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Bet This, Not That: Saratoga trainer angles
A week and a day after Del Mar opens in Southern California, Saratoga kicks off its meet in upstate New York. Saratoga has always been the place that top trainers take their best horses for the summer, at least on the East Coast, and in recent years the meet has been dominated by two trainers: Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown. Together, the pair has won nearly 300 races there in the past five years, with Pletcher generally excelling on dirt and Brown ruling the grass.
DRF Formulator gives you access to all of a trainer’s runners over the past five years, so let’s use Formulator to look at areas where those two top trainers, and others, have been most successful recently at Saratoga. Which are the best betting opportunities, and which are best to avoid? Below are a few of our favorites, and at the bottom of this article, you’ll find a code to try Formulator to find your own betting opportunities.
Pletcher has saddled the most runners and winners in the last five years at Saratoga, and it’s not even close. His 174 wins there in that time is 59 more than Brown, and his 693 starters is 269 more than Bill Mott. Still, even with all of those runners, Pletcher has managed a win rate at Saratoga of just above 25 percent and a return on investment of $1.74 for each $2 win bet on those runners. Those numbers are nearly identical to Pletcher’s 25 percent win rate and $1.71 ROI for all runners at all tracks over the last five years.
Look for Pletcher to debut his best juveniles at Saratoga; they’re hard to bet due to short prices, but they’re hard to bet against because they win so often. He’s an astonishing 24-19-2-1, $2.57 ROI, with debuting juveniles in dirt sprints at the Spa when bet to odds-on favoritism over the past five years. That’s a win rate of nearly 80 percent, and the only two who finished off the board were in races scheduled for turf but moved to the main track. I cannot in good conscience recommend betting odds-on favorites, but I would recommend caution when trying to beat these types.
Not That: Pletcher’s older first-time starters. Pletcher’s success at Saratoga with horses making their first career start is widely known, but bear in mind that that success applies to his juveniles. Over the past five years, Pletcher is winless with horses ages 3 or older making their career debut at the Spa (16-0-2-3), and 11 of those went off at odds of 6-1 or lower. His reputation assures that these horses get overbet, and even if he does win with one of these at this meet, you can be assured it will be an underlay.
You could argue that Brown has become the premier trainer at the Spa in recent years, eclipsing perennial leading trainer Pletcher. Sure, Pletcher has won the training title at the last five Saratoga meets, but Brown has had a higher winning percentage at each of those meets. For horseplayers, Brown certainly has proven to be a better bet at the Spa recently too, as his runners there have shown a flat-bet profit over the past five years, returning $2.15 for each $2 win bet.
Whereas Pletcher is known for his success on the main track at Saratoga, Brown has excelled with turf runners and was especially successful last meet debuting juveniles in maiden special weight turf routes, going 9-5-2-0 with a $5.76 ROI, and three of the four losses came to one of his own horses.
Bet This: Chad Brown’s turf maidens off long layoffs. Brown’s success with debuting juveniles going long on the Saratoga grass is well documented, and while the $2.88 ROI is great (42-11-12-6 record), the secret appears to be out, and his 2-year-old first-time starters on turf likely will be bet early and often at this meet. Brown, though, is just as adept at getting turf maidens to win off layoffs of 100 days or more, going 18-8-3-1 for a $2.91 ROI over the past five years at Saratoga with those returnees.
Bet This: Brown's maidens on dirt. Brown’s reputation for live turf runners means that those runners are no longer likely to be overlooked in the wagering. However, that reputation means that some of Brown’s maidens might be undervalued on dirt, even though those runners have been just as successful at the Spa over the past five years, going 59-15-9-9 and yielding a $2.52 ROI.
Not That: Chad Brown in graded stakes on dirt. Brown is still looking for his first graded stakes win on dirt at Saratoga, as he’s winless with 14 starters lifetime in those races, with a single second-place finish and a lone show finisher. Moreover, Brown has a 36-1-3-3 record and a $0.14 ROI over the past five years in all Grade 1 stakes on dirt, and he’s currently riding a losing streak of 33 starts in those races.
