Course Guide: Saratoga

Peter Fornatale has the course stats ahead of one of the iconic race meetings in North America, the 40-day summer festival at 'The Spa', all live on Sky Sports Racing.

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Here, in the foothills of the Adirondacks in upstate New York, some 180 miles north of New York City, lies a town whose very name is a shibboleth connecting everything and everyone good associated with American racing.

There is no race meeting in America that can match the appeal, significance and history of Saratoga. Over the years it has continued to expand, and while there certainly is a compromise in quality that goes along with that, it’s still a very special place. In Summer, the town and community revolve around the racetrack, even in a year as unusual as this one.

This piece will be a little different than many of my other previews in that I can’t really write about Saratoga without bringing at least a little more of myself into the story. This is the place where I started working in racing, both as the original form analyst for The Saratoga Special – still going strong two decades later – and also in my role in the marketing department of the Daily Racing Form

You see, I was the kid sitting at the side of the stage at Siro’s, collecting pearls of horseplaying wisdom from the likes of Steven Crist, Andy Serling, Mike Watchmaker and Cary Fotias. My job was simple—point at the legendary Harvey Pack when the camera was rolling and it was time for him to speak with his characteristic charm and wit.

But enough of my history, let’s talk about the place itself.
 

THE HISTORY

Among the oldest sporting venues in the United States, Saratoga was founded in 1863 – in the midst of the U.S. Civil War – by a boxer who would later become a Congressman named John Morrisey. The original meet was 4 days as opposed to the current 40.

Saratoga Springs, New York was a noted Spa town, where down-staters would go to enjoy the country air and “take the waters.” The nickname “the Spa” has stuck for not just the track but the whole town.

One could write – and many have – whole histories about the track but here we’ll limit our discussion to a few key points from the track’s storied history.

This is the place where in 1919 the great Man o’ War suffered his only defeat in 21 starts – appropriately enough to a horse named Upset.

In the 1930 Travers Stakes, the Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox lost to a 100-1 shot named Jim Dandy, for whom a both a race and trackside watering hole were named.

In the 1973 Whitney, the famed Triple Crown winner Secretariat was defeated by a horse named Onion.

And in 2015, American Pharoah went down to defeat at the hands of Keen Ice in the Travers Stakes in a stunning result.

These results have given Saratoga the nickname of the Graveyard of Favorites but as you might guess – it’s a misleading narrative. All in all, favorites do very well at the Spa.

As for my favorite race at Saratoga, there are many, but if forced to choose one I’d go with the 2009 Woodward Stakes, where Rachel Alexandra capped her amazing three-year-old year – maybe the best one ever by a filly – with a win over older males. She was all heart that day and if you’ve never seen it I predict the replay below will give you chills.
 

If the content does not automatically load, you can view the video on the main At The Races website

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IMPORTANT RACES

There are too many to list! The races most associated with Saratoga are the Travers Stakes, aka the Summer Derby, which many consider to be the unofficial fourth leg of the Triple Crown, and the Whitney Stakes, a nine furlong test for older horses that often has divisional (if not Horse of the Year) implications.

At the last official count there were 16 Grade 1s run at Saratoga, 12 Grade 2s, and 10 Grade 3s with at least a listed race on each of the meet’s 40 days.

It is truly a meeting unlike any other.
 

RACING SCHEDULE

These days Saratoga runs five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, typically from 5pm (UK time) until 11pm or midnight. The season runs from mid-July until early September, culminating with Labor Day Monday, the traditional end-of-Summer bank holiday.
 

THE COURSES

There are three separate tracks at Saratoga. The most commonly used surface, aka the main track, is a dirt oval that’s nine furlongs (1,811 m) in circumference. Additionally, there is also an eight-furlong turf track, known as the Mellon Turf Course, as well as an inner turf track, the circumference of which is 7 furlongs (1,408 m). The inner also plays host to a series of jump races run over hurdles, but known in the States as “Steeplechase” races.

One last course to know about is the famous training strip, The Oklahoma Training Track, which is across Union Avenue from the main course. This was also the location of the inaugural meet in 1863; the main grandstand was opened at the current site the following year.  
 

JOCKEYS AND TRAINERS

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 throughout the 2018 and 2019 meets.

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.
 

Dirt Sprints

By wins, it’s all about the Ortiz brothers, and they come out well on advanced metrics too with Jose Ortiz clocking in at 19 percent winner, a 1.08 IV and a $1.08 ROI, and Irad Ortiz a bit behind at 18 percent, 0.94 IV, and $0.83 ROI.

In terms of the advanced metrics, several other riders are worth noting in dirt sprints:

Jockeys in Dirt Sprints (2018-19)


Dirt Routes

Here is the chart of the jocks who do best in dirt routes, ranked by ROI:

Jockeys in Dirt Routes (2018-19)


Interesting to see the cagey vets John Velazquez and Javier Castellano thrive as the distances get longer, as well as the success of some comparatively unheralded riders like Angel Arroyo, though it’s notable that his is a small sample size (he’s 3 for 27).
 

