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Updated on 09/18/2011 12:33AM
Facts and figures worth knowing
For decades, the Saratoga meet ran four weeks and the stakes schedule never changed, but horse racing is changing at a breakneck pace these days, even at the Spa. It's not your father's Saratoga, so here are the Cliffs Notes for this year's modifications:
* In a terrifically inspired move to make Labor Day weekend relevant, the New York Racing Association pulled the Woodward Stakes from opening Saturday of Belmont's fall meet and moved it to the sixth and final Saturday (Sept. 2) of the Saratoga meet. To make room, the Saratoga Breeders' Cup (a Grade 2 that never attracted a meaningful field) was axed.
* Happily, the longstanding series of juvenile stakes has been restored. After two years of experimentation, the Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies returns to its traditional spot on opening day, followed by the Adirondack (Aug. 16) and the Spinaway (Sept. 3). The Sanford for juvenile males returns to its rightful spot on day No. 2, followed by the Saratoga Special (Aug. 17) and the Hopeful on Labor Day.
* Turf handicapping specialists should note the Bernard Baruch and the Fourstardave handicaps have swapped places, which makes so much sense from a distance progression; one wonders why it took so long. The 1 1/16-mile Fourstardave moves to Aug. 6, and the 1 1/8-mile Baruch moves to Travers Day, Aug. 26.
* Also, divisions of the New York Stallion Series for 3-year-olds which kick off week No. 2 have been switched from 1 1/8 miles on dirt to the same distance on the grass, and their purses were slashed from $250,000 down to $150,000.
* The prestigious Alabama Stakes, formerly worth $750,000, has been reduced to $600,000.
Even with the reductions, the meet offers 32 graded stakes (15 Grade 1's) and slightly more than $10.3 million in stakes purses. The money from the reduced stakes purses will be diverted to the maiden, allowance, and overnight stakes purses - increases of $7,000 for New York-bred allowance races, $5,000 for open allowance races and overnight stakes, $4,000 for open maidens, and $6,000 for statebred maidens. All claiming race purses increase by $1,000.
"These are significant purse increases, and we believe they will help attract the better horses to Saratoga," said NYRA racing secretary P.J. Campo.
In other words, shippers (and their connections) have been offered a little extra incentive to undergo six hours of detention in the race-day security barns.
Another new wrinkle - perhaps triggered by the memory of Saratoga 2003, when rain washed 31 of 117 scheduled turf races to the main track - was instituted at Belmont this year: Purses for any races taken off the turf, with the exception of stakes races and overnight stakes, will be increased 20 percent provided at least eight betting interests remain.
"We felt this was worth taking a shot to help horsemen and customers get better value when the weather is not in our corner," said Campo.
After just about a full year as racing secretary, Campo has made meaningful changes to the everyday look of racing cards through two primary avenues - the expansion of conditions for New York-breds and the use of turf sprints as a staple in the condition book.
Through the first half of the year, NYRA was on pace to run roughly twice as many New York-bred races in 2006 compared with just three years ago. New York-breds formerly had only maiden and first- and second-level allowances before moving on to open company. This year, a third-level allowance condition was added, as was a second-level allowance/optional claimer (allowing claiming veterans a chance at a lucrative purse if their connections are willing to risk losing them), along with numerous starter allowances and handicaps.
Until 2005 B.C. (Before Campo), turf sprints were a novelty in New York and pretty much limited to the Jaipur Handicap (when it wasn't rained off) and a handful for 2-year-olds in July that served as preps for upcoming stretch-outs.
Last year, Campo sprinkled 11 turf sprints into the Spa programs, and that number can be expected to increase significantly this summer based on the steady diet of such races at Belmont's spring-summer session.
Bettors have adjusted readily to turf sprints, tabbing the correct favorite remarkably well despite a relatively large field size of roughly 9.5 starters per race downstate. Early returns indicate that in terms of running style and pedigree, the handicapping thrust in turf sprints, at least at Belmont, belonged on speed. The races tended to develop more like dirt sprints (the edge going to those with early and tactical speed). Turf sprinters sired by the likes of Carson City, Forest Wildcat, Good and Tough, and City Zip - known as sires of dirt sprinters - were seemingly at little or no disadvantage when pitted against opposition with grass-oriented bloodlines.
In all likelihood spurred by the memory of last year's meet-opening disaster, when 10 steeplechasers set out over the jumps and only six managed cross the finish line unscathed, the number of chases has been whittled to six - one each Thursday. They will be carded as the first race in each case except for the New York Turf Writers Cup, the feature on Aug. 31. In addition to the Turf Writers Cup, and its prep, the A.P. Smithwick, there will be two $48,000 optional claiming races open to a mix of newcomers and more experienced jumpers, and two $50,000 novice races.
The Grand Slam, a $1 minimum wager that was introduced at Belmont this year, will be offered at Saratoga. It is a four-race bet (races 5-8 on a nine-race card and 6-9 on a 10-race card) where bettors must load the proverbial bases in the first three legs by having their selections finish in the money, and then select the winner of the fourth leg - sort of like a pick four with training wheels. According to the bet's architect, NYRA vice president Bill Nader, "Veteran players will see an opportunity to really cash in on an opinion while new players can get a lot of play for a small investment."
