SARATOGA DAILY NOTEBOOK
OPENING DAY EDITION, 2005
by Dick Powell
I'm not good at waxing poetic about Saratoga. All I can tell you is that I like this place so much I moved here in 1984 and will never leave. Unless, of course, I am asked.
Luckily for me, I live exactly 18 minutes away from the Nelson Avenue gate (seven-eighths pole) and because of the direction I come from it doesn't matter if it's a Thursday or Travers Day - I don't have to deal with the normal Northway/Union Avenue traffic problems. Saratoga is a city of 26,000 people that expands, according to the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce, to close to 75,000 during the racing season.
Many locals send their kids to top colleges by parking cars on their lawns for 36 days. Customers are both loyal and superstitious and often times park at the same house each year. The guy whose house you are parking at might tell you about a tip on a hot firster he got earlier in the morning and by the time you get to the admission gate, after running the gauntlet of tout sheet hawkers, you probably have enough inside information to get you through the day.
However, here at Bloodstock Research Information Services, we like to take a more rational approach to Saratoga handicapping. There are very few secrets at Saratoga and even if you haven't been clued in by someone the tote board usually gives it away. The 20-1 morning line horses that are 3-1 two minutes before post time must have some buzz coming from the stable that has spread like wildfire and you can take advantage.
But day in and day out it is going to be hard work, preparation and flexibility that is going to make Saratoga a success for you. And all three attributes are tested each day because of the ever-changing weather we have here. You can work hard, prepare for the day's races and with a sudden downpour, all your work is down the drain unless you are a flexible player. Saratoga requires quick thinking and going to plan "B" on a moment's notice.
First, plug zip code 12866 into any weather web sites you want to check. BRIS' Handicapper's Edge gives you weather forecasts in advance but it pays to check as late as possible. Even then, there have been times when it has been pouring at my house from an afternoon thunderstorm and not raining at the track, or, vice versa. Thunderstorms are always a possibility, especially late in the afternoon on hot, humid days.
Thus, when doing your advance handicapping, check for wet track statistics and anticipate turf races coming off the turf. If you are at the track, NYRA does a good job on its matrix toteboard giving you all of the day's changes. If watching at a simulcast site, watch the crawl at the bottom of the screen. If following on the internet, brisbet.com gives you all the latest up-to-the-minute changes.
One thing customers get frustrated with is keeping track off all the changes and then re-handicapping the race. Even a turf race with 12 entrants that has seven scratches after being switched to the main track will still have five horses that need to be handicapped in terms of speed, who can get the distance, trainer intent, etc.
If the weather is bad, there's still money to be made if you pay attention. Plus, when these horses run back you should have a big edge.
I don't want to give the impression that it always rains in Saratoga, but another tool you can follow is to pay attention to which trainers work their horses out when the track is wet in the morning. Some trainers like to wait a day for the weather to get better but others, like Shug McGaughey, work their horses no matter what and they often benefit from their rainy morning works when they encounter a rainy afternoon.
NYRA does a good job on its simulcast feed with shoe information and this can be critically important. Many trainers now use bends or turndowns but others use mud caulks as well. Allen Jerkens, Nick Zito and Mike Hushion will usually equip their horses with four-wheel-drive and they have an edge when there's moisture in the track.
Finally, NYRA, with the permission of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, has instituted a new Pick 6 rule to deal with days when a turf race is switched to the main track after the Pick 6 pool has closed. Now, when a turf race is switched to the main track after the Pick 6 pool has closed, that race becomes an "all" race for the pick-six. If more than one turf race is switched to the main track, any carryover money from the previous day will not be part of that day's Pick 6 payoff but will be carried over to the next day.
The logistics of the NYRA detention barn will be severely tested at Saratoga this year. With stalls at a premium, NYRA has erected tents with temporary stalls to houses horses for their six-hour detention before the post time of their race. It should go relatively smoothly, but it will be interesting to see how some of the two-year-olds handle it when making their first start on days with severe weather. The only way to protect yourself is pay even closer attention to the televised shots of the paddock and post parade to see if any of the youngsters have melted down.
Another factor with the detention barn rule is look for fewer horses shipping in from out of state. If you enter a horse and it winds up in race one, you have to have that horse in the detention barn six hours before post time -- 7 a.m. (EDT) in this case. This would mean leaving Delaware Park or Monmouth around midnight to ship in the cooler weather and arrive in Saratoga in the morning for a six-hour wait in the detention barn. As we saw at the recently-concluded Belmont Spring/Summer meet, field size was down and this trend should continue here at the Spa.
Trainers have been given fewer stalls for this year's meet so it's unlikely that Todd Pletcher can approach last year's 35-win total. He has divisions at Monmouth and Delaware and with their purses being only 20 percent less than Saratoga, look for Pletcher to start fewer horses. He'll still be loaded as usual, but the gross numbers might not be there. The same goes for Bobby Frankel.
Rick Dutrow comes off his 60-day suspension on August 1 but with the success of assistant trainer Juan Rodriguez, would anyone even notice? Dutrow's barn hummed along without him and he should be a factor in the trainer's standings with higher-caliber stock and the likelihood of more claiming races being carded. Plus, as we saw with Golden Man (Suave Prospect), Dutrow can always run the same horses back the next day.
