With all the hubbub in thoroughbred racing focused on the Triple Crown, it can be easy to overlook that, at the same time horseplayers are concentrating on the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the new season at beautiful Belmont Park is already up and running.
The 2018 Belmont Park spring-summer meet opened on Friday, April 27, and will run through Sunday, July 15. After months and months of Aqueduct, the New York circuit finally returns to Belmont Park and handicappers are more than ready for the move, to say the least.
The biggest day of the 54-day Belmont meet, of course, will be the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 9. The $1.5 million third leg of racing’s Triple Crown will be the centerpiece of the three-day Belmont Stakes Festival from Thursday through Saturday, June 7-9. Belmont Stakes Day itself has become one of the richest days of the year in thoroughbred racing, with a Breeders’ Cup-like card of 10 graded stakes, featuring six Grade 1s — including the $1.2 million Metropolitan Mile Handicap, the $1 million Grade 1 Manhattan, the $700,000 Just a Game, the $750,000 Ogden Phipps and the $700,000 Acorn. Total purses for the day will top $7.2 million.
But the Belmont meet is not all about the Belmont Stakes Festival. Day-to-day racing at the track is the best there is at this time of year. At the start of the Belmont spring-summer meet, runners will generally come from one of four groups:
1) local Aqueduct horses and first-time starters.
2) Horses coming from Keeneland.
3) Horses returning to New York from Florida.
4) New York horses returning from layoffs.
These are four importantly different categories of horses, all having their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to betting at Belmont.
First off, when trying to approach the Belmont meet, horseplayers should take note of the recent trends from the completed Aqueduct spring main track meet.
The jockey standings at Aqueduct this winter were dominated my mostly second-tier riders, with perennial Big A leaders Irad Ortiz and Jose Ortiz riding the winter in Gulfstream. This left Aqueduct jock’s room to be ruled by Manny Franco, Dylan Davis, Kendrick Carmouche, and winter ROI leader Junior Alvarado. Aqueduct’s brief April Spring Meet was won by Irad Ortiz with 24 victories (31 percent), with Franco second with 17 wins and Alvarado third with 11 scores.
Now that the main Gulfstream meet is over and Keeneland and the Kentucky Derby have passed, the main contingent of New York’s top riders will be returning to prominence. For handicappers, this means Jose Ortiz and Irad Ortiz leading the way over a star-studded group that will include Javier Castellano, John Velazquez, Joel Rosario, and Gulfstream winter leading rider Luis Saez. These jockeys should complete the top 10 in the jockey standings for the season at Belmont.
The new Aqueduct main track displayed plenty of daily track biases worth mentioning. Generally, the prevailing bias favored outside horses or at least horses that stayed off the rail. Speed mostly seemed to be an advantage and it usually helped to be on or close to the pace.
Overall, post position preferences were fair in dirt sprints and routes, and were amazingly fair on the grass, where horses could win from any part of the starting gate in routes — particularly in turf sprints.
Aqueduct 2017-18 Track Biases
April 22 – Helped to be on or close to the pace.
April 21 – Helped to be on or close to the pace.
April 20 – Inside paths preferred.
April 12 – Helped to be on or close to the pace.
April 11 – Helped to be on or close to the pace.
April 8 – Outside bias and slow rail.
April 7 – Outside advantage.
April 6 – Outside preferred.
March 23 – Horses were better off outside.
March 18 – Helped to be on or close to the pace.
March 17 – Speed good, had to be on or close.
March 10 – Speed good.
March 4 – Outside probably the best part of the track.
Feb. 24 – Gold rail in the rain got even better when sealed races 6-7.
Feb. 23 – Inside and rail advantage on muddy track.
Feb. 18 – Horses stayed off the rail.
Feb. 17 – Horses stayed off the rail.
Feb. 16 – Had to stay off the rail in slop; outside good.
Feb. 3 – Inside good.
Jan. 26 – Gold rail inside bias; speed good.
Jan. 25 – Horses benefitted from avoiding the rail.
Jan. 21 – Dead slow track killed inside speed, outside advantage.
Jan. 20 – Inside bias.
Jan. 18 – Inside advantage in routes.
Dec. 29 – Inside preferred.
Dec. 21 – Helped to be one or close to the pace.
Dec. 17 – Dead rail outside bias.
Dec. 16 – Inside advantage and speed good.
Dec. 10 – Horses stayed far off the slow rail on wet “good” track.
Dec. 9 – Outside preferred in snowy conditions.
Dec. 7 – Outside bias.
Dec. 6 – Helped to be outside and on or close to the pace.
Dec. 2 – Speed good, all winners on or close to the pace.
