Tips to help you win Saratoga’s turf sprints

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Noel Michaels

July 9th, 2019

Anyone who follows New York racing knows that turf sprints are a giant part of the Saratoga landscape. So many of the turf sprints are run throughout the meet, and if you can raise your win percentage and ROI solely in those races, you will go a long way to having a much more successful Saratoga meet.  Here are some tips to help you handicap better in Saratoga’s multitude of turf sprints.

All run at 5 1/2 furlongs, Saratoga’s turf sprints differ greatly from Belmont, where turf sprints are mainly run at either six or seven furlongs. The turn in Saratoga turf sprints seems to come-up much quicker than the turn for Belmont’s turf sprints, and Saratoga’s turns are obviously much tighter than Belmont’s. This sets up the first Saratoga turf sprint handicapping angle: Different turns, along with the shorter distance, puts a much higher importance on tactical speed in Saratoga’s turf sprints as opposed to Belmont. This results in form reversals, both positive and negative, with different horses winning at The Spa than at Belmont.

The next thing to understand about Saratoga turf sprints, before anything else, is that outside posts rule. In larger turf sprint fields with more than eight horses, winning from the three inside posts -- especially the rail -- is very difficult, unless the horse is lone speed or much the best.

As a general rule, you can pass on betting the inside-drawn horses in Saratoga turf sprints (posts 1,2,3). However, all is not lost because inside posts actually set up horses to a great betting angle in their next starts. Take note of the horses who lose from the rail early in the meet and look for opportunities to bet them back next time if not drawn inside.

I recommend steadfastly sticking with this turf sprint post position angle because it has been too much a part of being able to be a winning handicapper at Saratoga over the course of more than a decade.  Examples of this inside post futility in turf sprints included Post 1 winning just 1-for-43 in 2009, and 2010 when Post 1 went 2-for-45.  In 2011, the rail was awful again, going just 1-for-41 (2%).

If you are saying to yourself, “those are old stats, so what have you done for me lately?” the answer is simple. Over the last five years, Saratoga has begun running turf sprints with eight or fewer starters. This skews the overall stats, which recently have shown inside horses can and do win. However, when inside horses do win at 5 1/2F on the grass at Saratoga, it almost always happens in fields of eight horses or less (two-year-old grass sprints top-out at eight horses, for example). Small fields make it possible for inside horses to win. In big fields of turf sprinters with 10 or 12 starters, however, outside posts still dominate.

What are the reasons that inside posts are bad and outside posts are good in Saratoga’s 5 1/2F turf sprints?  Well, if you are a late-running horse with an inside post, it is very difficult to drop back, work your way outside, and then circle around the field and get up in time with so little real estate to work with.  If you are a stalker drawn inside, you get buried down on the rail behind the speed horses who send from the rail or drop over from the outside. Inside speed horses are forced to “send,” but unless a horse has enough speed to get a clear lead, they end up being at the mercy of the outside-drawn speed horses who are the ones able to control the pace. Outside horses with clear runs benefit from momentum and less traffic, and ground loss on the turn seems to be no detriment whatsoever in the 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.

The same set of trainers tends to win the overwhelming vast majority of Saratoga turf sprints and we expect this to continue in 2019. Trainers to bet in Saratoga turf sprints are led by all-time Spa turf sprint queen Linda Rice, as well as Jason Servis, Christophe Clement, and Kiaran McLaughlin, who each can win in the 25% range in these races throughout the Spa meet. Joe Sharp also specializes at turf sprints when he ships to New York for Saratoga. Two trainers who attract plenty of support and win many races every meet -- Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown -- are terrible bets in The Spa’s turf sprints, both in terms of win percentage and ROI.

Bet the five trainers listed above, especially when their horses are drawn off the inside three posts, and you can have success in 5 1/2F turf races, which are some of the most common and plentiful races run during the summer racing season at Saratoga.