Why Winning Belmont Horses Will Flop in Saratoga Dirt Routes

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Saratoga Race Course

Dirt route races are just one of the many facets of handicapping in New York that are challenging at this time of the year. Horseplayers who understand the differences between horses that excel in two-turn races at Saratoga as opposed to one-turn races at Belmont will enjoy a strong betting advantage in those races throughout July and August. Those who fail to notice this enormously important difference between Belmont Park and Saratoga, on the other hand, are doomed to struggle.

One of Saratoga’s long-standing nicknames is “The Graveyard of Favorites” and the track has that reputation for a number of reasons. Much of it has to do with the fact that bettors get the odds all wrong in route races by misinterpreting horses’ one-turn route form from Belmont — either overrating it or underrating it — when handicapping races on Saratoga’s totally different two-turn route layout.

Two-turn route races have always been a big element of handicapping at Saratoga, unlike at New York’s bookend race meets at Belmont Park, which, due to its 1 ½-mile circumference, cards very few two-turn routes. Saratoga, on the other hand, cards roughly 40 two-turn dirt routes a season – an average of about one per day – and those events are quite different than the dirt route races run around one turn at Belmont Park.

Plus, when it rains a lot, you can expect even more dirt routes at Saratoga due to all of the races moved from turf to dirt. In 2014, for example, there were a total of 62 dirt route races run at Saratoga — an average of 1.5 a day. In 2015, there were 51 dirt routes run at the 40-day Saratoga meet (about 1.3 per day).

Oftentimes, the New York horses that come to Saratoga with the best form from Belmont are horses that have been excelling, in part, thanks to their preference for one-turn races.  At Saratoga, however, this factor goes away and, instead, two-turn horses that like the routes at Saratoga and other more traditional track layouts are favored.

This adds an interesting handicapping wrinkle to these track-change situations to and away from Belmont Park, making the upcoming move in New York racing from Belmont to Saratoga a pertinent time of year for handicappers.

In order to figure out if a horse prefers one turn or two turns, handicappers need to scan down a horse’s past performances and see where its past route wins and/or highest route speed figures have come from. If you see a horse that has demonstrated its best route form at Belmont going 1 mile, 1 1/16 miles or 1 1/8 miles, then that horse can probably be termed a “one-turn router”.

However, if you see a horse whose best route races came on more traditional layouts such as Aqueduct, Churchill, Gulfstream, Monmouth, the mid-Atlantic region, or in past races at Saratoga, then you have a potential key play on a likely “wake-up” horse at Saratoga, particularly if the horse’s past good two-turn efforts came at or near 1 1/8 miles.

Another ultra-important handicapping note to make at Saratoga is that, because of the track layout, there are no one-mile races and no 1 1/16-mile races.  The vast majority of all main track routes are run at 1 1/8 miles.  This creates lots of problems for horses whose best distances are one mile and/or 1 1/16 miles.  Those horses must either stretch out to 1 1/8 miles (perhaps too long), or cut back to seven furlongs around one turn (perhaps too short).

Saratoga Race Course opened for business on August 3, 1863.

Saratoga Race Course opened for business on August 3, 1863.

Horses that prefer 1- to 1 1/16-mile races are essentially homeless at Saratoga, but that doesn’t stop their connections from running them, even when they need to shoe-horn them into bad spots.

This distance angle goes beyond just Belmont and Saratoga handicapping at this time of year and actually extends to horses running in dirt routes all over the eastern region including, most notably, Monmouth Park, Parx, and Delaware Park.  Some of the better New York barns are well aware of this distance angle and, thus, choose to ship their 1-mile and 1 1/16-mile dirt specialists to other tracks during the Saratoga meet, because they simply can’t win at either the 7-furlong or 1 1/8-mile distances offered at Saratoga.

Trainers with lot of resources and/or out-of-town operations have the advantage in this regard. Todd Pletcher, Jason Servis, Bruce Levine, Tony Dutrow and Steve Asmussen all fit the bill. These guys will determine their mismatched distance horses early and ship them to races at Monmouth, Parx, Delaware or elsewhere before Saratoga even begins, or else they’ll run them off their feet with several races at Belmont before giving them a break when the meet ends (they won’t even bring those horses to Saratoga and will wait instead for Belmont to open again in the fall).

