By Noel Michaels
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. With the best barns bringing their best stock to the Spa, so many trainers are set to rack up wins in the standings, but who will lead the way?
Here is a look at the cream of the training crop at Saratoga – the projected top 10 trainers for meet, which opened last week for a 40-day run.
The first thing to mention in any Saratoga trainer’s guide it’s a safe bet that Chad Brown and new Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher will dominate, just as they have for years. The Brown-Pletcher “exacta” in the trainer’s race should be one of the safest bets you could make at Saratoga.
Brown is coming off a training title at the recently concluded Belmont meet, where he racked up 32 wins from 155 starters for a 21% win rate. Pletcher was relatively quiet this past season at Belmont (18 wins) but is guaranteed to perk up at the Spa.
After the first week of action, Brown and Pletcher were off to slow starts. Brown went 2-for-16 (13%) with six second-place finishes, so even though his wins are lacking so far, his runners have gone 50% in the exacta. Pletcher, meanwhile, was 1-for-15 (7%). Instead of Brown and Pletcher, the hot trainers through the first four racing days were Steve Asmussen, who won 4-of-14 (29%), and Brad Cox, who sent 3-of-5 (60%) for exceptional starts to the meet. Will the Saratoga 2021 Midwest takeover continue? Both Asmussen and Cox are likely to have good meets, but it remains unlikely they will challenge Brown and Pletcher at the top of the standings.
Pletcher and Brown have consistently traded the training lead at Saratoga. Pletcher comes off one of his best seasons at Saratoga when he topped Brown, 32-28. Brown dominated in 2019 with 41 victories, and in 2018 when he won a record 46 races. Before that, Pletcher had edged Brown by a single win on the final day of the 2017 meet with 40 wins. Brown had won the training title at Saratoga in 2016 with 40 wins. Pletcher won the title for five consecutive seasons from 2011-15 (he has 14 overall Saratoga trainer titles).
Don’t bet Brown and Pletcher indiscriminately. Bet them where they are most likely to win and pass on their starters which tend to be overbet. For Pletcher, based on consistent trends from recent years, this means betting him on the dirt (21 winners for 24% in 2020) and in routes (26% wins). Don’t bet him in sprints (16% wins), except in 2-year-old races. For Brown, his turf and route numbers were down, and his dirt numbers and sprint numbers were up in 2020, but his Spa winners tend to be the opposite.
Last year at the 2020 Saratoga meet, the rest of the top were Christophe Clement and Mike Maker, who tied for third with 20 winners apiece, and Bill Mott and Linda Rice each had 15. Asmussen had 14 wins, and Rudy Rodriguez finished with 13 victories. Asmussen wins with 2-year-olds and maidens and a variety of sprinters. Rodriguez wins mostly claiming races and New York-bred races. Most of these trainers should end up in the Saratoga top 10 again in 2021.
If there’s one trainer primed to break into the top two it’s Clement, who just finished perhaps his best Belmont meet this spring/summer when he gave Brown a run for his money by winning 27 races from 135 starters for a 20% win rate. Clement’s stable is powered by turf horses, and 25 of his 27 winners at Belmont came on the grass.
At Saratoga, the place you really want to bet Clement is in turf sprints, where he wins for an excellent percentage. Maker, meanwhile, wins more turf races than dirt races, but wins a much higher percentage of his dirt starts. At Belmont, Maker’s dirt starters went 7-for-19 for a 37% win rate.
Certain trainers point for Saratoga and annually wake up at the summer meet. The No. 1 trainer in this category is H. James Bond, who won’t attract any wagering dollars based on his 2021 Belmont meet where he went 0-for-35. However, you might remember Bond was a marvelous bet at Saratoga in 2020 when he won 12 races from 40 starters (30%), and he always points his horses for the Spa. Other trainers who were great bets at Saratoga in 2020, and could be again in 2021, include David Donk (eight wins with an average payoff of $21 in 2020), Rob Atras (7-for-38, 18%, $14.90 average winner), and Raymond Handal (7-for-43, 16%, $14.30).
Other trainers that should vie for top 10 spots include Wesley Ward, Shug McGaughey, and Brad Cox. Ward won 10 Spa races in 2020 and went 15-for-43 at Belmont, winning mostly with 2-year-olds and turf sprinters. McGaughey was a tremendous bet at Saratoga in 2020 where he was 8-for-33 (24%) including seven turf winners. Cox, already off to a hot start in 2021, won eight Saratoga races from only 41 starters in 2020.