By Peter Fornatale
By sheer volume, as well as quality, Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Florida, has to be considered one of the most important tracks in the United States – they run basically from December through October, with the quality of racing fluctuating depending on the time of year. The Winter Championship meet, which begins in December and runs through the end of March is the apex, with stakes races like the Pegasus World Cup, its companion turf race, the Fountain of Youth, and the Florida Derby standing out as highlights.
Racing was first conducted at Gulfstream Park on February 1, 1939. The track didn’t run in the early days of the U.S.’s involvement in World War II but was reopened in 1946 and expanded in 1952, with turf racing coming along in 1959. Many great horses competed at Gulfstream during the 1950s but one that stands out is the 1955 Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year Swaps. He set a then world-record of 1:39 3/5 for a mile and 70 yards while carrying 130 pounds in the Broward Handicap.
Racing was strong throughout the 1960s with many big names wintering at and/or racing at Gulfstream including the likes of future Hall of Famers Carry Back and Northern Dancer (see highlights of his win below). The 1970s saw the likes of Alydar and Spectacular Bid winning Gulfstream’s signature race, the aforementioned Florida Derby.
Highlights from the 80s and 90s include Swale winning the Florida Derby en route to Kentucky Derby glory in 1984 and Cigar winning the 1995 Donn Handicap and Gulfstream Park Handicap on his way to a perfect season.
Gulfstream hosted its first Breeders' Cup in 1989, where the track played stage to the post-Triple Crown rematch of Easy Goer and Sunday Silence, with the Charlie Whittingham trainee once again getting the better of the Phipps’ colt, and Easy Goer fans, fairly or unfairly, once again calling into question the tactics of Goer’s rider Pat Day.
Gulfstream would host the cup again in 1992, a year remembered for Lure winning the first of his two Breeders’ Cup Miles and A.P. Indy taking the Classic. In the first Cup race that year, an unheralded ex-quarter horse trainer and jockey won his first BC race in the Sprint with Thirty Slews: Bob Baffert.
In 1999, Gulfstream once again played host with memorable winners including Daylami in the Turf, Beautiful Pleasure in the Distaff, and Soaring Softly in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Cat Thief for D. Wayne Lukas under Pat Day won the Classic in an upset at nearly 20-1.
Also in 1999, the track was purchased by its current owners, Magna Entertainment Corporation, since re-constituted as The Stronach Group.
The 2000s have seen notable performance by both humans and equines. It’s tough to think of Gulfstream in the early 21st Century without recalling Barbaro’s 2006 tour-de-force in the Florida Derby, where he stamped himself the horse to beat on the first Saturday in May.
Todd Pletcher became synonymous with Gulfstream during this time as well, winning the first of nine training titles in 2004.
Gulfstream’s controversial renovation was also completed in 2006. It transformed the plant from an old-school racetrack into much more of an “entertainment center.” It remains a fun place to visit – unless you’re an old-school horseplayer who misses what the place used to be – which was basically a Floridian answer to Saratoga.
These days Gulfstream is known for its consistent schedule and plenty of full fields. It is featured regularly on Sky Sports Racing.
Gulfstream’s dirt course is one and one-eighth miles in circumference, with a one-mile backstretch chute, meaning the one-mile races are run around one turn. The turf course is one mile in circumference but is extremely wide. Depending on where the rail is set up, the turf course can really be several different courses in one.
TRAINERS AND JOCKEYS
Except where noted, the stats in this piece were compiled with the help of self-professed “numbers geek,” and regular contributor to inthemoneypodcast.com, John Camardo. They were compiled from January 2018 through October 2020.
Where possible, two stats we like to track are ROI (return on investment, looking at what happen if you wagered a dollar via the tote on every mount), and IV (Impact Value, how often connections win compared to have often they “should” win, as implied by the odds. When evaluating ROI, keep in mind that any number over £0.85 should be considered a positive result, in the sense that £0.15 is taken out of every wagering dollar via the tote pools. If you’re “beating the takeout,” you are doing very well. With Impact Values, a number of 1.0 means something happens exactly as much as it should, with negative numbers indicating they don’t happen as often as they should and positive values indicating just the opposite.
Let’s start with Todd Pletcher, for all the success he’s had around Gulfstream and with dirt runners generally. He wins a whole lot. In a 454-runner sample, we’re looking at 28 percent winners. But on our advanced metrics he suffers. Well, he doesn’t suffer, but it becomes obvious the crowd does a great job estimating his horses’ chances – which makes sense a million training titles later. His IV is 1.0 and his ROI a gnarly £0.76.
Chad Brown comes out worse on the GP dirt – again, this is no knock on him just a reflection of how bet his horses are. He’s sent out 75 with 21 percent winners, a 0.74 IV and an ROI of £0.70.
