Let’s look at some key elements that horseplayers will need to navigate successfully if they hope to have a winning season at Saratoga. The handicapping aspects this article will concentrate on are 2-year-olds, first-time starters, and horses trying turf for the first time — three very important, yet difficult, areas that players will need to focus on if they hope to have a profitable Saratoga meet.
All three of these handicapping subcategories annually play huge roles in the day-to-day racing and wagering at Saratoga.
Saratoga is home to some of the country’s best 2-year-old races, and you are more likely to see next year’s Kentucky Derby starters and Grade 1 winners in action there than at any other race meet at any other track at any time of year.
When it comes to those expensive Spa baby races, the first thing to note is that speed always helps. Most 2-year-old sprints are either won wire-to-wire or are won by an early speed horse or pace-presser capable of staying within a length or two of the lead at the first call. Sometimes, you will see a juvenile and/or a first-time starter win from off the pace in Saratoga sprints, but you can’t really rely on these types of horses. When you do see one, checkmark him or her, because you might be looking at a next-out winner and/or a horse destined for stakes races or even next spring’s classics.
It’s not a surprise that Todd Pletcher wins a lot of 2-year-old races and also wins with a lot of first-time starters. You can expect his numbers in this regard to fall between 25-30 percent in the win column. Pletcher won a total of 15 baby races at The Spa at the 2016 meet (31 percent wins) and his total was nearly twice the next winningest 2-year-old trainer, which, in 2016, happened to be Mark Casse with eight juvenile wins from 24 starters and a big 33 percent win rate.
Pletcher won three times as many baby races as the third-leading trainer in that category, Chad Brown, who won five, yet recorded a much lower 18 percent win percentage than his overall percentage at the meet. In 2015, Chad Brown was only 3-for-23 with his juveniles for a negative return on investment (ROI), meaning that this is definitely one of the categories where you want to steer clear of Brown’s horses. They’ll be well-bet, but generally money-losing propositions for handicappers.
At The Spa in 2015, Pletcher was leading trainer with 34 wins and a 20 percent strike rate. In 2-year-old races alone that year he scored 14 wins for a 25 percent win percentage. His percentage with 2-year-old maidens was even higher.
The great thing about betting Pletcher’s Spa babies is that even if they lose their first career race, they will usually graduate in their second career race. Bet Pletcher’s juvenile maidens in their first or second starts. If a Pletcher baby has not graduated in either its first or second try, then stop betting it. This is true unless Pletcher debuts a maiden in a turf sprint or switches a maiden into a turf sprint. Pletcher doesn’t think much of turf sprints, and the horses he enters in those races are essentially his barn’s throwaways.
When looking at other trainers that did well with juveniles in 2016, two that jump out are Steve Asmussen (four juvenile wins) and most notably, in terms of ROI, George Weaver, who went 4-for-16 in baby races for a 25-percent strike rate.
In spite of Pletcher’s big winning percentages, his Saratoga 2-year-olds are so well bet that they often result in a flat or negative ROI. Therefore, you’ll need to dig a little deeper than just Pletcher in order to make money with his Spa 2-year-olds.
Some of the Saratoga ROI leaders with 2-year-olds might surprise you. Annually, one of the best in this regard is Barclay Tagg, who struck out in 2016, but went 3-for-4 with juveniles at Saratoga in 2015.
Other trainers who can reward you with a positive ROI with their 2-year-old Spa babies, based on 2015 stats, include Linda Rice, who won only one juvenile race at the 2016 meet but was 4-for-15, with a 52-percent ROI in 2015 and has been winning 2-year-old races at The Spa with regularity since before many of today’s trainers got their training licenses.
As previously mentioned, George Weaver did well in 2016 and also did well in 2015 with a record of 3-for-13, and a 130-percent ROI). Horses owned by either Roddy Valente or Barry Schwartz do well at The Spa with juveniles. Some of those used to be trained by the recently-retired Mike Hushion, who won 2-of-10 but hit the exacta in 5-of-10 tries recently. The Valente and Schwartz horses Hushion used to get should continue to do well, particularly the large chunk of them that went to the Linda Rice barn.
If Mark Casse can come anywhere close to his 2016 numbers in 2017, you will definitely want to be betting on his 2-year-olds. With a 33-percent win rate in those races last year, and not being one of the most high-profile trainers on the grounds, his backers made an absolute mint betting his juveniles last season.
Other dangerous 2-year-old trainers at Saratoga include Ken McPeek, Wesley Ward, and James Jerkens.
In terms of stats for all first-time starters, regardless of age or surface, Todd Pletcher led the way at the 2016 Spa meet with 7 winning first-time starters from 33 horses for a win rate of 21 percent. That’s good, but not in terms of ROI, as Pletcher firsters typically get bet down.
You also won’t make money betting Chad Brown in this category. Yes, he tied for second with four winning first-time starters at The Spa in 2016, but his horses are always bet and his win percentage was only 15 percent — a money-losing proposition.
To make money with first starters, consider George Weaver as your potential go-to guy. Weaver won 4-of-12 (two on grass, two on dirt) in this category last year. That makes him a strong play.
Mark Casse won two races with first starters from six runners in 2016 — that works in terms of ROI. Another set of winners, in terms of the betting, are Charlton Baker’s first-timers. He won two of four races with first starters in 2016 (the other great Baker category is horses returning from long layoffs… but that’s another article entirely).
On the grass at Saratoga, many turf races each year are won by first-time turf starters, which are often some of the most difficult turf winners to handicap, but often pay premium mutuel prices.
Some of the top trainers in this regard are certainly no surprise, with Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott leading the way over the course of the last several years. Pletcher leads all trainers recently with Spa first-time turf winners. It is Bill Mott, however, who has been much better in terms of ROI.
Other top trainers with first-time turfers at The Spa over the last nine years include Chad Brown (better in turf routes) and Linda Rice (better in turf sprints). As mentioned before, Barclay Tagg has won a lot of Spa baby races in recent years and many of his wins have been with first starters and/or first-time turfers. Overall, with first-time starters at Saratoga in 2015, Tagg was 4-for-5, including 2-for-2 with first starters on the turf.
The list of top ROI trainers with first-time turfers at Saratoga the last ten years includes Bill Mott, Chad Brown, Graham Motion, George Weaver, Christophe Clement, Barclay Tagg, Wesley Ward and Mike Maker. John Kimmel also has some good numbers with first-time turfers at Saratoga, but doesn’t have as many starters in the category as the other trainers mentioned above.
Gary Contessa also can spring to life in this category from time-to-time, even though he is not generally known for first-time turf winners (or turf winners in general, for that matter). This results in high mutuel payoffs on Contessa’s turf winners when he gets them, so pay attention.
Combining these two categories — first-time starters and first-time turfers — gives us the category of first time starters on the turf. In this department, in 2016, Mark Casse and George Weaver led the way, both with two winners from five starters.
Use this statistical tips and trends to your advantage when betting on or against horses from certain trainers at Saratoga in 2-year-old races, races with first-time starters, or in races with horses going out first time on the turf. You will catch some winners, avoid some costly losers, and raise your game in a difficult-to-handicap subset of races at Saratoga.
Best of luck.
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.