By Noel Michaels
Racing at The Big A has moved to a reduced winter schedule, which will be in place through March, as turf racing and most of the meaningful stakes will be absent from the Aqueduct menu until spring.
Also conspicuously absent from New York racing this time of the year is that most of the top riders aren’t around. John Velazquez, Jose and Irad Ortiz, Luis Saez, Joel Rosario, and Javier Castellano, have all migrated south for the winter. The void has left an entirely new winter landscape in the Aqueduct jockey world. If you are going to bet Aqueduct this winter, it’s worth it to familiarize yourself with the new-look jock’s room this season.
As you look at the Aqueduct leading riders of the fall meet through Jan. 6, you will see a new-look has taken shape, with Jose Lezcano and Junior Alvarado, Dylan Davis, and Manny Franco at or near the top of the standings and set to rule the roost for the next several months.
Lezcano, in particular, has reinvented himself and rebooted his career following some injuries and slow seasons. He was among the top New York riders in 2019, scoring a surprise jockey title at the Belmont spring/summer meet and then placing second in the Belmont fall meet standings.
Lezcano is sticking around New York with an eye on another jockey title, and he is certainly off to a good start. Through the first four weeks at the Aqueduct 2019-2020 winter meet, which began on Dec. 12, Lezcano has racked up 28 wins from 88 mounts for a 30 percent win average — good enough for first-place and a comfortable lead in the standings with nearly twice as many wins as the next-leading rider.
Plus, Lezcano’s in-the-money (ITM) percentage of 65 percent means that basically two-thirds of his mounts have been hitting the board. Bettors can’t ignore those kinds of numbers, even if he is starting to ride a lot of favorites.
Second, somewhat surprisingly, is Eric Cancel with 16 wins from 82 mounts for a 20 percent win average. Cancel’s hot start is a surprise because he was only the ninth-leading rider at this year’s Aqueduct fall meet, and only sixth as a regular rider at last season’s Aqueduct winter meet with 43 wins and a 16 percent win average. At all other times of the year in New York, Cancel consistently hovers around 10 percent. This spike in wins for Cancel early this season can mean two things, either he’s been hot and is bound to cool off closer to what we have come to expect for him as an average Aqueduct winter rider, or else he is finally in the midst of a breakout season and a guy you can continue to make money with as the winter season progresses.
Given those two choices, the first one is probably more likely so expect a cool down as the weeks and months of the meet go by.
On the flip side of Cancel’s hot start has been Franco, who is off to a chilly beginning. Franco was Aqueduct’s leading winter rider last season when he ran away with the title on the strength of 98 wins (27 percent winning rate a 62 percent ITM. Franco has since cemented himself as a top-caliber rider on the New York circuit, winning the Aqueduct 2019 spring meet, placing third in the 2019 Aqueduct fall meet, and winning the riding title with 44 wins at the Belmont fall meet.
Therefore, it is completely perplexing that Franco so far has struggled with just 10 wins from his first 72 mounts, fifth on the leaderboard. Franco had a slow start to the meet with just two wins from his first 29 mounts, but appears to be coming around now with the help of a three-win day on Dec. 30.
Franco, however, is the type of jockey who normally rides every race, and even if he is not meant to be tops on the circuit in terms of win percentage, he will definitely heat up into contention for leading rider this winter. When all is said and done, Franco rides for all the top barns, including Linda Rice, Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, and sometimes Rudy Rodriguez, and he will find himself squarely in the mix all winter at The Big A. The meet riding title is likely to come down to a battle between Lezcano and Franco. So far, as of Jan. 6, it’s advantage Lezcano.
Alvarado currently finds himself in fourth place in the standings with 13 wins from 58 mounts for a 22 percent win rate 48 percent ITM. Since New Year’s Day, Alvarado has cashed in with three of his six mounts. Alvarado doesn’t get as many mounts as the other top riders, but his win percentage is always among the best at this time of year in New York, so his mounts should be bet accordingly. Alvarado rides first call for John Kimmel, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Charlton Baker, and in the winter, so as those trainers go, so will go Alvarado.
The other jockey deserving of a mention currently at Aqueduct is Davis, who also gets tons of mounts over the winter and enjoyed a top 10 season at the Aqueduct fall meet. He is currently in third in the current Aqueduct jockey standings with 14 wins from 82 mounts (17 percent) and definitely should land in the top 5 this winter. Following a 2-for-22 start, Davis has gone 12-for-60 (20 percent) with wins for Mike Micelli, Bruce Levine, Raymond Handal, Christophe Clement, and John Terranova, just to name a few. Except for two wins apiece for trainers Rice and Mark Hennig, each of Davis’s 14 wins have come for different trainers, meaning that he’s ridden winners for 12 different barns already.
The rest of the Aqueduct winter jock’s room will be comprised by jockeys such as Kendrick Carmouche, Reylu Gutierrez, Jorge Vargas, Julio Correa, Hector Diaz, Joey Martinez, and Declan Carroll, with each of the riders in that group expected to win in the 5-10 percent range.
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.