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Trainers: Dave Litfin's Top 25
Steve Asmussen set a record for North American trainers with 555 wins in 2004; with nearly 250 wins before Memorial Day this year, the trainer of reigning Horse of the Year Curlin threatens to raise the bar higher still.
Asmussen holds titles at Lone Star Park, where he is the all-time leader; Fair Grounds; and Churchill Downs, where he set a record with 45 wins at last year's spring-summer meet, including more than half of the 2-year-old races in which he had starters.
Considering sheer volume of starters, Asmussen maintains a high win rate (21 percent in 2007; 23 percent at press time this year). At Saratoga, he has been most effective with dirt sprinters (7 for 45 last year vs. 0 for 7 in routes), but don't expect much of a price: His $6.80 average win payoff was second-lowest among the top 12 last year.
At 10 for 23 in 2005 and 2007 (he was in the midst of a suspension in 2006), Asmussen-trained favorites have been reliable keys for exotic bets.
Though he won seven stakes in New York in 2006 and also compiled the top win percentage among Saratoga trainers with five or more wins (30.4 percent), Tom Bush garners little attention, which is just fine with savvy bettors who have long appreciated his consistent productivity. This tendency to escape attention helps explain why his nine winners : five on dirt, four on turf : averaged a $16.60 payoff at the Spa last year.
Indeed, through the last three Saratoga meets Bush-trained horses have racked up positive return on investment totals dirt and turf, short and long.
Bush, an assistant to Hall of Famers Allen Jerkens and Angel Penna Sr. before going on his own in 1984, is annually among the leaders in terms of New York-bred races won. He has won restricted stakes at Saratoga in recent years with Finlandia, Gold and Roses, Judy Soda, and Fait Accompli, and developed Rahy's Appeal into a Grade 2 winner.
Bush began the 2008 Belmont spring meet with 5 wins from his first 7 turf runners.
Ever since he saddled his first winner at Belmont Park in fall 1991, Christophe Clement has been among the top turf trainers in New York : as one might expect of someone born in Paris whose older brother Nicolas trained an Arc de Triomphe winner.
Clement is at his best with long-distance types on grass and has saddled a long list of turf stakes winners while amassing more than $55 million in purse earnings, including $5.3 million in 2007 from 86 winners.
Despite being one of the most respected conditioners on the circuit, Clement has still managed to compile a profitable five-year ROI total ($2.04) at Saratoga, thanks in part to French Dressing ($38.60), a debut winner of a maiden turf route on getaway day 2004, and Life Is a Cabernet ($45.80) in a turf sprint on Travers Day last year.
Six of Clement's seven Spa winners last year were on turf, including scores by Rutherienne in the Lake George and
9-year-old Revved Up in the John's Call.
After sending out 151 winners in 2006, Gary Contessa established a single-season record with 159 winners on the NYRA circuit last year, eclipsing the 156 sent out by his former mentor, Frank "Pancho" Martin, 33 years earlier.
"Only" 13 of those winners came at Saratoga, but that was still good enough to gain a four-way tie for second, and Contessa's average win price of $21.70 was three times as high as Todd Pletcher's ($6.60), and more than double Rick Dutrow ($9) and Linda Rice ($9.90).
The flip side of that coin is to be wary of Contessa-trained favorites, which were just 2 for 19 last year, bringing their total to 4 for 34 the past three summers. This is partly due to the fact that the stable runs full throttle downstate, and Aqueduct/Belmont form, broadly speaking, is frequently overvalued by Saratoga bettors.
Contessa's three-year $2.24 ROI on Spa turf is inflated by the front-running shocker Mission Approved ($70) in last year's Saranac Stakes.
With 102 or more victories on the NYRA circuit each of the last six years, three-time New York training champ Rick Dutrow gets the most from bread-and-butter claimers. But as Big Brown's recent exploits have shown, he knows his way around a good horse equally well.
Dutrow's father was a legendary Maryland horseman who saddled a then-record 352 winners in 1975; he worked for his father as an assistant during the mid-1970s along with younger brother Tony.
The ever-quotable Dutrow has developed something of a checkered "bad boy" image while serving several suspensions, but in addition to developing Big Brown, he has been unflappable in his handling of 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam and Breeders' Cup winners Silver Train (Sprint) and Kip Deville (Mile) on racing's biggest stages.