Nov. 24 – Outside preferred.
Nov. 23 – Drying track labeled “fast”. Outside preferred.
Nov. 22 – Sloppy track.
Nov. 18 – Outside preferred.
Nov. 17 – Outside advantage.
Nov. 16 – Drying track labelled “fast”. Speed good and off the rail preferred.
Nov. 15 – Slow rail and an outside bias.
Nov. 12 – Inside preferred.
Nov. 9 – Outside advantage.
Nov. 8 – Dead rail and inside speed horses died down on the rail.
Take note of the track bias days at Aqueduct. At Belmont, handicappers should upgrade the chances of any horse coming out of an Aqueduct loss or losses where it ran against a bias. And downgrade winners who benefitted from Aqueduct biases in their recent victories.
Many trainers enjoyed solid and successful winters/springs at Aqueduct, and they will be joined by the best trainers and racing stables in the country, now back in New York from their winter bases at Gulfstream and their spring stopovers at Keeneland.
Trainers Rudy Rodriguez and Linda Rice both enjoyed very successful winters in New York. In the brief Aqueduct Spring meet, Chad Brown was completely dominant with 15 winners from 39 starters (38 percent), with Rice second (11 wins) and Rodriguez third with 11 wins.
Other trainers with outstanding win percentages at the winter meet since Jan. 1 included Danny Gargan (6-for-18, 33 percent), John Terranova (8-for-26, 31 percent), Jeremiah Englehart (19-for-81, 23 percent), Robertino Diodoro (10-for-43, 23 percent), and Michelle Nevin (10-for-44, 23 percent). In the April spring meet, Jimmy Jerkens did great with 4 wins from 11 starters (36 percent), as did Shug McGaughey (3-for10, 30 percent), Bill Mott (3-for-12, 25 percent) and Chris Englehart (4-for-18, 22 percent).
Just because all the big-name stables are back in town now, don’t expect these barns to stop winning. Yes, their win percentages will probably go down and they will win fewer allowance races, but these trainers will continue to win tons of races and probably will finish the Belmont meet near the top in the trainer standings by the time it’s all said and done.
Belmont’s training title should again come down to a battle between Todd Pletcher, who won at his usual high percentage all winter in Florida and New York, and Chad Brown. Last spring Brown finally displaced Pletcher atop the Belmont Spring/Summer trainer standings with 40 wins to Pletcher’s 24. Brian Lynch finished a surprising third with 11 wins from 42 starters for a big 26 percent win rate.
Linda Rice wins a bunch of turf races at Belmont, with horses either coming off winter layoffs, coming from Florida, or that’ve been racing on the wrong surface in New York all winter. As always, Rice can be counted on to be deadly in turf sprints at all distances.
Chad Brown is lethal on the grass and in routes, and also wins a lot of maiden special weight races, particularly on the grass. When last seen in New York with his main first-string runners, Brown dominated Aqueduct grass races during the November meet, winning essentially everything in sight. Expect him to pick up right where he left off during the first part of the Belmont meet. You can expect Brown to do much of his Belmont Park winning early in the spring-summer meet. Starting in late June, Brown will start to quiet down as be begins ramping-up the horses in his stable for his top annual meet at Saratoga.
Kiaran McLaughlin can be counted on for a good win percentage at this meet — the longer the race, the better. Rick Violette has been reloading for what should be a big season and Jason Servis should also win a ton of races, especially turf sprints.
Christophe Clement’s grass string will be as powerful as ever this season at Belmont. Clement will lead the parade of top stables returning full force to New York after spending the winter and spring elsewhere, along with trainers like Bill Mott and Shug McGaughey, who can be counted on for high winning percentages at Belmont.
Evaluating out-of-town and returning-to-town talent is one of the keys to handicapping the Belmont Park meet, because when it comes to figuring out where the winners at Belmont will come from, the local horses that have spent the winter at Aqueduct are not necessarily the horses you want to watch at Belmont. This is especially true on turf.
A few trends to watch for horses coming in from out of town include some post position angles pertaining to horses coming from Gulfstream Park. At Gulfstream, horses that draw outside posts in 1 1/8-mile dirt races are at a disadvantage. Those outside posts are also not great in Gulfstream’s other two-turn routes run at 1 1/16-miles. Therefore, if you see a Belmont starter exiting bad efforts in one of those kinds of races at Gulfstream, you should remember to give some of those horses an excuses for those losses.
Other Belmont entrants to watch in the spring are the ones who’ve been given the winter off, and are fresh and ready to roll, particularly on the grass. The best strategy with these sorts of layoff horses is to bet them once they’ve gotten a prep race or two under their belts, either early at Belmont or during the Aqueduct spring main-track meet. Give horses with prep races the advantage over horses coming back off winter layoffs.