Our most frequent flyer on dirt is Antonio Sano, with 894 starters, hundreds more than the next on the list. Perhaps the crowd overreacts to the raw amount of winners he’s produced? He’s 95 for 894, but that yields a winning percentage of 11% with a 0.85 IV and a paltry £0.55 ROI. That’s “think twice before you bet” type stuff.
Ralph Nicks has sent out the second-most dirt starters at GP than anyone else in the sample with 495. He wins at 18%, with a 1.02 IV and a £0.85 ROI. Rock solid.
One other name to look at that has become increasingly associated with Florida racing is Saffie Joseph, Jr. In 500 starters, he wins at 27 percent with a 1.03 IV and a £0.81 ROI. No real takeaways from there other than he wins a lot and the crowd knows about him. I will say this just anecdotally: he seems to me to be a little streaky so I would pay attention to short-term fluctuations of form, something that’s a good idea to do generally in your trainer analysis.
George Weaver is a trainer I always pay extra attention to and his Gulfstream numbers demonstrate why. In a 46-runner sample, he wins at 39%, with a 1.73 Impact Value and a £1.41 ROI
One name that stood out on the trainer’s side was Cheryl Winebaugh – not exactly a household name. She was an impressive 18 for 70 during the sample, for an impressive 26% winners, 2.92 IV and £3.29 ROI.
Now we will move on to our dirt “honour roll,” calling out trainers with at least 45 starters who win at 18% or higher, with IVs at least 1, and positive ROI (I may cheat a few percentage points on the latter two if I think it will help readers identify winners):
Cheryl Winebaugh, George Weaver, Leo Azpurua, Jr., Larry Rivelli, Gustavo Delgado, Teresa Pompay, Shug McGaughey, Aubrey Maragh, Ronald Spatz, Ken McPeek, Gilberto Zerpa, Jorge Delgado, Michael Yates, Brendan Walsh, Bobby Dibona, Oscar Gonzalez, Efren Loza, Jr., Bill Mott, Peter Walder, Juan Avila, Mary Eppler.
Let’s start out by volume, a mission that leads us to Mike Maker. This is another case of “great trainer who the crowd knows all about.” He’s had 661 starters with 19 percent winners, a 1.0 IV, and a £0.83. Solid numbers for sure but not a lot to build around in terms of trainer-specific plays.
Todd Pletcher’s turf numbers are in very similar territory: 20%/1.02 IV/£0.83. Absolutely bettable when they have the horse that you like anyway, no reason to look for trainer angle plays around him.
Antonio Sano once again sends out just a ton of runners. In a 621-runner sample he wins at just over 9 percent, though his advanced metrics are better on turf with a 1.04 IV and a £0.92 ROI.
Better still are the numbers from Mark Casse: 16% winners in a large sample, 1.06 IV and a £1.03 ROI. I’ll give his turf runners an extra look off that.
Let’s check in on a few big names before we get to the honour roll.
Chad Brown’s numbers improve on the green, as we might expect: 177 runners, 48 wins for 27%, 1.1 IV and £0.96. Feels odd to say that maybe Brown is underrated by the crowd on turf at GP but that’s exactly what the numbers suggest.
Bill Mott’s numbers aren’t so hot and I’ll give you a hypothesis after the facts: 201 runners, 26 winners, 13%, 0.84 IV, £0.71. Mott is known for being old-school and patient and is mainly running at GP early season. Feels logical that many of his might need races and/or just not be his better horses but the crowd bets him on his rep anyway. I’m not saying I wouldn’t use him off these stats but we’re in “think twice” territory, especially off a layoff.
I looked at Shug McGaughey’s turf numbers thinking we might find a similar pattern to Mott and I think we do: 84 starters, 13 wins, 15%, 1.02 IV, £0.77 ROI. Not bad, but not enticing.
Honour roll time! For turf let’s look at trainers who have had at least 50 starters and a win percentage of 15 with the rest of the criteria as above: Laura Cazares, Amador Sanchez, Sarah Nagle, Tom Bush, Carlos David, Ian Wilkes, John Kimmel, Jane Cibelli, Aubrey Maragh, Danny Gargan, Brian Lynch, Steve Klesaris, Mark Casse.
Like the trainer colony, the jockey colony changes depending on the time of year but I thought it was an interesting experiment to look at the stats in aggregate.
We need to start off by acknowledging the superiority of Luis Saez in this category: 214 wins from 88s mounts in the sample for a line of 24%/1.05 IV/£0.98. You can upgrade his dirt runners at GP.
Emisael Jaramillo has more wins isn’t too far behind on the advanced stats: 340 from 1515, 22%, 107 IV, £0.90 ROI.
Two others who should me mentioned are the top two by mounts. Miguel Vasquez rode 268 winners from 1683 starters in the sample: 16%, 1.08 IV, £0.84. Those are quality numbers for a rider not often aboard the best horse.
Edgard Zayas was 265 for 1532: 17%, 0.9 IV, £0.70. Obviously a good rider, but overbet in the sample.
