By Noel Michaels
Winter racing season is in full swing as Aqueduct heads into the new year, and several trainers have already begun to distinguish themselves at the meet, which officially began for the winter season on Dec. 12.
The complexion of the trainer standings changes a lot at this time of year in New York racing, or course, as many of the top New York trainers depart for Florida and elsewhere, and other lower-profile locally-based barns start winning more races. Trainers such as Chad Brown, Todd Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Jason Servis, Shug McGaughey and so many others have shipped away their top runners, but most of their barns still remain active at Aqueduct through the winter with big New York purses inducing many to leave behind strings of horses. For the most part these are dirt horses, claimers, and New York-breds will stay behind at Aqueduct, even for the big-name trainers mentioned above.
Last year’s winter racing season at Aqueduct (2018-19), you may remember, was ruled by two trainers, Linda Rice and Rudy Rodriguez with 45 wins and 40 wins for the meet, respectively, to each more than double the amount of wins for any other stable. It was a long way back to third in the standings, where Jason Servis and Jeremiah Englehart finished tied with 19 wins apiece.
So far, things are shaping up to be more of the same, with Rice and Rodriguez ruling the roost in terms of sending out the most starters and winning the most races.
Through Dec. 30, Rice has already sent out 45 starters at Aqueduct and has won 12 races (27 percent win percentage and 58 percent in the money) for a commanding lead in the trainer’s standings. The only other barn close has been Rudy Rodriguez, who has won with seven of his 38 starters for 18 percent wins and 47 percent ITM. Rudy is strong in all categories and can never be ignored, plus his average win payoff of $8.10 at Aqueduct dating back to November 2017 is better than many other top trainers during that stretch, including Rice ($7.30), Brown ($5.80), and Pletcher ($6.50).
It’s currently a long way back to the next-winningest barns, which have three wins. The only other trainer who has started more than 20 horses at the meet so far has been Chris Englehart with 21 horses going to the post through Dec. 30. Englehart is off to an exceptionally slow start this season, however, with just two winners so far for 10 percent wins and only 33 percent ITM. That means his horses have been burning money at Aqueduct at an astonishing rate which is something for handicappers to be aware of, at least until signs of life begin to emerge for the Englehart stable.
Another Englehart off to a bad start at the Aqueduct winter meet is Jeremiah Englehart, who is 0-for-15 with only 27 percent ITM. He’s burning money even faster than Chris Englehart. However, once Englehart does start to heat up, he is often worth betting at the Big A. His average Aqueduct win payoff dating back to Nov. 2017 has been $11.20, which is tops among all trainers in the top 10 during that 2-plus year span.
Other trainers to watch in terms of sending out decent-priced winners at Aqueduct include John Toscano ($13.60 average win payoff), David Donk ($13.40), and Gary Contessa ($20).
While Rice and Rodriguez should continue to win the most races, their horses all usually get bet a lot, and it’s difficult to make a bunch of money betting their horses. Other trainers who have quietly gotten off to good starts who may offer better value for handicappers include Gary Gullo (three wins from his first eight starters at the current meet), Mike Micelli (two wins from four starters), John Kimmel (two wins from five starters), and George Weaver (two wins from three starters).
Some trainers off to slow starts who should be noted by handicappers include Michelle Nevin (0-for-13), Bruce Brown (1-for-12), Charlton Baker (1-foe-15), and Edward Barker (1-for-14 in the win column but 57 percent ITM).
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.