Horses that train at the Oklahoma Training Track across the street usually work about two seconds slower than if the work was on the main track. A five furlong 1:01 breeze at Oklahoma is a huge work that would equate to around 59 seconds on the main track.
Okalahoma also has a turf training track that often times gets baked by the sun if there are no showers and will yield extremely fast times despite working around the dogs. A horse who breezes 1:01 (d) on the Oklahoma training turf course probably wouldn't go that fast if the weather has been dry.
City Zip is off to a fast start at stud and it should continue during Saratoga. Now standing in Kentucky at Lane's End, he began his stud career here in New York and will have many precocious youngsters racing here. Plus, he loved the Saratoga main track, winning all three juvenile stakes that NYRA used to schedule here -- Hopeful S. (G1), Sanford S. (G2) and Saratoga Special S. (G2) -- plus he came back at three to win the Amsterdam S. (G2).
On opening day, he has a filly, LITTLE MISS ZIP, who blitzed New York-bred maidens in her career debut going five furlongs in fast time and earned a BRIS Speed figure of 94.
Pencil in August 27 as a day to be here or play from your local simulcast site. Yes, it's Travers Day and AFLEET ALEX (Northern Afleet) will be here. But now, trainer Nick Zito is planning to run Kinsman Stable's BELLAMY ROAD (Concerto) in the King's Bishop S. (G1) going seven furlongs against undefeated sophomore sprint sensation LOST IN THE FOG (Lost Soldier). There should be no complaints about NYRA raising ticket prices on Travers Day if these two hook up in a long sprint on a fast track.
Wednesday’s 5TH race kicks off the first Pick 6 of the meet and is an 11-horse maiden special weight event going 5 1/2 furlongs for two-year-olds. Many Saratoga handicappers have trouble with these types of races since there are more horses that have not started than have raced. However, if you use BRIS products you start out with a huge advantage. In the Ultimate Past Performances that I use, BRIS now gives you a three-year synopsis of the class and distance of the race in terms of how the favorites do and what they paid.
For example, for Wednesday's 5TH race conditions, there have been 26 races run in the last three years here and 46 percent have been won by the favorite. That is a staggering number with unproven horses. The field size has been a healthy 8.8 per race and 81 percent of the winners went off at less than 5-1 odds. What this tells you at a glance is that this class condition is very formful and in a multiple-race wager you might want to use fewer horses than normal.
Upon further inspection, this is a very competitive race and will be hard to narrow down to a few. Nature versus nurture. I believe that nature overcomes nurture more than nurture overcomes nature. In other words, a horse that is bred to do something naturally (first time starter, turf, wet track) will succeed more often than a horse that needs to be trained to do something. Manuscript (Carson City) is a perfect example. Bill Mott only wins with 7 percent of his first time starters, but Carson City sires a tremendous 19 percent first-time winners. When confronted with a circumstance where the horse has one attribute but not the other, I tend to give more weight to nature - in this case, a very precocious pedigree. If the trainer is exceptional nurturing young horses to first out success but the pedigree lacks the ability to win first out, I am more likely to take a pass.
Checking those that are making their career debuts in race five, CAT CRIMINAL (Tale of the Cat), trained by Steve Klesaris, has both. EXPRESS NEWS (Storm Cat), trained by Graham Motion, has nature. SECRET TIME (Gilded Time), trained by Mark Hennig, is average on both counts. MANUSCRIPT (Carson City), trained by Bill Mott, has nature. OVERLAND TRAIL (Gone West), trained by Wayne Lukas, has nature. VELVET CAT (Cat Thief), trained by Todd Pletcher, seems to have both with a strong dam-side pedigree and a young sire. And, AGAIN AND AGAIN (Honour and Glory), trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, has both.
Of the four horses that have raced, all have shown serious running talent. WRIGLEY (Grand Slam) raced the best when he chased the classy STONERSIDE (Giant’s Causeway) in very fast time on June 30. Luckily, I am not a Pick 6 player so I don’t have to worry about going too deep and using up too many bullets. However, race five is the final leg of the early Pick 4 and should provide a pool that will be very spread out.
As tempting as the first-time starters look, I am going to key Wrigley in race 5. He made a nice middle move in his first start before weakening and trainer George Weaver is not known for first-out success anyway. The two-year-old bay cost $250,000 last year as a yearling for Dogwood Stable, who always points their horses for this meet. Wrigley breaks from post 8 and shows a good half-mile breeze here 10 days ago, and if he improves any off his debut he’ll be tough in here.
Of the firsters, I like Cat Criminal the best despite breaking from post 1. He’ll be the first to load, have to wait for everybody else and faces the possibility of being shuffled back into traffic if he’s a half step slow out of the gate. But, he’s bred to be a fast one, worked quick when sold for $400,000 this February at Fasig-Tipton Calder and has continued to work well at Fair Hill Training Center. Steve Klesaris and the Puglisi Stables have been big spenders at the juvenile sales the past few years and this one looks to be a good one.
Edgar Prado rides a lot of live horses for Klesaris and if he breaks this one well he’ll be right in it. If race 10 stays on the turf, I like HE FLIES (Concorde’s Tune) for Dominick Schettino. He was an even third last out at this class and distance, draws well and gets Ramon Dominguez, who wins an unconscious 22 percent on the turf.
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