It is five weekends down and two big weekends still to go at Saratoga, including great racing on Travers weekend and Labor Day weekend. If the first part of the race meet at The Spa is any indication, the last half of the meet is going to be one to remember. The quality of racing and wagering at Saratoga has been outstanding at the 2017 Saratoga meet, with field sizes large, payoffs big and the racing competitive.
The second half of The Spa meet is the best part of the country’s premier annual race meet. The best horses and horsemen are all there, and the rest of the meet will be a showcase, thanks to a tremendous stakes line-up over the course of the remaining race days at The Spa.
The Saratoga meet, as always, is highlighted by the $1.25 million Travers Stakes, which is nicknamed “The Mid-Summer Derby.” Travers Day 2017 at Saratoga on Saturday, Aug. 26, will be huge this year — one of the top days of racing on this year’s calendar without a doubt. Including the Travers, the day will feature seven graded stakes (six Grade 1s!) worth a total of $5 million.
Other important stakes races will be the $500,000 Ballerina (G1) for female sprinters, the $1 million Sword Dancer (G1) at 1 ½ miles on turf, the $750,000 Personal Ensign (G1) for fillies and mares, the $700,000 Forego (G1) for older sprinters, and the $400,000 Ballston Spa (G2) for female turf horses. Notably, this year, the traditional Travers Day undercard feature, the $500,000 King’s Bishop (G1) for 3-year-old sprinters, has been renamed the Allen Jerkens Memorial.
Saratoga will kick-off Travers weekend on Friday, Aug. 25 with a gala day of state-bred stakes, called Saratoga New York Showcase Day, worth a total of $1.05 million. Saratoga’s unrivaled stakes schedule will conclude on Labor Day weekend, with seven more graded stakes races from Saturday, Sept. 2, to Monday, Sept. 4.
Spa Second-Half Handicapping Trends to Watch
By the time the latter half of the Saratoga meet comes around, the statistics relating to winning horses tend to be pretty reliable. Based on past meet results, the expected percentages of winning horses during this part of the meet, which encompasses Alabama week through the end of the meet, can be broken down as follows:
Saratoga Winners’ Most Recent Starts (Second Half of the Meet)
- 58% making 2nd or 3rd or 4th start of the Spa meet
- 22% last raced elsewhere on NYRA circuit (Belmont, Aqueduct)
- 15% Out-of-town shippers
- 5% first-time starters
Who’s Hot and Who’s Not
The first thing that should be mentioned in any Saratoga handicapping article for 2017 is the training race. It was always a safe bet that the top of the trainer’s standings would be dominated by Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown. Those barns have not disappointed, with Pletcher currently edging Brown in wins, 28-25, as of Aug. 20.
Continue to bet Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown in their wheelhouse categories. For Pletcher, this is on dirt where he has 19 wins and a 32-percent win rate, and with 2-year-olds, where he leads all trainers — by far — with nine wins for 26 percent. For Brown, the wheelhouse is turf, where he has twice, three times, or four times as many wins as other top trainers with 18 victories and a big 32-percent success rate.
Chad Brown won the training title at Saratoga and set a record at the 2016 meet with 40 wins, finally getting over the hump after finishing second to Todd Pletcher in five consecutive seasons before last year. Brown accomplished his 40-win season from 164 starters, with a strong win rate of 24 percent and a startling in-the-money [ITM] rate of 60 percent.
Pletcher, the six-time defending champ with a record 12 overall titles, was a clear second in the 2016 trainer’s race with 31 wins from 149 starters (21 percent wins / 50 percent ITM).
It is a long way back to the third-leading trainer, Kiaran Mclaughlin, who is still having a very solid meet, quietly, with 11 wins from only 43 starters for 26 percent. Bill Mott started slow, but has heated up considerably in the last 10 days and now has nine wins including 5 of 42 on the turf.
The problem for betting purposes, however, in terms of Brown and Pletcher, is that you are dealing mainly with favorites with these guys. Brown’s average win price is $6.00 and Pletcher’s is only slightly better at $7.70. McLaughin and Mott are not much better (in the $10 range).