Hall-of-Famer Mott has had the second-most starters and the third-most winners at Saratoga in the past five years, but it’s very hard to find fair value on his runners there. The median price for his Spa winners is $6.30, the lowest of any trainer other than Pletcher, and his win rate and ROI with all Spa runners over the past five years are average at best (15 percent and $1.24). As a rule, Mott’s runners at Saratoga tend to be underlays, and the ones at low odds tend to disappoint more often than not.
Bet This: Mott juveniles in dirt-sprint maiden special weights in their second career start. It’s become common knowledge that Mott’s juveniles at Saratoga need a start. In fact, he’s winless in dirt-sprint maiden special weight races at the Spa with debuting juveniles over the past five years (74-0-6-7). In the second career start, those horses can improve; he’s 10-3-1-1 for a $3.21 ROI at the Spa with juveniles in dirt-sprint maiden special weights in the second start.
Not That: Mott juveniles in turf-route maiden special weights in their second career start. That second-start improvement for juveniles has not carried over to turf-route maiden special weight races in recent years at Saratoga. With those runners, he’s 23-1-1-5 with a $0.33 ROI, with 10 of the 22 losers going off at odds less than 5-1.
Like Brown, the bulk of Motion’s success has come with turf runners. Sure, he did win the Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup with Animal Kingdom, but in the past two years he’s had four graded stakes wins on dirt compared with 22 on turf. Even though last year’s champion turf horse, Main Sequence, was just retired with a tendon injury, Motion still should have a barn full of turf horses pointing to the Saratoga meet.
Bet This: Motion with 3-year-olds in turf-route maiden races. While Brown’s turf maidens tend to get the most attention (and the most wagering dollars), it means that Motion’s live runners can be a bit overlooked in the betting, thereby offering good value. That is especially the case with 3-year-old maidens going long on grass, as he has gone 19-5-4-1 for a $4.70 ROI at the Spa over the past five years, and three of those losses were by a neck or less.
Not That: Motion with 2-year-olds in turf-route maiden races. Motion’s recent success at the Spa with sophomore turf-route maidens has not carried over to the juveniles. Over the past five years, his 2-year-old maidens are only 18-1-1-0 in turf routes at Saratoga, and 12 of those losses came at odds of 6-1 or lower.
Asmussen has had more starters in the past five years than any other trainer in North America, and he regularly brings his share to Saratoga. They are usually well spotted, winning more than 20 percent of the time and returning a very strong $1.97 ROI over the past five years (270-56-40-43 overall record).
Bet This: Asmussen with 2-year-olds in dirt-sprint maiden special weights. Pletcher’s juvenile maidens sprinting on the dirt are the ones who get the attention, but Asmussen’s are the ones who have been better bets in the past five years at the Spa. He’s 57-18-10-9 for a $3.57 ROI with those runners; that’s a 32 percent win rate and 65 percent in the money. That success is independent of the horses’ number of prior starts, as he’s done equally well in the first start (34-9-4-8, $3.66 ROI), second start (17-7-5-1, $3.87 ROI), or later (6-2-1-0).
Not That: Asmussen in stakes races. Asmussen’s 13 percent win rate and 40 percent in-the-money rate in Spa stakes races over the past five years are respectable numbers; the trouble is the $0.56 ROI for those runners. If you look at the odds of those runners, suddenly that 13 percent win rate seems a disappointment and the 60-8-5-11 record a bit lackluster. When he has the post-time favorite in those races, he wins at a solid rate (14-6-2-3), but when he doesn’t, the record is only 46-2-3-8, and the highest-priced winner paid a mere $8.30.
McLaughlin’s $2.30 ROI in all races at Saratoga over the past five years ranks best among all trainers with at least 200 starts there in that time. Additionally, his 21 percent win rate ranks third behind only Pletcher and Brown, making him a trainer who’s hard to dismiss anytime he saddles a runner at the Spa.
