Handicapping Insights – July 23
by Dick Powell
If you think Del Mar’s weather last week was crazy, and it was, wait until you get to see how crazy Saratoga’s will be. Thunderstorms hit Del Mar and forced the turf races to the new dirt track, which was a sea of slop. It’s been over 20 years since that happened where the surf meets the turf.
At Saratoga, that is usually the norm but the last two seasons up here were extremely dry and few races came off the turf compared to normal.
But this year, we have had a crazy weather pattern that if it continues, will wreak havoc on the racing programs. This past May, there was virtually no rain up here. That all changed when June began and it has rained so much in the past eight weeks, the turf courses are a lush green but they might not get used too much if the weather pattern continues.
Normally, farmers cut and bale hay around the middle of June. This year, some farmers got lucky and got it cut and baled before the next storm hit. But many cut hay and then had it rained on before being baled which ruins it for horse’s consumption. The cows should be well fed this year.
Some farmers, with an abundance of caution, have delayed cutting and baling. I saw a local farm on Wednesday that cut their hay and had it rowed to be baled. While they dodged the rain bullet, the nutritional value of hay declines after the summer solstice and the chance of having enough time for a second cutting declines.
If this weather pattern continues, we could revert back to the mean and have a normal Saratoga; which means unpredictable storms and many races off the turf. The other day, I was talking to a trainer at the track and he said the sky opened up and it was pouring. Ten miles west of the track, it was sunny at my house.
So we could be looking at a main track that is wetter than normal and turf courses that will be softened up by rain. Just like Del Mar. Except their next thunderstorm could be in 20 years and ours could be this coming weekend.
The Saratoga main track has undergone some changes that must be followed. Red clay has been added to the mix of the cushion and it is supposed to tighten it up. Over the years, the main track has become more sandy and it has not played like it used to when speed was king. The red clay might make it quicker and look for it to be watered more than it used to.
Every year, weather permitting, the number of turf races contested at Saratoga goes up. This year should be no exception based on the turf festival just conducted at Belmont. For us dirt racing aficionados, it leaves us with a very small sample of dirt races to analyze. Throw in all the 2YO maiden races that will be run and the number of dirt races for everyone else is getting alarmingly small.
That said, what is the key to success handicapping Saratoga? To start, you must be flexible. Let’s say you hate turf sprints. Well, there will be about 70 of them contested in the 40-day meet and they might show up in a horizontal race that can’t be avoided.
If maiden 2YOs are not your thing, you are out of luck as the barns up here are bulging with unraced juveniles looking to kickstart their career. It used to be there were a ton of 2YO races run at Belmont before coming up here. That has not been true for the past five or 10 years so you can’t depend on Belmont form to analyze the juvenile races up here.
Handicapping 2YO maidens can be as simple as evaluating nature and nurture. Nature is the pedigree of the horse. Nurture is the trainer’s record at getting horses ready to win first time out. If a horse has both, it is a major contender. If a horse only has one, I would prefer it to be nature since no trainer in the world can get a 1 1/2-mile horse to win first time out going short.
With all the turf racing run up here, you better be good at watching replays and understanding trips. The meet gets a little bit easier when horses run back since the Belmont turf form is mostly one-turn sprints. The problem in today’s world is that they do not run back until the meet is more than half over. So analyzing Belmont turf races for two-turn races up here is problematic.
One piece of advice is to download the Ultimate Past Performances from last weekend at Belmont. This way, you will have the profiles for all the races run at Belmont so that when they come up here, you will have a strong understanding of what were the winning biases at Belmont and use them to evaluate the horses that are now racing up here.
Put it all together and you must be able to do a lot of things well to have success up here. If there is one thing that you are good at, six days a week of racing with 10 races a day should give you enough opportunity. But if you like to play the low takeout early Pick 5, there might be races in the sequence that are not your strong point so it pays to be a generalist rather than a specialist.
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