07/14/2008 11:00PM

Speed at the Spa

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The first time I traveled 165 miles north from New York City to Saratoga in August 1961, the historic track in the Adirondack Mountains made the same awe-inspiring impression that a first visit to Yankee Stadium made a decade earlier when I was a 9-year-old Little Leaguer.

Where Yankee Stadium, “The House that Ruth Built” in 1923, is being torn down and replaced by a more modern Yankee Stadium next door, Saratoga’s wooden grandstand still remains, along with its sprawling picnic grounds and tree-lined parking lot. Moreover, America’s oldest racetrack, Saratoga has been hosting horse racing’s greatest stars every summer since it was built during the Civil War.

Fact is, for more than a century Saratoga has been regarded as a mecca for serious horseplayers and an ideal place to introduce newcomers to the best of a game that challenges the mind and treats the senses to lingering hints of days gone by.

On my first visit 47 years ago, I was stunned by the way the Saratoga racing surface of that era favored wide rallying horses instead of speed types that had been winning everything downstate. Some 20 years later, the racing surface was dramatically altered to accent speed in the same manner that Belmont Park did during the warm months of June and July.

In more recent years, the track’s tendency to favor horses with good early speed has persisted to the point where few deep closers and few from outside posts can win Saratoga races.

In statistical material separately published by DRF and by Jim Mazur that are designed to help prepare players for the Saratoga meet, consider these trends that have been gleaned from the previous four Saratoga seasons.

* In fast-track sprints, horses in posts 10 or higher were a combined 6 for 62 at seven furlongs; 2 for 20 at 6 1/2 furlongs; 10 for 103 at six furlongs; 1 for 41 at five and 5 1/2 furlongs. This contrasts with win percentages that ranged from about 11 to 16 percent for the inside three post positions at the above distances over the same time frame.

* In wet-track sprints, the preference for an inner post position was not as clear cut, as posts 10 and higher at all sprint distances won more than 14 percent of their starts, while inner posts won as few as 4 percent to a high of 24 percent to suggest that post position is not a major factor in races where preference for the footing may be much more important.

The stats pertaining to running styles are equally revealing.

* On dry tracks, pure front-runners won more than 40 percent of all attempts from five to seven furlongs, and stalking types virtually equaled that percentage, leaving deep closers to account for only 16 percent of Saratoga, dry track sprint winners over the same four year sample.

* In all but a few cases, deep closers were only able to win when an intense, suicidal speed duel created an inviting setup.

Yet, In wet track sprints, the percentages were equally dramatic and should be incorporated into handicapping decisions.

* On all wet tracks, from sloppy, to muddy, to good, front-runners won nearly two-thirds of all races from five to seven furlongs, which clearly reaffirmed the traditional handicapping axiom that speed wins on most wet tracks at most American tracks.

* Conversely, stalkers and deep closers only were able to win at an average 14 percent rate – except for a very notable 30 percent win rate recorded by deep closers on a tiring, muddy Saratoga track that produced subpar final clockings.

* In main-track races at nine furlongs or longer, the low percentages for the three outer post positions were virtually identical to the win rates seen in sprints, but the inside three posts produced even higher win rates than the same three posts did in main track sprints.

* Dirt routes in dry weather had their share of front-running winners, but the distribution among front-runners, stalkers and deep closers was relatively well balanced. Front-runners and stalkers each won about 37 percent of these routes, while deep closers managed a respectable 24 win ratio.

* In dirt routes on wet tracks, the stats from the past four years present conclusions that include the domination of front-runners and stalkers, with a few tricky wrinkles. On most wet tracks, there was great balance among front-runners, stalkers and deep closers; but deep closers were unable to win at all on tracks labeled wet-fast, an understandable handicapping nugget given the glib nature of sealed tracks. A sealed track can be defined as a fast track with some water sitting on a packed down, relatively thin track cushion.

Of course, all of these trends are subject to radical shifts when the track superintendent decides to alter conditions due to impending weather or other reasons that can confound sound handicapping. Hopefully, this year the main dirt track will not be sealed every time there is an inch of rain in the forecast. When allowed to dry out on its own, the Saratoga main track is one of the best and safest in the country.

Beyond dirt race handicapping, Saratoga has a wide-ranging turf program that includes a sizable number of turf sprints, as well as 15 or more turf routes each week on its two courses.

As with the dirt track, both turf courses penalize horses breaking from outer posts at all distances except for the 5 1/2-furlong turf sprints on the outer course, where four years of results say that post positions play no role whatsoever.

In routes on the inner turf course, a widely circulated belief states that front-runners have a built-in advantage due to the tighter turns. This is not borne out by any of the statistical studies I have seen or done on my own.

In fact, the running-style profiles for both the inner and outer turf courses suggest that the edge goes to stalkers and deep closers at one mile or more on either course. On average, front-runners win about 25 percent of all Saratoga turf routes, while stalkers and deep closers win about 37 percent apiece. The latter percentage is consistent with turf handicapping theory that suggests the final closing fraction is the single most important piece of past performance data.

On other matters of import to horseplayers, the $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 23 may be the centerpiece of this historic meet, but the 2-year-old program always has been a key facet of the Saratoga racing season, just as there have been a group of trainers who point for this meet with their best youngsters.

This is as it was in the 1960s when John Gaver, Eddie Neloy, Elliot Burch and the ever-present Allen Jerkens came to Saratoga loaded for bear with their 2-year-olds. This is as it remains in the 21st century for Allen Jerkens and his son Jimmy, along with Steve Asmussen, Kiaran McLaughlin, Rick Violette, Bob Baffert, Linda Rice, Michael Trombetta, Ramon Hernandez, Tom Bush and Nick Zito, who love to win 2-year-old races at Saratoga perhaps more than anywhere lese. Meanwhile, Saeed Bin Suroor, Rick Dutrow and his brother Anthony usually win a handful of early races with older horses on dirt.

Among the top trainers who point for Saratoga turf routes are Christophe Clement, Barclay Tagg, Bobby Frankel, Bill Mott and John Kimmel, while Linda Rice is a certifiable ace in turf sprints.

The meet will run six days per week, beginning Wednesday, July 23, through Monday, Labor Day, Sept. 1, with all Tuesdays dark.

For more information, check out the NYRA’s Saratoga website: www.nyra.com/index_saratoga.html.