Among the 12 trainers with seven or more wins at Saratoga last year, Dutrow's strike rate on dirt (12 for 36) was tops; he would've had second all to himself with a better showing on turf, where he was just 1 for 15.
Bobby Frankel was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995 : and that was before he won four straight Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer from 2000-03.
The argument can be made that Frankel had his finest year in 2003, with 25 Grade 1 wins, including Empire Maker's Belmont Stakes, along with a then-record $19.1 million in purses. Unquestionably, however, his finest horse was 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, who gave an inkling of what was to come with a fast finish for third in the 2003 King's Bishop Stakes.
Frankel has had some wildly successful summers at Saratoga, most notably in 2001, when his 10-2-2 record with just 21 starters included six graded stakes wins. Though he captured the Go for Wand last year with eventual champion Ginger Punch, overall he had a forgettable meet with just five other winners.
Pay particular attention with distance switchers at the Spa: sprint to route (5 for 13) and route to sprint (4 for 13) have produced some un-Frankel-like prices the last three years.
Dominic Galluscio has been a mainstay in New York for a long time. How long? Well, consider that he won two races on opening day at Saratoga . . . in 1986. And it has been nearly 20 years since he claimed Lord of the Night for $100,000 and won six stakes with him in 1989. Galluscio won't turn 50 until this fall, but the native of Palermo, Sicily, has been training since 1981.
Galluscio finished 15th overall in New York with 33 wins last year, including a 5-for-37 record at Saratoga. Cold numbers for the last three Spa meets show he has done better with sprinters ($3.33 ROI) than routers ($0.98), but those numbers probably look much different at Belmont Park, where he has saddled full brothers Organizer and Dr. V's Magic to win the last two renewals of the rich Empire Classic on New York Showcase Day.
Working primarily with New York-breds, Galluscio is consistently underrated with first-time starters, especially his 2-year-olds.
The racing gods are not always kind. Witness the 2006 Saratoga met endured by Stan Hough, who sent out 19 runners and was rewarded with 0 wins and 6 runner-up finishes : five of those beaten less than one length.
Things evened out a bit last year as Hough had a "normal" 6-6-3 record from 39 starters, including an eye-catching win opening day by 2-year-old first-time starter Sargent Seattle, who scored decisively for the E.P. Robsham Stable. To recall, those were the original connections of Discreet Cat, who won his Spa debut with a 106 Beyer Speed Figure for Hough, was sold to Godolphin Stable shortly thereafter, and wound up winning the 2006 Cigar Mile in track record-equaling time.
Hough sent out Half Iced to beat Horses of the Year John Henry and All Along in the second running (1982) of the Japan Cup, but has done his best work with juvenile dirt sprinters at the Spa: Caller I.D., Distinct Habit, and All Chatter all won 2-year-old stakes in the 1990s.
A longtime player in the local claiming game, Mike Hushion has twice been the third-leading trainer in New York (1992 and 1998), and enjoyed his finest season in 1993 when he was second-leading trainer with 102 winners and compiled a 29 percent win percentage. But any time and any place, his horses are well spotted and demand respect.
While he saddled just 3 winners from 29 starters at Saratoga last year, Hushion still placed in the top 10 for the year in New York and won at better than a 20 percent clip (48 for 235). He has won 23 races at Saratoga the past five years.
Hushion was regarded as strictly a dirt trainer for years, but has forced bettors to reassess that stereotype with consistently productive results from first-time turf runners the past two years.
Formerly an assistant to Allen Jerkens for seven years, Hushion routinely equips his dirt runners with front bandages and/or mud calks.
To put things in perspective, Allen Jerkens has been training since 1950 and has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame longer than some of his rival trainers have been alive; at age 45, he was the youngest trainer to be so honored. "The Giant Killer" beat Kelso three times with Beau Purple in 1962-63; beat the mighty Buckpasser with Handsome Boy in the 1967 Brooklyn; beat Secretariat with Onion in the 1973 Whitney at Saratoga; and then beat Big Red again a month later with Prove Out in the Woodward. A quarter-century later, he knocked off Skip Away in the Jockey Club Gold Cup with 34-1 shot Wagon Limit.
Jerkens saddled a phenomenal 19 winners at Saratoga in 1972 when it was still a four-week meet, and he saddled November Snow (1992) and Society Selection (2004) to win the prestigious Test-Alabama double.
Jerkens, the leading trainer in New York four times, has won 23 races during the last five Saratoga meets.
