By Noel Michaels
The Belmont fall meet is home for many top barns as the track’s 28-day racing schedule bridges the gap between the end of Saratoga and Breeders’ Cup week in early November.
The seven-week meet opened Sept. 16 and produced an exciting first four-day week. While no one single trainer stood out, handicappers can still find clues elsewhere when trying to decipher the best stables to bet.
Belmont opening week’s 39 races were won by 29 different trainers, with no single trainer winning any more than three races.
Leading the way were Todd Pletcher (3-for-13), Linda Rice (3-for-9), and Tom Morley (3-for-5). Four trainers opened the meet with two wins apiece — Chad Brown (2-for-21), Christophe Clement (2-for-17), Rudy Rodriguez (2-for-10), and Wayne Potts (2-for-5).
Of that group, you see it was a cold start for some expected to be leading trainers such as Brown, Pletcher, and Clement, while it was a hot start for Rice, who went 3-for-7 in dirt races for 43%, Morley, whose average win price from his three winners was $22.30, and Potts, who made the most of limited opportunities to win a pair of main track races including a 2-year-old race.
However, we expect trainers Brown, Pletcher, and Clement to rise to the top of the standings in in short order.
Brown, Pletcher set to take charge
At the recently concluded Saratoga meet, it was Brown and Pletcher leading the way 1-2 in the standings as they often do with 41 wins for Brown to 31 for Pletcher. As expected, Brown was the king of the meet on the grass with 26 turf wins (25%), while Pletcher topped all trainers in main track wins with 23 (27%). Pletcher also led all trainers at Saratoga in 2-year-old victories with 13. Those trends of Brown winning races on turf and Pletcher winning races on dirt and with 2-year-olds are expected to continue this season at Belmont.
Brown won the training title at the 2020 Belmont fall meet with 22 wins, while Pletcher was third with 15. The other prominent trainers last year were Clement, who finished second with 16 victories, mostly on the turf, and Mike Maker, who won 14 races. Clement’s barn has excelled at recent Belmont meets and is expected to continue to do so through October. In Maker’s case, things might shake out a little differently. He focused more on the first half of the Saratoga meet, then geared his stable up for the recently concluded Kentucky Downs meet. In October, he will split his focus between Belmont and Keeneland more than the others and may have trouble reaching last year’s Belmont win total. Maker went 1-for-7 opening week.
Watch out for Mott runners on turf
Clearly you can glean a lot about who will have the most success at Belmont in the fall from the same meet last year, as well as the Saratoga meet directly proceeding it. One trainer to watch is Bill Mott, who just concluded perhaps the strangest meet in his Hall of Fame career at Saratoga, where the usually turf-centric trainer won a respectable 15 races but was 2-for-48 (4%) on the grass. For handicappers, this should signal that Mott has a barnful of turfers ready to go who have not exhausted their conditions like their rivals from the Maker barn, for example. Mott has a stable of quality turf runners, and they will start to win sooner than later.
McGaughey is another trainer to watch
The other trainer to bet on the grass this season will be Shug McGaughey, based on his results from Saratoga and at Belmont last fall when he went 9-for-32 to lead all trainers in win percentage with 28% and 72% ITM. Shug was good on the grass at the Spa for the second straight year, signaling that another big Belmont fall meet could be on the way. He already won his first race of the meet on the turf during opening week.
The fall is not a time of focus in New York for some serious barns, and handicappers should be aware of some top trainers who may not be expected to win as much locally as they do at other times of the year. The two that come to mind are Steve Asmussen and Brad Cox. The Belmont fall season is a turf centric meet, but Asmussen was 0-for-13 on the turf at Saratoga and he often sends his best dirt horses, and his main rider Ricardo Santana, Jr. to Keeneland. As a result, Asmussen went 1-for-28 at the Belmont fall meet in 2020. Cox, meanwhile, will also put much of his focus on Churchill and Keeneland. Cox horses ran respectably at Belmont last fall, but he had only 24 starters and four winners.
Trainers faring better at Belmont than Saratoga
Finally, some New York trainers do not compete at Saratoga the way they can at Belmont because of the different caliber of races in the condition books. Barns that win a lot of claiming races and/or train a bunch of New York breds do better at Belmont. In this group are trainers Jorge Abreu (6-for-39, 15% at Saratoga but 6-for-29, 21% at Belmont fall 2020), and Orlando Noda (5-for-44, 11% at Saratoga but 7-for-26, 27% at Belmont fall 2020). Also, there’s Charlton Baker, who finished the Saratoga meet on fire while quietly putting up an 8-for-29, 28% record at the Spa.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.