Judging from nearly a meet's worth of results, the bet is best utilized as an attempt to improve the win price on a fancied horse in the final leg, and the chances for that brighten with a strong negative opinion on a heavy favorite in any of the first three legs.
* The main track is 1 1/8 miles, with a seven-furlong chute; the Mellon (outer) turf is one mile plus 98 feet; the inner turf is seven furlongs plus 304 feet. The Oklahoma training track, located across the street on the other side of Union Avenue, is a one-mile oval with a deeper surface than the main, so workout times there are usually slower.
* Generally, the main track tends to reward horses with early and tactical speed going short and long.
* The turf courses have been known to carry speed when they are fast and hard during the early stages of the meet. Once any meaningful rain comes, the emphasis should be on contenders who match up in terms of class and finishing ability.
* On dirt, here is your annual reminder that 1 1/8-mile races revert to two turns. This has particular relevance this year because the Woodward becomes a totally different type of race than it was out of the Belmont chute; post positions could become a potential factor.
* Speaking of posts, in the broadest sense it is wise to downgrade the chances of any horse drawn wider than post 9 in sprints and post 5 in routes.
Exceptions: In the five-furlong baby dashes, avoid the inside and outside extremes; posts 1 and 2 can be intimidating for green 2-year-olds, and anything from 10 out usually involves a wide run to oblivion. Out of the chute at 6 1/2 furlongs and particularly at seven furlongs, the best spots are middle of the pack to outside, because horses breaking from the inside can be herded in and forced to check at the point where the chute joins the main track.
* On turf, the simple rule is that outside posts become less of a negative factor as the run to the first turn lengthens.
* The following trainers, not normally stabled in New York the rest of the year, will have some of the 1,800 or so available stalls at Saratoga: Patrick Biancone, Frank Brothers, Wally Dollase, Mike Gorham, Bob Holthus, Neil Howard, Eddie Kenneally, Steve Margolis, Michael Matz, Graham Motion, Ralph Nicks, Tony Reinstedler, Tim Ritchey, Tim Ritvo, Dale Romans, Chuck Simon, Hamilton Smith, Albert Stall, Dallas Stewart, and Ronny Werner. See the accompanying article on trainers for more info.
* The riding title figures to come down to defending champ Edgar Prado and three-time Spa champ John Velazquez, who set the record of 65 wins in 2004 and has been rounding back to form since returning from multiple injuries in an April spill at Keeneland. Others, such as Javier Castellano, Eibar Coa (the leading rider in New York this year), and Cornelio Velasquez, are top-flight journeymen, and young up-and-comers such as Rafael Bejarano, Ramon Dominguez, and the sensational apprentice Julian Leparoux also figure to make their presence felt.
* Don't go overboard on Belmont form the first couple of weeks. The Saratoga courses differ from those at Belmont in terms of composition and configuration, so the locals and out-of-towners are meeting on what is essentially neutral territory. A time-tested angle focuses on the returning router with back two-turn form (at Aqueduct especially) that received a freshening in late spring or early summer.
* Take a leisurely look through last year's result charts, which you now hold in your hands. It's a good refresher as to what went right or wrong at the betting windows in 2005, and it will whet your appetite for the fresh puzzles waiting to be solved.
* Clip out the Beyer pars and put them on the fridge, or tape them to the bathroom medicine cabinet, anywhere you will see them often, and internalize what figures are required to win at the various class levels. Matching up the field with the par is a ruthlessly efficient way to get to the contention. If no one measures up, that is worth knowing, because you may have a "chaos" race on your hands.
* If you don't like the weather in Saratoga, just wait a minute. Try to get the latest forecast late in the morning, and when thunderstorms are called for, always consider the possibility of a footing or surface change when mapping out multirace exotics.
* Don't try to be a wise guy every race. Graveyard of Favorites is a misnomer in recent seasons. Consider that the chalk started out 54 for 113 (nearly 48 percent) before winding up 41 percent for the meet in 2003; that favorites went 130 for 343 (38 percent) in 2005 (the top two choices in graded stakes won two-thirds of the time; that through the first 1,000 races on the circuit this year at Aqueduct and Belmont, favorites won 39 percent of the time.
* Play the guaranteed pick fours on Saturdays. There is no inherent value simply because the pools are guaranteed to be $400,000 or $1 million, because those numbers will be easily exceeded, so the track isn't offering more money than what is put in. But the pick four generally offers superior value because the 25 percent takeout is spread out and effectively becomes 6.25 percent per race, and the Saturday pools at the Spa will be swelled with what the poker players refer to as "dead money."
* Don't forget to have fun! In typical mixed-message style, the Saratoga media booklet describes the following trackside events from Alabama Day through Travers Day: the annual Chili Cook-off; the Stewart's Shop Annual Ice Cream Eating Contest; the Battle of the Brews; the Travers Wine Tasting; and finally, the Cartoon Network's Get Animated Tour to fight childhood obesity!