Proving the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, Jimmy Jerkens has been a consummate horseman ever since saddling his first career winner, Ninth Inning, who would go on to win the Astarita Stakes in fall 1997.
The son of legendary trainer Allen Jerkens, he has trained more than two dozen stakes winners during the past decade, notably the multiple stakes winner Artie Schiller, who won the Bernard Baruch at Saratoga and the Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont in 2005, and Corinthian, who last year won the Met Mile and the inaugural Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile with a 119 Beyer Speed Figure.
Jerkens was the fifth-leading trainer in New York with 57 wins in 2000, and his 28 percent strike rate was best among the top 10. He won with 20 percent of his starters in 2007.
Jerkens-trained second-time starters have displayed an uncanny knack for improvement. His turf-to-dirt runners are 3 for 4 at Saratoga the past three years, while favorites have connected at 10 for 22.
A veterinarian with his own practice through the mid-1980s, John Kimmel has been to the mountaintop of the sport. He was the leading trainer in New York with 71 victories in 1999, and topped all Big Apple trainers in purses three straight years from 1997-99. During those heady days, Hidden Lake won an Eclipse as top older female in 1997, the same year Kimmel shared the Saratoga meet title.
"My father [Caesar Kimmel] introduced me to racing," he said. "He has been an owner for 30 years."
Though Kimmel's star has dimmed in recent years, he did win the 2006 running of the Woodward at Saratoga with Premium Tap ($64). He has been especially effective during the past three Saratoga meets with first-time turf horses and has tossed profits dirt and turf, short and long. Favorites have been especially reliable at 8 for 17.
Kimmel-trained juveniles (7 for 30, $3.76 ROI) have also been well worth following.
It has been nearly 30 years since Bruce Levine saddled his first winner at Aqueduct back in 1979.
"I always came to the track to play the horses," said Levine, who worked for Johnny Campo for several years in the mid-1970s.
Consistently in the top five overall in New York, Levine had arguably his finest year to date in 2007, when his stable won 141 races and more than $4.7 million in purses. He notched the biggest victory of his career earlier this year, when the New York-bred Bustin Stones won the Grade 1 Carter Handicap and upped his lifetime record to 6 for 6.
Freshened, newly acquired horses making their first start on the circuit tend to run exceptionally well for Levine, who is 5 for 16 with new stock at Saratoga the last three years. Though he is just 2 for 33 with Spa routers during that time, bear in mind that Coyote Lakes won three consecutive editions of the 1 5/8-mile Gallant Fox Handicap for Levine.
Shug McGaughey saddled his first winner at Rockingham Park, but the native of Lexington, Ky., made it to the big time at Saratoga, when Lass Trump won the 1983 Test Stakes and captured the Ballerina the following year.
Shortly after sending out Vanlandingham to win the 1985 Washington D.C. International in his turf debut, McGaughey signed on as trainer for the Ogden Phipps Stable. That association has produced seven Eclipse champions, highlighted by the unbeaten Personal Ensign and the 11-time stakes winner Easy Goer.
McGaughey (who won a Saratoga training title in 1994) had a tough-luck meet at Saratoga last year with twice as many runner-up finishes (8) as wins. Though they are often pounded at the windows, McGaughey's favorites must be respected: they were 8 for 17 with a $2.32 ROI at Saratoga in 2005-07.
Earl "Buzz" Tenney, a childhood friend and former fellow Cub Scout, is his longtime assistant.
During his tenure as an assistant for D. Wayne Lukas, Kiaran McLaughlin helped to develop the careers of many New York-based Eclipse Award winners. Now, he is busy developing champions of his own.
McLaughlin has had a long association with the United Arab Emirates's ruling family and trained in Dubai annually until 2003. Though he now remains in the United States year-round, McLaughlin and Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum's Shadwell Stable have enjoyed exceptional success in recent seasons with Jazil, the 2006 Belmont Stakes winner; Invasor, the 2006 Horse of the Year; Shakis, the 2007 Bernard Baruch winner; and Lahudood, last year's champion grass filly.
In fact, McLaughlin's current Saratoga stat of 1 for 1 with first-time blinkers was with Shadwell's Daaher, who spring-boarded off a lengthy allowance victory at the Spa to win the Grade 2 Jerome and the Grade 1 Cigar Mile downstate.
Second-time starters often improve dramatically and at good prices.