Turf sprints

Here are the most notable performers in turf sprints:

Jockeys in Turf Sprints (2018-19)



The Ortiz brothers stand out once again, as does Joel Rosario, but the hands down winner in this category is Jose Lezcano.

 
Outer Turf Routes

Jockeys in Outer Turf Routes (2018-19)


Irad Ortiz is the revelation here, with John Velazquez also asserting himself. Jose Ortiz and Javier Castellano win plenty, but don’t come out as well through the lenses of IV and ROI.

 
Inner Turf Routes

Here are the stats for 10 notable riders on the Inner Turf in routes (keeping in mind the relatively small sample size here)

Jockeys in Inner Turf Routes (2018-19)


I’m honestly not too sure how much signal there is here other than to say that Jose Ortiz is once again fantastic, and maybe to point out that some of the top names seem to catch an awful lot of money that the results to this point have not justified.


TRAINER STATS

A few notes on trainers who stand out in the various categories.

 
Turf Sprints

Jason Servis’s numbers were so strong (35%, $1.21 ROI, 1.5 IV) and so much better than everyone else’s that perhaps his fate could have been predicted.

It’s a small sample, but here is our club of trainers with a 15 percent win percentage, a $0.85 or higher ROI and a 1.0 or higher IV: Jorge Abreu, Christophe Clement and Linda Rice (technically she misses by $0.04 but I’m keeping her.

Whither Chad Brown? He misses the mark in turf sprints with a low ROI ($0.70) and low IV (0.75) despite a 17% strike rate.
 

Turf Routes on the Outer

This is where Chad Brown really shines with an unreal 35% strike rate, $1.21 ROI and 1.37 IV.

Speaking of Brown, when he and Irad Ortiz team up with a shorty, the results are strong: in the last five years in turf routes under 2-1 they win at 44 percent with a flat bet profit.

But it’s also notable that there are two very respected trainers not too far behind him Shug McGaughey (23%, $1.20 ROI and 1.53 IV) and Mike Maker (20%, $1.04, 1.65 IV).

 
Inner Turf Routes

The Chad Brown numbers are still strong in terms of wins but not like on the outer: 24%, $0.76, .98 IV.

Sample sizes are too small to worry about the specifics but let’s highlight a few trainers whose numbers look strong in this category: Joe Sharp, Christophe Clement and Todd Pletcher. The win numbers are a little low (12%) but honorable mention to Rudy Rodriguez and James Bond as well.

 
Dirt Sprints

Here is your complete list of dirt sprint trainers with at least 15% winners, a 1.0 IV and a takeout-beating ROI: Shug McGaughey, Robertino Diodoro, Steve Asmussen, Christophe Clement, Linda Rice, Jeremiah Engelhart.

Regarding Engelhart, he has a great mark with two-year-olds: 29% winners with a $1.21 ROI last five years and those numbers went up in 2019.

And with Asmussen, pay particular note when his main man Santana is in the irons as the numbers go through the roof: 24% winners and a $1.24 ROI.

 
Dirt Routes

Here is your complete list of dirt route trainers with at least 15% winners, a 1.0 IV and a takeout-beating ROI: Bill Mott (comfortably at the head of the class), Robertino Diodoro, Jimmy Jerkens, Linda Rice.


SPECIFIC ANGLES

We’ll start with an anecdotal angle of my choosing that I have no data to back up: in past years I feel like it’s been established that horses with local workouts, especially maidens, outperform those coming in cold from out of town. Make of that what you will.

Many of the rest of these angles come courtesy of STATS Race Lens power user – and my friend – Matt Vagvolgyi. Thank you, Matt!

 
Post Positions

The rail was not the place to be in dirt sprints last year, matching the overall trend in USA racing. Rail runners were just 12% to win with a loss of $0.37 on the dollar.

In dirt routes last year, the rail improved to 26% winners with only a $0.07 loss on the dollar, well ahead of the takeout.

The far outside posts in dirt routes appear to be disadvantageous. Over the last five years they’ve hit at a decent 11% but lost $0.38 per dollar wagered.

Last year you’d have made a flat bet profit betting turf sprinters at the rail: $1.45 for every $1 wagered. Looking at the same stat over a five-year span though you’d have lost $0.31 on the dollar though, so that may be a one-year blip.

Looking at the outer posts in turf sprints, 10 or higher, consistently leads to losses.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the rail in 7-furlong dirt races has been strong: over a five year sample the rail is 16% winners with a $1.31 return – and those numbers were even stronger last year when the rail didn’t seem to be good overall. Somewhat puzzling but don’t downgrade these runners.

 
CONCLUSION

I’ll be covering the Saratoga meet regularly in three places: on the channel, Sky Sports Racing Stateside, in this space (attheraces.com) and via podcast over at inthemoneypodcast.com.

Course Guide: Saratoga
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