In order to catch prices, the best trainers to turn to at this Saratoga meet include George Weaver with seven wins at an average win price of $16.10 and David Donk, who owns four wins for an average of $32.60. Even David Jaconson’s 5 wins have been very good value, with an average win payoff of $18.80.
Finally, it should be mentioned that, after ice-cold starts to the meet, high-quality trainers Mark Casse and Steve Asmussen have both turned things around and started to win races. Both can be bet with confidence the rest of the way because they will improve upon their win percentages with each winner from here on out, particularly Casse who is always a snail at the meet (a trainer who wins during the second half, usually with horses making their second or third starts at Saratoga).
The jockey story at the Saratoga meet has been yet another battle between Jose Ortiz and Irad Ortiz, who are head and head and neck and neck in the jockeys race with 41 wins and 36 wins, respectively. For Saratoga bettors, it often seems that nearly every race is one by an Ortiz and, beyond that, the two brothers seem to run 1-2 several times a week and it’s never a surprise when you see an entirely Ortiz exacta.
Both guys have similar win percentages in the 20-21 percent range from nearly 200 mounts apiece. Both Ortiz brothers have been spreading the wealth riding live horses for a wide variety of trainers and figure to continue to do so all meet long at similar win percentages. Expect both Jose Ortiz and Irad Ortiz to continue to get the plumb riding assignments for top trainers like Chad Brown, Jason Servis and Rudy Rodriguez, along with more and more of the mounts for Todd Pletcher that used to go only to John Velazquez and Javier Castellano.
Speaking of Velazquez and Castellano, they are third and fourth in the current jockey standings with 29 and 22 wins apiece. John Velazquez is still the first-string guy when it comes to Todd Pletcher juveniles, and he is likely to lead the way at the meet in terms of juvenile winners. However, it should be noted that both Ortiz’s have been able to keep up with Johnny V. this season in terms of juvenile winners.
This season, Velazquez has been king of the dirt track at Saratoga. Johnny V. has racked up 19 dirt wins from only 51 mounts for a giant 37-percent win rate, which is difficult to ignore when handicapping the Saratoga dirt races. On the other end of the spectrum, Javier Castellano has been relatively cold. Castellano has won only 11 of 75 dirt starts for 15 percent. In terms of number of dirt wins, Irad Ortiz and Jose Ortiz both have the most victories with 21, but their percentages are not as high as Velazquez because they have nearly twice as many mounts in those races. The sneaky-good dirt rider at the meet has been Robby Albarado — he owns four wins from only 13 turf mounts for 31 percent wins in those races.
On the grass, Jose Ortiz has been the man. Jose leads all jockeys with 20 turf wins for a meet-leading 21 percent wins. That’s amazing when you consider the wide-open nature of Saratoga turf races and the fact that there are big fields in those races. Irad Ortiz, John Velazquez, and Javier Castellano, not surprisingly, have been the next-best turf riders at The Spa meet. Jose Lezcano has also quietly done very well on the grass in terms of win percentage, average win percentage, and return on investment [ROI].
Saratoga Jockey Standings
(July 21-Aug. 20, 2017)
One jockey not mentioned so far is Manny Franco. Franco had a slow start to the meet, but had been hot since the Saratoga meet’s midway point and should continue his strong riding through the second half of the meet. Franco doesn’t ride a lot of favorites, but has earned his 18 wins at the meet so far and has racked-up a 15% win percentage in allowance races. Because he flies under the radar, Franco has been a strong bet in terms of ROI, with his 18 winners paying an average win price of $19.10.
The only one of the main jockeys at the meet with a higher average win payoff has been Ricardo Santana, whose average Saratoga winner this season has paid $19.70 (12 total wins). The place to catch Santana has been in the turf sprints. In a role previously filled by the absent Corneleo Velasquez, Santana has become the king of the Saratoga turf sprints, winning with a good percentage and bringing in prices in those races.