Tyler Gafflione’s numbers are nearly identical, allowing for a similar conclusion: 19%, 0.9 IV, £0.73 ROI (171/908 overall).
Paco Lopez’s dirt numbers are solid: 18%, 0.99 IV, £0.85 (94/534)
The Ortiz brothers are two of the biggest names, with Irad Ortiz competing more and coming out better across the board.
Irad: 24 percent, 0.97 IV, £0.84 ROI (175/742)
Jose: 18 percent, 0.92 IV, £0.74 (71/396)
John Velazquez has performed well with limited mounts: 28%, 1.15 IV, £0.84 ROI (63/227)
On turf, Irad Ortiz comes out best, winning the most races even with hundreds of fewer races in the sample. He went 209 for 839 for a line of 25% winner, 1.11 IV, £0.85 ROI. That’s upgradeable stuff.
Luis Saez is right there with Irad on the advanced numbers: 20%, 1.09 IV, £0.87 (182/930).
Paco Lopez comes out best on those: 18%, 1.2 IV, £1.08 ROI. That definitely makes me want to think more about grass runners of his; the crowd underrates him.
There are four riders in the sample with over 1,000 mounts. Miguel Vasquez has the most wins: 16%, 1.08 IV, £0.84 ROI (268 for 1683).
Emisael Jaramillo is stellar: 22%, 1.07 IV, £0.90 ROI (340/1515).
Edgard Zayas was overbet in our sample: 17%, 0.90 IV, £0.70 ROI (265/1532).
Leonel Reyes posted workmanlike numbers overall on the green but was on plenty of winners: 10%, 0.91, £0.82 ROI (103/1057)
A few other big names to check in with before we move on to some specific angles. John Velazquez continued his excellent work in limited starters: 28%, 1.15 IV, £0.84 ROI (63/227).
Javier Castellano was overbet in the sample: 18%, 0.79 IV, £0.59 ROI (38/214). And you could say similar about Tyler Gaffalione on turf: 19%, 0.9 IV, £0.73 ROI.
(Stats in this section come from our friends at STATS Race Lens and were filtered by STATS power user Matt Vagvolgyi)
You’ll see a lot of horses at the Gulfstream meet who made their previous starts in New York, and during the Championship part of the meet, that means Aqueduct. In the last year, these runners have underperformed as a whole, winning 12% of the time but losing £0.69 to the pound. As purses have improved in New York, maybe it’s not the best horses shipping to Florida at this point.
It’s interesting to note that success that Main Track Only runners have had at Gulfstream when races are washed off the turf. In the last year, they have won at a whopping 34% and produced a positive ROI.
Another interesting one along these lines, suggesting that one can find value in off-the-turf races. If you look at stats for the top-rated turf runner left in an off-the-turf race over the last year, the numbers are awful: 11% winners and an £0.72 loss. This suggests the crowd is betting these runners off their turf figures, not on their ability to fit today’s race.
This next one comes from my friend Jake Jacobs at racingflow.com. He has kept data going back a decade that suggests that the more moisture gets in the GP main track at distances of a mile or under, the kinder it is to speed with wire-to-wire winners scoring at 25.9% on surfaces rated fast, 26.4 on surfaces rated good, and 30.3% of the time when the track is sloppy.
In Turf Routes, the power of late pace is evident, even though GP has been known to favor speed at times on the grass. Over the last five years, the horse with the best late sectionals drawn post six or lower win 21% of the time with a take-out beating loss of £0.15. You can’t bet these all the time, but a little extra form study can likely get you into the black.
Maiden droppers do well on the turf at GP. Over the past year, you could have gotten close to even just betting the Maiden Special Weight to Maiden Claimer runners blind: 16% winners with a £0.06 loss.
In what shouldn’t be a surprise, turf sprinters who project to have the best pace early and late win a lot of races: 31% in the last five years. But these runners still produce a loss of £0.22. To me, this speaks to how tricky turf sprints can be and also how good the public is at identifying the best horses.
Numbers show that it’s difficult to win from the outside in dirt races at one mile and over, with posts 10 and up scoring at just 7% and losing £0.55 to the pound.
It can be tricky moving from the inside to the outside at GP as well. In a 478-runner sample of horses moving from posts 1-3 in their last runs to post 7 or up in the latest run, the group won at just 7% and lost £0.44 on the pound.
Here’s a counter intuitive one for sprints, suggesting the rail itself isn’t always where you want to be. Rail horses with projected early running styles have only won at 11% with a £0.38 loss.
CLAIMING TRAINERS TO WATCH
Two big names in the claiming game have produced positive ROI off the claim. In a big sample over five years, Victor Barboza has won at a borderline insane 44% off the claim for a flat-bet profit.
In the last two years, Saffie Joseph, Jr. has won at 33%, also with a plus ROI.
Watch the 2020/21 Gulfstream Winter Championship meeting live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535).