Other trainers with smaller operations, however, without the resources to run strings of horses out of town, stick around at Saratoga and lose races all season long at seven furlongs and 1 1/8 miles with horses that should be entered at a mile or 1 1/16 miles.

Therefore, during this time of year, bet against horses stuck at the wrong distance at Saratoga from the smaller and/or New York-only stables.

On the flip side, it’s a good bet to take the horses from the barns like Pletcher, Servis, Levine, Dutrow, Asmussen and others that bypass the 7-furlong and 1 1/8-mile dirt races at Saratoga. You can bet with confidence on these types when you see them out of town, especially at Monmouth, when they are entered at 1 mile and 1 1/16 miles. This is because these barns have already assessed their horses based on distance and sorted them all out to run in races at the tracks where they’ll be most effective.

Saratoga: 1 1/8-Mile Races on the Dirt

What works when handicapping the two-turn dirt routes at Saratoga?  When it comes to post positions, the inside four posts historically have had a slight advantage in all two-turn dirt races at Saratoga, particularly at the most common dirt route distance of 1 1/8 miles. Many bettors know this and wager accordingly, making inside-drawn horses favorites and bumping-up the odds on outside horses. However, this post position factor has played a smaller role at recent Saratoga meets, perhaps because of differences between the way the track is maintained now as opposed to prior meets.

At the most recent Saratoga meets, far outside-drawn horses were at a disadvantage in Saratoga two-turn routes, but this bias only affected horses drawn in post eight and wider.  Middle posts 5-6-7 won a fair share of races, indicating that the inside posts 1-2-3-4 held no advantage over the middle posts.

You don’t need to start downgrading horses’ chances in Saratoga dirt routes until you get out to post 8 and beyond.  Horses breaking from posts 8-11 in Saratoga dirt routes in 2015, for example, were a combined 1-for-31!  

Pay Attention to Where the Spa Winners Are Coming From

Early in the Saratoga meet you will be looking for trends in terms of where the majority of the winning horses are coming from. Are horses from the New York circuit (i.e. Belmont) performing the best or are shippers from Churchill or elsewhere doing best?  What will be the strongest group of out-of-town shippers?  Where are the winners coming from? Is it Monmouth, Parx, Finger Lakes, Delaware, Florida, California or somewhere in between?

Amongst the different groups of shippers, Kentucky shippers who last raced at Churchill Downs usually win the most races amongst all of the groups of non-NY invaders at Saratoga, but those horses also tend to have, by far, the most starters of any group of shippers.  Kentucky shippers, by overall percentage, tend to perform no better than shippers from Monmouth Park.

Although they are typically not as high profile as Churchill Downs shippers, Monmouth Park invaders certainly can, and do, win at Saratoga when they are good enough. This is especially true if they fit into the category mentioned earlier in this article of two-turn-loving horses that had been previously sent to Monmouth by sharp, resourceful trainers such as Pletcher, Asmussen, Servis, etc. in order to avoid one-turn routes at Belmont.

One group of horses that tends to do exceptionally poorly in dirt races at Saratoga, on the other hand, are horses who ran their most recent races on artificial surfaces. Shippers who ran their most recent races on the main tracks at Arlington, Presque Isle, and Woodbine, rarely win Saratoga dirt races.  Thankfully, however, this angle is quickly diminishing in importance as fast as artificial tracks seem to be diminishing in importance.  In the last couple years, the number of artificial tracks has shrunk and, therefore, so have the synthetic shippers to Saratoga.

Wrap-Up

Many handicapping factors come into play at this time of year when racing and wagering shifts from Belmont to Saratoga. However, there is a method to the madness when it comes to the differences between the types of horses that tend to win route races at each of these two very different racetracks.

With the impending move from Belmont Park to Saratoga fast approaching, we’re coming up to one of those times of the year in New York racing where the difference between one-turn and two-turn races is very important. Pay attention to this important difference and you will have a distinct edge over the majority of the betting public.

Noel Michaels
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.
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