In the ROI department, one of the underrated jockeys continues to be Luis Saez. He has 16 Spa wins with an average payoff in those races of $13.50. He is again bringing in good winners for trainers like Kiaran McLaughlin and Linda Rice, among others.
At the other end of the spectrum, the jockeys burning the most money at the 2017 Saratoga meet are led by P Lopez. The “P” stands for Paco, but might as well be “poison” at Saratoga 2017, with just two wins from 71 mounts for three percent. The “P” might also stand for “plague.”
Others to avoid like the plague are Julien Leparoux (4-for-59, seven percent), Florent Geroux (3-for-62, five percent) and Rajiv Maragh, who is 4-for-58 for seven percent wins and clearly has yet to return to himself following serious injury.
Lonsghot-positive riders worth mentioning this season at The Spa meet are led by Dylan Davis, who is 5-for-65 for 8 percent wins, but is riding almost exclusively longshots and has racked up a gigantic $32.20 average win price. Junior Alvarado has been overlooked so far with only 60 mounts at the meet. He has four wins, but an average win payoff of $20.00, so he is also worth watching, especially when riding for his main trainer, Bill Mott.
Chad Brown is locked in a tremendous battle royale with Todd Pletcher, who sprinted out to a big lead in terms of wins and has amazingly already been caught by Brown. As dominant as Brown has been in turf races, Pletcher has been in dirt races with 16 main track wins already this season. The next-highest dirt winner is David Jacobson, but he only has six wins so far.
Pletcher’s best category at Saratoga this year has been 2-year-olds. He has trained 7 juvenile winners already. Other trainers to watch with 2-year-olds are Steve Asmussen and Rudy Rodriguez (3 wins each), and Kiaran McLaughlin who is 2-for-2 on the grass.
The most clean-cut track trend on the main track at the 2017 Saratoga meet has been the live rail. In both main track sprints and main track routes this year, the rail post has been the place to be on many days, especially in August. On the turf, the big story in terms of track trends has been on the inner course, which has been very speed-favoring when listed under firm racing conditions. Turf sprints, all on the Melon (outer turf course), have been kind to speed, as well.
Saratoga Daily Track Biases 2017
Aug. 16 – Rail and inside were the best.
Aug. 14 – Gold rail bias.
Aug. 13 – Inside good; speed good, couldn’t win from too far behind.
Aug. 12 – Good rail, inside advantage.
Aug. 3 – Inside good, speed good.
July 31 – Speed bias, rail good; all four dirt races won wire-to-wire.
July 30 – Speed dominated both sprints.
July 27 – “Good” track was actually slopped and sealed. Slow rail.
It should be noted that on many days of the meet, particularly in August, I have not notated what you would call “track biases,” but on many of those dates the rail and/or inside paths were still the preferred part of the main track.
As far as horseplayers are concerned, continue to keep an eye out for horses that lost their last races with wide, outside trips, because those horses can come back to win at Saratoga at overlay prices before the end of the meet. On the other hand, recent winners or strong finishers who had inside trips may not be as fortunate to land on the best part of the track in their subsequent starts and, therefore, might be underlays on the tote board that are worth taking a shot against. Smart and successful horseplayers will keep the biases in mind and cross-reference them when doing their daily handicapping in order to upgrade their chances of winning.
Keeping track of trends and biases, and who is hot and cold, can lead you to some interesting overlays and good value, while at the same time helping you steer clear of horses that have been aided by track biases in their recent good efforts. Handicappers should not underestimate the impact that trends and biases can have on the race results.
And so, with so much money floating around upstate New York during August until Labor Day, along with so many novice handicappers and tourists pumping money into Saratoga’s mutuel pools, you will certainly have your chances to get your hands on some of the big-time profits available during the second half of the Saratoga meet. Go ahead and cash-in on information that could help you stay ahead of the betting public. Good luck at Saratoga and I hope you continue to enjoy the year’s best racing at the country’s premier racetrack.