A handicapper’s view on Saratoga
by Dick Powell
Entries have been drawn for the first three days of Saratoga and the first weekend will be spectacular. Right now, the forecast for the weekend is hot and humid weather with temperatures in the low 90s and dew points in the 70s.
When hot humid weather comes into the area and it hits colder air in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, violent thunderstorms are likely to pop up during the afternoon. The rule of thumb is that if the weather stays hot and sunny, there is a greater likelihood of a violent storm brewing. If it stays cloudy and cooler, it usually means the storms won’t develop.
This weekend, the ingredients are there for some crazy, violent weather. The past few years, we have been very lucky with the weather. Last year, for the first time in history, there were more turf races run than dirt ones. This year, chances are we will have a normal Saratoga which means less turf races, more races coming off the turf and more races run on wet tracks.
If the weather is like last year, look for Chad Brown to be the leading trainer since he has so many quality turf horses in his stable. But if things revert back to normal with more dirt races than turf, Todd Pletcher should be unbeatable once again.
One thing that appears to be new and different is the first turf sprint scheduled to be run on Saturday will be on the inner turf course instead of the Mellon turf course. This will be interesting to follow since the inner turf course has a tight turn to go around and will be a real challenge for the riders going into it at full speed and try to hug the inside while saving ground.
Those that can will be very hard to beat but if the inner turf course is going to be used regularly, it will be interesting to see how well the horses breaking from post one will do.
In the past few years, there were close to 70 turf sprints run on the Mellon turf course. With about 200 turf races divided equally on both courses, the 100 run on the inner turf course were all run going two turns but there were only about 30 going two turns on the Mellon.
For years, a great handicapping angle at Saratoga was horses switching turf courses. A horse that makes a wide, sweeping rally on the inner turf course usually fell short but that same horse could come back on the wider, Mellon turf course and get up in time.
Similarly, the inside speed horse that got caught on the Mellon turf course might not on the inner turf course. For years, there was a wide discrepancy between winning favorites on the two turf courses with far more winning on the Mellon.
Far more favorites would win on the Mellon since the kinder nature of the course enabled horses in trouble to overcome it. On the inner turf course, the race could be over before the troubled horse had a chance. Since the inner turf course was more chaotic it paid to spread out more in multi-race wagers involving it and, conversely, you could cut down the number of horses you would use on the Mellon turf course.
With all the turf sprints run on the Mellon, there are over three times two-turn races run on the inner turf course so the comparisons that once yielded predictable results are no longer valid.
Every year us horseplayers complain about the riding tactics employed on the turf courses. What frustrates us is how riders take back on horses that should be sent forward on firm ground that is favoring speed. Years ago, Jerry Bailey was the master of the turf courses and then, before he got hurt, Ramon Dominguez rode them just as well.
Last year, Eric Cancel pulled off a few upsets by sending his mounts to the front and never looking back. Strangled turf horses were a big complaint at this year’s Belmont Park meet so it’s anyone’s guess who will ride the turf courses aggressively.
All this makes trip watching even more problematic since many turf races bunch up with slow paces and more than half the field encounters trouble. Don’t be afraid to spread out in multi-race wagers. Avoid trying to be a hero and bet more combinations. You won’t be sorry.