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Playing the angles
With all our major race meets having at least two months in the books, here are some track-by-track observations to factor into your handicapping.
With the lost dates due to the failure of Cushion Track to drain properly and various shifts in track biases that followed the Pro-Ride solution, most horseplayers have had difficulty assessing the relative fitness of many horses.
Observation: On the Pro-Ride-Cushion Track hybrid, horses with at least one race during the past month and absentees (and first-time starters) with four or more crisp workouts at Hollywood Park or Santa Anita, were dominating horses that had missed races during January and early February.
In addition, horses that displayed speed in a relatively recent race also seemed to improve when cut back in distance.
Dine at Nine and In Daddy's Honor, for example, were shortening up from front-running efforts in late January to win races on Feb. 16. On the same card, first-time starters Aggie Engineer and Turbo Fan also won their races with a series of good workouts, including some at six furlongs. The same was true for Mananan McLir, who had an aggressive workout regimen before winning a claiming sprint on the Feb. 16 card.
On Feb. 17, Bullsbay, Cousin Lew, Gambler's Justice, Bought It, Five Gold Bars, Sorcerers Spell, and Madame Kiawah all had good recent races and at least one strong workout to fit the profile. Although some others in their respective races may have had similar credentials, there were no absentee winners and none that lacked a series of unmistakable positive workouts.
At the bottom line, the trends described above make perfect sense given the numerous interruptions to training and racing that afflicted Southern California racing through early February.
Although Aqueduct has had its usual share of weather-related cancellations this winter, absentees have not been negatively affected. In fact, the only reliable trend I noticed includes the domination of several trainers who usually do well in New York, but have outperformed their own high standards this season.
While persistent Aqueduct leader Gary Contessa usually wins with about 16-18 percent of his starters, he was hovering at 20 percent on the inner track since Jan. 1, with 34 victories from 176 starters through Feb. 17. Meanwhile, Bruce Levine, David Jacobson, Richard Dutrow Jr., Kiaran McLaughlin, Dominic Galluscio, Linda Rice, Steve Asmussen, Todd Pletcher, Enrique Arroyo, and Tom Albertrani have been winning at 20-23 percent, while low-profile trainers Gregory DiPrima and Bruce Brown are both scoring at a similar rate. Of these high-percentage trainers, Levine, Jacobson, Brown, McLaughlin, and Dutrow have been showing a flat-bet profit in most racing categories.
It may seem surprising, but only Ramon Dominguez is winning at better than 20 percent among the jockeys, while Alan Garcia and Stewart Elliot are close to that level and Rajiv Maragh has had some fine moments as a newcomer to this circuit.
There are three very active trainers with extremely high win percentages at the meet: Steve Asmussen, Cody Autrey, and Tom Amoss. All three have been winning at 25 percent or better from more than 125 starters. Yet, of the three only Amoss is showing a flat-bet profit with win wagers.
Astute players are paying equal attention to Malcolm Pierce, a 27 percent trainer with fewer than 50 starters. Pierce, a staple at this meet for several years, is one of very few Fair Grounds trainers producing a flat-bet profit in most categories. Other trainers enjoying productive meets are Albert Stall Jr., Andrew Leggio Jr., and Michael Mareina. Only Leggio, however, is producing flat-bet profits.
Among Fair Grounds jockeys, the top three in the standings, Jamie Theriot, Robby Albarado, and Shaun Bridgmohan, have been winning at 20 percent or better. Likewise, Julien Leparoux, a late arrival in New Orleans this year, has a similarly high win percentage. At the bottom line, the most potent handicapping nugget to be gleaned from these stats involves horses trained by the meet leaders named above who are to be ridden by any one of the three high percentage jockeys or James Graham (a 13-15 percent winner this year).
Although Oaklawn actually has been in the low-profile stage of its 2008 winter-spring meet, the most dominating fact of handicapping life has been a pronounced post-position bias in route races. Horses would seem to face an extreme disadvantage in route races when forced to break from post positions 8 through 12.
Through the first month of Oaklawn racing, only 6 winners from 133 starters broke from the outside five post positions. None, by the way, came from 50 starters combined in posts, 10, 11 and 12. In the meantime, posts 1 through 7 averaged about 14 percent winners apiece, which precisely matches the mathematical average for each post.
In sprints, the outer two posts seem to be at a similar disadvantage, but this is a statistical illusion matched by the same disadvantage that can be attributed to post 1. Indeed, post 1 has produced 8.25 percent winners from 97 sprints while posts 11 and 12 have averaged only 8 percent winners from 66 combined starters.
Of the jockeys with 75 or more mounts, only Eusebio Razo Jr. has been clicking at 25 percent, Meanwhile, five trainers with three or more wins have been scoring at that 25 percent or better rate: Chris Richard (35 percent), Stanley Roberts (33), McLean Robertson (27), Kelly Von Hemel (25), and Brett Creighton (25).
Through January, the Gulfstream meet tends to play as an extension of the long Calder season. During that "break-in" period, Calder-based horses and trainers tend to win as if there was little difference between the quality of competition at both south Florida tracks. But, from late January through the end of the meet April 12, a group of familiar transplanted trainers from the north tend to outperform all but a few locally based stables.
This is when and where Hall of Fame trainers Nick Zito and Billy Mott gain momentum for the rest of the year. Ditto for Todd Pletcher and Ken McPeek, who regularly win 20 percent or more of their respective attempts with lightly raced horses. It also is a meet where a few trainers annually come in loaded for bear to win a very high percentage of their attempts from limited starters, often at good prices. This year the trainers who fit the profile include Peter Walder, (37), Wayne Catalano (31), Joseph Orseno (29), and David Fawkes (26).
Tampa Bay Downs
With an improving stakes program and a boost in purses through the trackside card room and more simulcasting of Tampa's races, this track is one of the most intriguing on the winter schedule.
Jockey Daniel Centeno is running away with the meet title with 70 victories, nearly twice the 37 wins by Rosemary Homeister Jr., and exactly twice the 35 wins by Jose Velez Jr. Centeno, a 27 percent rider at this track, is in fact the only jockey on the grounds winning at 20 percent or better. While his win percentage is excellent, it pales in comparison to trainer Jamie Ness's 36 percent winners from 84 attempts and Dale Bennett's 33 percent from 69 starters. Aside from low-profile trainer Michael Zwiesler's 6 wins from 23 attempts, no locally based trainer with four or more wins has won at least 20 percent.
Aside from those stats and the large fields that can be found in most Tampa turf races, horseplayers with an eye for longshots should consider carefully any horse with modest-to-good form breaking from an outer post position in a sprint. The outer lanes at Tampa Bay Downs can be quite favorable on the main track.