Bet This: McLaughlin in graded stakes. As one of the main trainers for Godolphin Racing, McLaughlin trains some fantastically well-bred horses, so it’s not surprising that he does well in the richest races at Saratoga. Over the past five years, he’s gone 37-11-7-8 for a $2.78 ROI in graded stakes there; that’s a very strong 30 percent win rate and 70 percent in the money. Notably, only seven of those 37 runners were the post-time favorite, meaning that his horses are often square prices in those races.
Not That: McLaughlin horses on turf in for a claiming tag. Considering how strong McLaughlin is in graded stakes, it’s probably not too surprising that he doesn’t excel at the lower-level races at Saratoga. Of course, McLaughlin doesn’t run many horses for a tag in general, averaging fewer than four starts per meet at the Spa over the past five years with horses available to be claimed. Still, those horses have been easy to bet against, compiling a record of just 19-1-3-1 and a $0.46 ROI. They generally take money too, as 12 of those 18 losers went off at 5-1 or lower.
Contessa enters a lot of runners at Saratoga, but he rarely has many winners, compiling a record of just 381-32-47-47 with all runners there over the past five years. His 8 percent win rate and 33 percent in-the-money rate are the lowest of any of the top 10 trainers in terms of starters at the Spa over the past five years, and his $1.04 ROI is higher only than Tom Albertrani’s $0.89.
Bet This: Gary Contessa in races moved from turf to the main track. Given Contessa’s low success rate and low ROI at Saratoga, it can be tough to find positive angles. Contessa has had success at the Spa, though, with runners in races scheduled for turf but moved to the main track, going 12-3-5-0 for a $3.47 ROI in those races over the past two years. Sure, it’s not a huge sample size, but the ROI is more than 300 percent higher than his ROI in other races, and 8 for 12 in the exacta is notable. That represents 25 percent of Contessa’s runners in the exacta over the past two meets, while those races account for less than 8 percent of his runners in that time.
Not That: Contessa going dirt to turf. The dirt-to-turf move is not a strong move for Contessa in general, but his 7 percent win rate with all runners making that surface switch is only a few points off his 10 percent rate with all runners over the past five years. At the Spa, though, Contessa is winless in the past five years with runners going dirt to turf, with only 11 percent hitting the board (36-0-3-1).
Other 'Bet This' angles
Bet This: Christophe Clement in turf maiden special weights. The ascent of Brown as a turf trainer may have hurt Clement at the higher levels, but it seems to have made his turf maidens all the more bettable, especially those making their debut. In the past five years at Saratoga, Clement is 58-12-10-9 for a $2.99 ROI in maiden special weight races on turf; that’s a sharp uptick from his 13 percent win rate and $1.43 ROI with all Spa runners. When making their debut, those horses have fared even better, going 20-6-4-4 for a $5.74 ROI.
Bet This: Tony Dutrow’s juveniles in their second career start. Dutrow has a remarkable 130-36-23-16 record for a $2.56 ROI with all runners at Saratoga over the past five years. His stats with juveniles making their second career start there have been insane: 10-6-1-1, $6.01 ROI. Yeah, it’s a small sample, and yeah, it’s probably not sustainable, but wow.
Bet This: Michael Matz in turf races. Racing fans remember Matz best as the trainer of the ill-fated Barbaro, but horseplayers think of Matz as a better trainer on turf. In the past five years, Matz has a 14 percent win rate, regardless of whether it’s a turf race or dirt race, but his ROI on the grass is an even $2, compared with $1.36 on dirt. At Saratoga, Matz is 70-13-7-8 for a whopping $4.26 ROI on turf over the past five years. His turf runners at the Spa have been flat-bet profits at each of the past four meets, and seven of those 13 winners were double-digit odds.
Other 'Not That' angles
Not That: Linda Rice following a claim. Rice won the Saratoga training title in 2009, the last time it was won by anyone not named Todd Pletcher. She’s also a savvy claiming trainer, having turned both Palace and Kid Cruz into graded stakes winners in recent years after claiming both off Mott. Rice hasn’t fared nearly as well with recently claimed horses at Saratoga, going 32-1-6-5 for a $0.39 ROI over the past five years in the first start following a claim, and even worse in the second start off the claim: 13-0-1-2.
