standings with 10 wins. He was hot the first few weeks of the 2021 season, too, but slowed down the second half of the season so we’ll see if 2022 follows suit for Maker. Steve Asmussen in 2021 won 19 Spa races, all on the dirt (0-for-13 on turf), including 7 stakes wins. This year he is off to an excellent start with 7 wins from only 23 starters for a 30%-win percentage. Christophe Clement is exactly the opposite of Asmussen, he wins his races on the turf. Last year Clement won 17 races, only 3 of which were on the dirt. This year he already has nine wins, seven of which were on the grass.

More trends. Clement is the king of Saratoga turf sprints. Linda Rice is the turf sprint queen. That duo will win a good portion of Saratoga’s plentiful 5 1/2F turf sprints. In dirt races, aside from the aforementioned Asmussen, Brown and Pletcher, nobody was more lethal than Brad Cox in 2021 when he won 13 races from only 48 starters for 27% (11 of 13 wins on the main track). Cox already has 5 wins from 23 starters in 2022. Another trainer you could make money on is H. James Bond. He trains his stable year-round in Saratoga and is off to a good start at the current meet with 4 wins from his first 15 starters.

When it comes to the nation’s leading riders, there is no race meet in the country that can compete with the quality of the jock’s room at Saratoga. The title of leading rider at Saratoga carries more prestige than any other jockey title. Luis Saez won the 2022 Saratoga riding title with 64 wins. This was somewhat of an upset since the title had been held by Irad Ortiz Jr. and Jose Ortiz for the past several years. Irad Ortiz won the 2020 title, 59 victories to 58 over Jose Ortiz. If you go back further, it was Jose Ortiz who was dominant in 2019 with 60 victories to win the meet title by 7 over Irad. Irad won the Saratoga riding title in 2018 with 52 wins.

At the current Saratoga meet, Irad Ortiz leads all jockeys with 30 winners from his first 148 mounts through Aug. 9 for 20% wins. Luis Saez is second in the standings with 24 wins from 130 mounts (18%). Jose Ortiz is off to a slow start at the 2022 meet with only 13 wins from his first 110 mounts for just 12%.

The fourth major cog in the jock’s room at Saratoga is Joel Rosario, who finished third in the standings both of the last two years with 43 wins in 2021 and 48 wins in 2020. Currently he sits third in the 2022 standings with 21 winners from 99 starters for 21%. The only other jockey who may approach that kind of win percentage for the meet would be Johnny Velazquez, but with fewer mounts. Velazquez is approaching 1000 career wins at Saratoga, and is having an excellent meet so far in 2022 with 11 wins already from 60 mounts (18%) Saez won the 2021 title mainly thanks to his mastery of the Saratoga main track, where he led all riders by far with 44 wins (23%). Saez leads all riders so far at the 2022 meet in winners on the main track with 17, with Irad Ortiz close behind with 15 wins.

On turf, it’s all about Irad Ortiz, who led all jockeys by a wide margin on the grass with 30 victories, thanks in large part to riding first call for Chad Brown. Ortiz already leads all riders with grass winners at the current meet with 15.

One very interesting wrinkle this season is the presence of Flavien Prat, who is riding the season at The Spa for the first time. Prat has been successful at getting high-quality mounts from several top trainers and has converted his opportunities so far to the tine of 17% winners (15-for-87).

The remaining spots in the top dozen in the 2022 jockey standings at Saratoga should be up for grabs for guys like Dylan Davis, who just enjoyed a breakout season at Belmont, plus top Churchill riders Ricardo Santana Jr. and Tyler Gaffalione and New York stalwarts like Manny Franco and Javier Castellano., who is having a resurgent meet to the tune of 15 wins from just 64 mounts for 23% and a strong positive ROI. Also Jose Lezcano could get his share of wins, particularly if Linda Rice has a big meet with turf sprinters. Junior Alvarado usually is the top beneficiary if trainer Bill Mott has a successful meet.

Saratoga, however, is not only about the Travers and the boatload of other stakes races. The daily meat-and-potatoes racing is incredible too. Here are some tips and trends to look for give you the edge all season long at Saratoga.

In terms of a winning track profile at Saratoga, the first thing to know is that The Spa’s main track is speed favoring at all dirt sprint distances. The speed bias is especially prevalent in races at 6 furlongs and shorter, particularly with 2yos. 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. Speedsters and pressers also do very well at the commonly-run distance of 6F. Speed is very handy at 6 1/2F and 7F, too, but not as noteworthy as in the shorter sprints.

So many form reversals happen at Saratoga, and it always adds to the intrigue of the meet for handicappers. An understanding of the ins-and-outs of it could stand to make you a lot of money. The majority of the horses coming to race at Saratoga are coming from Belmont. With the move to Saratoga, the focus flip-flops in dirt routes 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 horses that run best at Belmont.

In Saratoga’s turf sprints, which are all run at 5 1/2F, downgrade the three inside posts, particularly the inside two posts, while upgrading horses drawing outside posts in large fields with more than eight runners. All running styles seem to have a good chance to win Saratoga’s turf sprints, whether you bet a speed horse, a presser, a stalker, or even a closer. But if you are betting a horse with an inside post in a turf sprint, that horse better have speed or else it will be at a disadvantage. A Saratoga betting angle that always pays dividends is to take note of horses that lost their last race from the turf sprint rail post draw and then bet them back next time if they get off the inside.

In turf routes, outside posts 8-12 are always negative factors on the Saratoga turf courses. There has been a strong anti-outside post advantage in turf routes so far in 2022. On the Mellon (outer) turf course in routes, horses drawn outside post 6 have gone 0-for-48. In inner turf routes, horses have been winning from posts 1-8 this season, but posts outside post 8 have been tough with a combined record of 2-for-53. In 2021, only three horses won from posts 8 and outward from a total of 72 starters on the Mellon (outer) turf. In Inner turf routes in 2021, things were not much better for outside draws. There were just 7 winners from posts 8-12 in 2021 on the Inner turf from a total of 147 starters.

Finally, in terms of preferred turf route running styles, speed generally plays a little better on the Mellon (outer) course than on the Inner turf course in Saratoga grass races. 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. If you can get to the paddock for inner course 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.

Contest champion, featured handicapper and seminar host at Daily Racing Form and Nassau (NY) OTB, Author: “Winning Angles A to Z”, Director of Player Development at Nassau (NY) OTB  

Saratoga is the ideal meet for handicappers because so many novice handicappers and tourists will be pumping so much money into the betting pools. Opportunities always abound for serious horseplayers to win more than their share over the course of the summer meet. Saratoga is an annual showcase of the best that horseracing has to offer. The remainder of this year’s meet figures to be memorable. Enjoy the rest of the season at the Spa!

Check Out Noel’s Saratoga Daily & Weekly Winning Offers On The Menu Page Here At www.NationalRaceMasters.pro 

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