By Noel Michaels
Two months in the record books at the Gulfstream Park and the best two months of the winter season still ahead — horse racing at this time of year doesn’t get any better than in South Florida.
Midway through the meet seems like a good time to reflect on the top trainer and jockey stories so far, while also looking for handicapping trends we can use the carry us over the next couple of months and through the Florida Derby at the end of March.
The leading trainer this season at Gulfstream, with stats through Feb. 6, has been Todd Pletcher with 36 victories from his first 146 starters for a 25% win rate. Pletcher has won 16 of the last 17 winter meet titles and seems on his way to No. 17.
Pletcher is winning with a variety of jockeys and does almost as well on turf (19-for-81, 23%) as on dirt (17-for-65, 26%). He has delivered with 44% of his favorites, yet his average win payoff of $7.40 has not been bad for a meet’s leading trainer. One area of dominance at the meet for Pletcher has been with young horses. He won with nine 2-year-olds in December, and he’s continued to win with his youngsters now that they are 3-year-olds. Pletcher does particularly well in routes, having won with 28 of his 100 route starters at the meet.
The trainer giving closest chase to Pletcher is Saffie Joseph, Jr., whose horses have also been extremely playable. Joseph has racked up a 22% win rate with 32 winners from 147 starters, and his average win payoff of $9.90 has been much better than Pletcher and most of the other top trainers at the meet, making him a great play. Joseph wins on the grass (14 wins), but his win percentage is much better on the main track with a record of 18-for-61 on the dirt for a 30% win rate that is even higher than Pletcher’s. Also, while Pletcher tends to do better going longer, Joseph does better in sprints, where his record at the meet has been 21-for-73 for 29%. Like Pletcher, Joseph has excelled with young horses with 17 winning 3-year-olds so far.
Mike Maker is having a very good meet so far with 27 wins from 135 starters for 20%, placing him third in the standings. Maker has been mostly a non-factor on the main track (3-for-19), but he has been the meet’s top grass trainer in terms of wins with 24 (21%). It’s difficult to make much money with Maker, however, because 17 of his 27 winners have been favorites, and his average winner has paid only $6.60 to win.
The unquestioned win percentage leading trainer at Gulfstream this winter is Danny Gargan, who is putting up startling numbers with a limited amount of starters. Gargan’s runners are 15-for-36, which gives him a 42% win rate with 75% in the money. It is impossible to overlook his runners, even despite an average win payoff of just $6.30. It also should be noted that trainer Carlos David is having a great meet in terms of win percentage with a 13-for-55 record (24%). Bet David’s horses are on the grass where he has won 10 times from 40 starters.
For bigger paydays, check out Sano, Sweezey, Avila runners
If Pletcher’s and Gargan’s horses don’t offer you enough bang for your buck and you are looking to cash some prices at Gulfstream this season, then three trainers deserve your attention, aside from those already mentioned. Antonio Sano is having a strong meet with 21 wins from 150 starters. That’s only 14% wins, but his average win payoff of $17.20 is higher than all the meet’s other leading trainers.
Two other trainers sending out good-priced winners at the meet are Kent Sweezey, who has heated-up a bit and now has 11 winners with an average payoff of $14; and Juan Avila with 11 wins from 55 starters for 20%, with an average win payoff of $13.80.
On the flip side, some struggling trainers include some big names such as Dale Romans (3-for-35, 9%), David Fawkes (3-for-47, 6%), Rohan Crichton (2-for-49, 4%), Rusty Arnold (2-for-31, 6%), Ken McPeek (1-for-31, 3%), Patrick Biancone (1-for-33, 3%), and Ian Wilkes (1-for-29, 3%).
It’s no surprise to see Irad Ortiz, Jr. leading the way in the standings with 76 winners — a 26% win rate that’s head and shoulders above everyone else. Ortiz is a perennial leader, but his stats have been boosted even more by the fact that the top competition, Javier Castellano, has been out and has yet to ride at the meet.
Veteran John Velazquez has also scaled back his riding (six wins from 74 mounts). What that means is that there are even more prime mounts falling into Irad Ortiz’s lap than usual, including from most of the top trainers like Pletcher and Chad Brown. Not shockingly, 45 of Ortiz’s 76 wins have been aboard favorites, and his average winner is paying $6.90.
Some of the betting value for jockeys at the meet can be found in the second tier of leading riders. This group is led by Luis Saez, who is also benefitting from Castellano’s absence and his 61 wins, including a very equitable 30 dirt wins and 31 turf wins with a solid average payoff of $8.30. Paco Lopez (55-for-317, average winner paying $11.30), Edgard Zayas (55-for-366, $11.90), and Tyler Gaffalione (50-for-309, $8.10) are all also good bets at Gulfstream. All of these jockeys have been proficient on dirt and turf.
Ortiz and Saez were tied for the lead with nine stakes winners apiece through Feb. 6. Gaffalione was next with five.
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.