Of course, nothing beats the good ol’ horse-for-the-course angle when handicapping Belmont dirt races. Belmont Park’s main track, also known as “Big Sandy,” is a dramatically different surface from Aqueduct’s main track.
Belmont runs almost exclusively one-turn races on dirt at all distances ranging from five furlongs to nine furlongs. A horse’s two-turn record is not as important as its one-turn record for the purposes of evaluating Belmont’s one-turn races.
On the Belmont dirt track, speed is an extremely handy commodity. Other tracks, such as Monmouth Park and Pimlico, have more of a reputation as being speed-biased tracks, but Belmont Park can be right up there with those tracks at certain times when it comes to favoring speed. Sure, late runners will have every opportunity to close at Belmont with its wide, sweeping turns and long stretch, but you always must be wary of the times when Belmont’s main track bias kicks into effect and starts favoring frontrunners. When those biases appear, they can stay in place for up to a week at time when the weather goes several days without changing.
When it comes to post position angles on the Belmont main track, remember that Belmont runs almost no two-turn races due to its 1 1/2-mile circumference. This nearly negates any inside bias the track might have in route races, which are all one-turn affairs up to 1 1/8 miles.
On the Belmont turf courses, both the inner turf and the outer turf tracks are big, wide, fair courses with long stretch runs. Outside turf posts are a concern, however, between one mile and 1 1/8 miles. Horses breaking from the far outside in one-mile races and 1 1/16-mile races can be most negatively affected by outside posts. At one mile on the Widener turf course at the spring-summer meet, posts 8-12 should win a combined five percent or so, while posts 9-12 should win about six percent at 1 1/16-miles. On the inner turf course at 1 1/16-miles, horses from posts 8-10 can be expected to win only about five percent at a time. At 1 1/8-miles, posts 8-11 may win only about seven percent.
Notably, weather has a big impact on Belmont turf racing, and it’s something worth looking out for. For the first half of the Belmont spring-summer meet, temperatures can still be chilly at times and the area is often affected by spring showers which keep the courses a bit moist, even under “firm” conditions. Belmont firm turf in May and early June is far different from Belmont firm turf for the second half of the meet after the Belmont stakes, when heat, lack of rain, and heavy use usually begin to take their toll on the turf courses, baking them into rock-hard paved highways. Because of these course conditions, handicappers should upgrade turf closers during the first half of the meet and then begin to downgrade those horses in favor of turf speedsters during the second half of the meet.
This angle is a particularly effective moneymaker when you see late-running horses that benefited from the course conditions early in the meet who you can downgrade as likely underlays during the second-half of the meet when the turf plays kinder to speed. At the same time, you can also catch overlay prices on live turf frontrunners and up-close pace-pressers who win later in the meet after flopping earlier in the meet in May and early June.
As a side note, when it rains, the inner turf typically dries out faster than the outer course, so always try to keep that in mind when evaluating horses that prefer “good,” “yielding” or “soft” turf.
In the popular turf sprint department, Linda Rice does particularly well, as do Jason Servis and Kiaran McLaughlin, along with several other trainers who actually focus on winning these kinds of races. Check the trainer stats, particularly in Daily Racing Form, to find out who’s who.
Logic would dictate that inside posts would be preferential in turf sprints, due to the short run-up to the first turn and the fact that ground-saving trips always seem to work well in the longer turf races. However, not only are inside posts not better in New York turf sprints, but, in fact, the opposite is actually true. Outside posts (often the furthest outside post) are the best post position draws in Belmont turf sprints. Inside posts are the worst.
This is not just a short-term trend, either.
The outside posts have always done better than the inside posts at each and every Belmont spring and fall meet since turf sprints became a big part of the local racing landscape several years ago.
The anti-rail bias is particularly prevalent in Belmont turf sprints on the Widener course, where the rail post customarily wins at only 4-5 percent at both six furlongs and seven furlongs on the Widener (outer) turf.
On the inner turf course, the turf sprint inside-versus-outside bias is still there, but it just works a little differently than on the outer turf. In inner turf sprints at Belmont, the rail post itself is not too bad; instead, it is all of the other inside posts that are terrible, most notably posts 2-5. Post position seems to mean more in these kinds of races than in any other, so bet the daily Belmont turf sprint races accordingly.
Remember, in Belmont turf sprints on both courses, downgrade horses breaking from posts 1-3, and upgrade horses breaking from posts 8 and outward, especially the far outside post in any given race.
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.