By Noel Michaels
Many of the best horses, jockeys, and trainers are competing at the winter meet at Gulfstream Park, and a month-and-a-half into the meet we see that perennial leading trainer Todd Pletcher isn’t leading.
With the addition of the synthetic Tapeta surface to go along with the dirt and turf courses, it is Saffie Joseph, Jr. who’s currently leading the trainer’s race with 27 wins from 117 starters (23%). Pletcher, the top trainer 17 of the past 18 winter meets here, has 20 wins from 47 starters for a super-hot 43% win rate.
So, at this point in the meet, with Pegasus Day and Kentucky Derby (G1) preps coming up, let’s look at some handicapping trends we can use to get us through the Florida Derby (G1) in early April.
Hall of Famer Pletcher took last year’s meet title with 58 victories for a 25% win rate. He’s off to a great start but doesn’t have the numbers to match Joseph’s huge total of runners through Jan. 15.
With that, his dominance is in jeopardy as Joseph’s barn is thriving thanks to turf and Tapeta. In addition to 27 wins, his runners have finished second 20 times and the trainer has hit the exacta with 47 of his 177 starters for a 40% rate.
This Gulfstream meet has been like no other now that a Tapeta strip has been added. And, according to what we’ve seen so far, more races are being run on Tapeta than either of the other two surfaces.
At the start of the meet, it was uncertain how the new synthetic track would be used. Vice president of racing operations Mike Lakow promised something like 40% dirt races, 30% turf, and 30% Tapeta, but the real numbers have been closer to 45% on Tapeta, 35% on dirt, and 20% on turf. Gulfstream is generally carding its cheaper races on Tapeta, and those races therefore have been filling better than the track’s dirt and turf features.
This new dynamic has made it impossible for Pletcher to keep up with Joseph despite having more expensive stock and winning at an unrivaled percentage. A lot of top jockeys saw the writing on the wall that cheaper races would dominate the Tapeta surface, and many chose to ride elsewhere this season. Among them are John Velazquez going to Santa Anita, Joel Rosario going to Oaklawn, and Jose Ortiz staying home in New York and heading to Saudi Arabia later in the month.
Pletcher’s numbers tend to good in almost every category at Gulfstream, mostly with leading rider Luis Saez aboard. Pletcher has been particularly on fire with his young horses, with seven 2-year-old wins from his 19 December starters in that category. Now that the 2-year-old have turned 3, Pletcher is still getting it done with six 3-year-old wins from 16 starters. Joseph can match those numbers because he starts so many horses, but his win percentages fall far short of Pletcher in the young horse category.
The surface breakdown of winners for Joseph with his first 25 winners at the meet was 13 on dirt, five on turf, and seven on Tapeta. Compare that to Pletcher’s first 19 winners, which were 11 on dirt, second on turf, and one Tapeta.
Along with Joseph, the other main proponent of the Tapeta course . Casse is third in the trainer standings with 11 wins with seven coming on Tapeta, placing him in a tie with Joseph for most wins on the new surface. When you are handicapping Tapeta races, you simply must upgrade Joseph and Casse horses. The next winningest trainers on the all-weather surface are Jose D’Angelo and Kent Sweezey with three apiece.
On the dirt, Joseph leads Pletcher 13-11 (Joseph has started 53 horses to Pletcher’s 24). Aside from Pletcher and Joseph, the next leading trainer on the dirt is Jorge Delgado with eight wins from 25 starters for 32%. No other trainer has more than five dirt wins.
On the turf course, there haven’t been enough races for trainers you would expect to see higher up in the standings to excel, such as Wesley Ward, Christophe Clement, Mike Maker, and Chad Brown. Pletcher leads with seven turf wins, and Joseph is next with five.
Ward has his eyes on Gulfstream’s 5-furlong turf sprints, but those races have not been as numerous this season. Ward has won with three of seven starters at the meet. His only winner in January so far was a turf sprint. Brown has four wins from 21 starters, with 11 of 21 in the exacta, with his wins coming mainly with turf maidens.
Clement is tied for eighth in the standings with six wins from his first 23 starters (26%), but all six came in December. Clement’s only January win so far came in a turf race at Tampa. Meanwhile, Maker has his stable spread out at Gulfstream, Oaklawn, and Aqueduct and has been cold at Gulfstream with only four wins from 52 starters (8%) with one Gulfstream win each on Tapeta and grass so far in 2022.
Two final trainers to mention who are off to hot starts at the meet are Barclay Tagg and Ralph Nicks. Both are currently winning at 30% with Tagg 3-for-10, and Nicks off to a good start with six wins from his first 20 starters.
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.