Not That: David Jacobson longshots on dirt. Like Rice, Jacobson is an active claiming trainer, but his runners on dirt tend to run to their odds, at least at Saratoga in recent years. Over the past five years, he’s 72-3-9-10 for a $0.96 ROI there with all runners on dirt at odds of 5-1 or higher. Pay special attention to the odds of those horses making their first start for Jacobson following a claim; he’s 21-7-1-2 for a $2.70 ROI with ones less than 5-1 and 17-0-2-3 with those at higher odds.
Not That: Shug McGaughey with first-time starters. McGaughey isn’t exactly known for winning with first-time starters, but he has won about 10 percent of the time over the past five years with all horses making their debut. At Saratoga in that time, he’s just 44-1-6-7 for a $0.19 ROI with firsters. That lone win came from Honor Code, and he turned out to be pretty good, so pay attention if he does have a first-time starter run big in his debut at this meet.
Not That: D. Wayne Lukas with first-time starters. Like fellow Hall-of-Famer Mott, Lukas’s horses making their debut at the Spa are almost an automatic toss. Over the past five years, he’s debuted an average of 10 horses per meet, and he’s only won with one of them (50-1-0-4, $1.14 ROI). He’s only hit the board once with them, and that one went on to win nearly $1 million – Optimizer, who won his debut at the Spa in 2011 going long on turf before becoming a multiple graded stakes winner.
Not That: Lukas in dirt sprints following a layoff of four weeks or more. As a general rule, you’ve been pretty safe ignoring Lukas’s runners in dirt sprints at the Spa over the past five years. He’s 129-4-10-11 with a $0.57 ROI in dirt races there at less than eight furlongs (126-2-10-11 with horses other than Strong Mandate), and he’s winless with all of the ones running off a layoff of at least four weeks: 40-0-4-4.
Not That: Nick Zito with first-time starters. In what’s feeling a bit like a recurring theme here, Hall-of-Famer Nick Zito also has been quite unsuccessful with horses making their debut at the Spa in recent years. In fact, his 51-1-0-6 record with those horses in the past five years looks similar to that of Lukas, though Zito’s ROI is only $0.32. That lone win came for a tag, so he has not had a firster hit the exacta at Saratoga in a maiden special weight race in the past five years (45-0-0-5).
Not That: Zito in turf races. Sure, Zito isn’t really known as a turf trainer, but he’s averaged nearly 10 turf starts per meet at Saratoga over the past five years, going just 49-1-6-1 with a $0.52 ROI in that time.
Not That: Zito adding blinkers. In the past five years, Zito has added blinkers 10 times to horses making starts at Saratoga. None of them won. None even hit the board. Sure, it’s not the biggest sample size, but the stat hints that the addition of blinkers could be a move made out of desperation for him, and I’d be hesitant to take too short a price on one of these going forward.
These are just a few examples of great bets to target as well as ones to avoid. Every day, at every track, you will find many examples of these kinds of great (or awful) opportunities. DRF Formulator gives you the keys to find these angles, and it could very well lead you to a winner who is overlooked by much of the betting public. Check out the different Formulator plans available, priced for every budget. Better yet, try it for yourself; get two Formulator cards for a penny by using code BETTHIS at checkout.
Hi Mike. I appreciate the service you provide. I consider it priceless. With regards to Nick Zito, I put any angle regarding his horses in the "not that" category. His owners provide him with decent quality animals and he gets nothing out of them. He has won few if any significant races in the 21st Century. It is almost getting to a point where you can throw out anything he puts on the track.
Another "Not That" angle that was quite different 10-15 years ago: D. Wayne Lukas at Saratoga with 2 year olds on the dirt in sprints going 1st time lasix. The record the last 5 years: 0-31. That's 0%. For more, learn to use the formulator database; it's all there for the taking if you put in the time.
thank you great article. many good angles
Great stuff here. Quite thankful for your research. Huge fan of the pod too! I'd love to see you take on a few races from Canterbury.
Great article. Confirmed a couple of plays for opening day!
thanks, should help, even for the daily players
As always, great digging Mike...