It’s that time again.
Believe it or not, about 45 weeks have passed since Labor Day.
The good news that comes with that passage of time is that by next weekend horses will be running at both Del Mar and Saratoga Race Course and the sport’s long-awaited and cherished summer meets will be underway.
Yes, Del Mar and Saratoga … spectacular racing on a daily basis featuring a small army of the sport’s best jockeys, trainers, and equine athletes. Famed stakes such as the Whitney, Alabama, Travers, and Pacific Classic. Large crowds. The kind of buzz that brings out the passion for the game in so many fans.
That’s what Del Mar and Saratoga mean to so many fans.
For handicappers, meanwhile, both tracks offer a supreme challenge because of large and evenly matched fields.
While finding one magical system for prevailing at the betting windows at either track is akin to a discovering a nugget of gold, there are some key factors and statistics to keep in mind on a daily basis.
We’ll start with the horses for courses angle.
There is indeed something about Saratoga and Del Mar that brings out the best in some horses. Maybe it’s the racing surface. Or perhaps it’s the cool mountain air at Saratoga or ocean breezes at Del Mar. Whatever the reason, be sure to check a horse’s past record at both tracks, it could be revealing.
Also keep in mind that a horse who runs particularly well in the early days of the meet serves as a horse to watch next time out, due to blending the horses for courses angle with sharp current form.
Now let’s look at each track.
At Saratoga, a major difference between the Spa and Belmont is that dirt races at 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles at Belmont are contested around one turn. At the Spa, just like Aqueduct, those races will be around two turns, which better suits some horses. If you notice that a horse was doing well at Aqueduct in a distance race but tiring at Belmont, there could be a reversal of fortunes at the Spa.
As for the meet leaders, it’s fairly safe to say that from among trainers Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown and jockeys Jose Ortiz and his brother, Irad Ortiz Jr., you’ll get the top trainer and jockey. No surprise there.
Pletcher and Brown, who have large stables at Saratoga in the spring preparing for the meet, should pick up a bundle of wins in 2-year-old races. Yet on those occasions when they have two, or more, 2-year-olds in the same race, don’t focus exclusively on the one that’s taking the bulk of the wagering action. It’s not usual for them to get a win or a strong performance out of their “other” horse.
Money on the toteboard is not infallible, but when you have a situation in which Brown and Pletcher have first-time starters but a horse from a smaller stable is taking a ton of money, it’s probably wise to jump on board with the little guy. Pletcher and Brown’s horses often take money off their trainer’s name alone, so when horses from other outfits can pull more weight at the betting windows than them, there’s usually some good word-of-mouth talk about those horses.
Also, keep an eye on trainers who are stabled at or around Saratoga for much of the year. Bill Mott, Jim Bond, and Kiaran McLaughlin are a few of the trainers who can be expected to have good success at their “home” track.
At Del Mar, there’s a little more variety on the leaderboard.
Flavien Prat was the leading rider last year with 35 wins, marking the second straight year he either won or shared the title. After winning the recent Santa Anita summer/spring title crown, he’s definitely the one to watch once again.
Yet don’t expect a landslide victory for Prat, six-time riding champ Rafael Bejarano, Evin Roman, and Kent Desormeaux all finished with nine wins of Prat a year ago.
The trainers’ title should be an even bigger scramble. Last year, Phil D’Amato and Richard Baltas tied for the title with 18 wins apiece. But they had only a three-win edge on Peter Miller and Mark Glatt and eight trainers, including Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill, had 10 or more wins.
At the last Santa Anita meet, the top three in wins were O’Neill (31), D’Amato (29) and Miller (26). Jerry Hollendorfer and Baltas were next with 16.
Since trainers can be creatures of habit, keep an eye on some of them who have good success in certain stakes. For example, Baltas has won the last two editions of the Grade 2 San Clemente Stakes and D’Amato has captured the last two runnings of the Grade 2 Eddie Read and three of the last four editions of the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap.
The topper, though, is the Del Mar Futurity, where Baffert owns 13 wins dating back to 1996. His last win was in 2016 with Klimt and he was second with Zayat Stables’ Zatter last year. Depending on what happens in the coming weeks with Justify, this summer may not turn out as planned for the two-time Triple Crown winner. Yet would it be much of a surprise if Baffert quickly reloads and unveils another big horse at Del Mar?
Yes, it’s that time again.
July 14th, 2018 BY Bob Ehalt
America's Best Racing