By Noel Michaels
The Belmont Park racing season is off and running, and not surprisingly the condensed meet has assembled the nation’s strongest and most competitive jockey colony to ride for a who’s who of the top trainers in horse racing.
Purses are big and field sizes have been full, so there has been no shortage of mounts to go around.
Through the first five racing days, the story of the Belmont meet so far has been the fast start of Irad Ortiz Jr., who accumulated 13 wins from his first 29 mounts, including four wins on Sunday, for a giant winning rate of 45 percent — 69 percent in the money. To put that in perspective, Javier Castellano is second with six wins from the same number of mounts (29), accounting for a 21 percent win rate, and 48 percent in the money.
Ortiz and Castellano get live mounts from a wide swath of stables, and have both been beneficiaries of the hot start to the meet from leading trainer Chad Brown, whose barn is brimming with horses that have been waiting for the start of the New York racing season and are ready to roll. Brown has already started 32 horses at Belmont through the first week, winning eight (25 percent) with 20-for-32 in the money.
For bettors, the key with Brown is to focus only on his turf starters. All of his horses are heavily–bet, but while he has cashed-in with eight victories in 23 turf starts (35 percent wins), he has burned a lot of money on the dirt going 0-for-9. The average Chad Brown win payoff has been $6.40. The numbers indicate it’s worth betting against Brown on the dirt and looking for live overlays elsewhere in those races.
While Irad Ortiz and Castellano are likely to keep winning the most races, it is unlikely that many of their winners will pay a lot on the tote board. If you are looking for the gold star rider at the meet in terms of ROI, that award looks like it will go to Junior Alvarado, who is consistently overlooked by bettors. Alvarado finished the first week at Belmont third in the jockey standings with five wins from 28 starters.
Alvarado’s average win payoff has been a huge $16.30, with wins for barns including Christophe Clement, who is off to a strong start to the Belmont meet with five wins from 19 starters (25 percent), all on the grass. Alvarado has achieved his hot start despite the slow start to the meet for Bill Mott, his main bread-and-butter trainer who is 1-for-14. When Mott’s horses heat up, Alvarado will win even more.
Aside from Irad Ortiz, Javier Castellano, Junior Alvarado, Chad Brown, and Christophe Clement, the other hot-starting human at Belmont has been trainer Brad Cox, who has four wins and a second from his first seven starters at Belmont. Cox has won three of his four dirt starts, and so far three of his four wins have been in sprints. Usually Cox does his best damage in route races, and while he is bound to cool down from his current 57 percent win rate, he is likely to continue to win for a high percentage throughout the short meet.
That wraps up the hot side of the ledger one week into the Belmont meet. Now let’s look at who’s cold.
Other than Mott, the other notably quiet barn so far has been Todd Pletcher, who has started only eight runners and won only once. If he is to end up as the second leading trainer at the meet behind Brown, as many expect, he is going to need to be a lot more active and effective. When Pletcher does get hot, expect John Velazquez to rise up in the jockey standings. Velazquez was racking up wins during a two-week stay at Churchill Downs, and will do a lot better at Belmont than his current 3-for-25 record (12 percent) would indicate.
Conspicuously absent from the Belmont jockey standings so far has been Luis Saez, who started the meet serving a suspension dating back to last year’s Kentucky Derby disqualification aboard Maximum Security. Saez was second in last year’s Belmont spring meet with 43 wins and a 23 percent win rate, and is currently 2020’s national leading rider in terms of mounts (655) and wins (132). When he comes back, he’ll come back strong.
The other cold rider to mention early in the Belmont season is last spring’s leading Belmont rider Jose Lezcano, who won the 2019 Belmont spring/summer jockey title with 44 wins (23 percent). Lezcano is a startling 1-for-26 after the first week at Belmont, but will heat up when some of his key trainers inevitably heat up, such as Linda Rice, who was winless opening week at Belmont.
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.