Graham Motion was born in Cambridge, England, and worked for Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard for five years before going on his own in the early 1990s. If that sounds like a background for excellence in training grass horses, it is.
Motion's best horse, Better Talk Now, won the 2003 Knickerbocker and the 2007 Manhattan, and in between won a handful of Grade 1 races, including the Breeders' Cup Turf at Lone Star Park in 2004. His other important stakes winners have also come on turf, notably the durable mare Film Maker, who won the Lake George at Saratoga in 2003, prior to winning the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge at Keeneland.
Motion went 7 for 34 on grass at Saratoga last year, including stakes winners T D Vance (Troy) and Rosinka (Glens Falls), and was blanked with seven dirt runners. This continued a well-established pattern: For the last three years, Motion is 1 for 25 on dirt, but 17 for 71 on turf, with a $2.76 ROI.
Bill Mott started winning races at the bush tracks in South Dakota at 15, and 30 years later supplanted Allen Jerkens as the youngest trainer inducted into the Hall of Fame.
"My father was a veterinarian, and I used to follow him around on his calls," he recalled. "After watching him treat a variety of ailments, I knew that I wanted to spend my life working with horses."
What a career it has been. Mott won back-to-back Eclipse Awards in 1995-96 as two-time Horse of the Year Cigar compiled a perfect 10-for-10 campaign (1995) en route to a record-tying 16 straight wins.
"He's the best horse I've ever trained," Mott said.
Mott also developed champions Ajina, Escena, Paradise Creek, and Theatrical, and such important stakes winners as Boundary, Elusive Quality, Fraise, and Shakespeare.
Mott won or shared eight Saratoga titles from 1992-2001, but he was the feel-good story of 2007 as he won the crown for a ninth time. His 27 winners were more than twice as many as his closest pursuers.
Even measured against 2006 : when he set records for wins in stakes (100) and graded stakes (57) previously held by former boss D. Wayne Lukas and set a single-season earnings record of $26.8 million : 2007 was a terrific year for Todd Pletcher: Rags to Riches became the first filly in 102 years to win the Belmont Stakes, taking a heart-stopping stretch duel from Curlin, to give Pletcher his first-ever win in a Triple Crown race; he set a new earnings record of just more than $28.1 million; and he won the Eclipse Award as top trainer for a fourth consecutive year, as Rags to Riches (3-year-old filly), English Channel (turf male), and Lawyer Ron (older male) all had championship seasons.
But despite Lawyer Ron winning the Whitney in track-record time and winning the Woodward just as impressively, Saratoga 2007 was a summer of discontent for Pletcher, a six-time Spa titlist who endured a 0-for-30 streak and a 3-for-47 mark with 2-year-olds.
An exercise rider and assistant to her father, Clyde Rice, during her formative years, Linda Rice started her own stable at age 23 and has been a fixture in New York since 1991. That year, the Rice-trained Double Booked won six turf stakes, including the Bernard Baruch at Saratoga.
Rice has a long track record of success with young sprinters, particularly at Saratoga, where she won her first Grade 1 when Things Change took the 1998 Spinaway Stakes. In 2000, City Zip became just the fourth 2-year-old to sweep the Sanford, Saratoga Special, and Hopeful Stakes.
In recent years, Rice has flourished with the proliferation of turf sprints in New York. She has won 14 such races with only 41 starters at Saratoga in 2005-07, and her expertise in this area was a major catalyst for her tie for second last year.
Rice is 32 for 187 during the past five years at Saratoga, with a profitable ($2.18) ROI.
After starting out with show horses in Virginia and learning his trade as an assistant for Walter Kelley, Mike Daggett, Sid Watters Jr., and Tom Skiffington, Rick Schosberg went on his own in 1988 and promptly won with his first starter, Three Chopt Road, at Belmont Park.
Two decades, 27 stakes winners, and one champion (Maria's Mon) later, Schosberg is never flashy, but he demands respect from bettors on an everyday basis.
At last year's Saratoga meet, Schosberg was an exotic player's best friend. With a 6-8-5 record from just 27 starters, his horses landed in the exacta better than half the time and in the trifecta over two-thirds of the time. Among several tough beats was Attila's Storm's close second at 13-1 in the Grade 2 A.G. Vanderbilt Handicap.
Sprinters (8 for 49, $2.20 ROI) have outperformed routers (2 for 28, $0.74) the past three years. Route-to-sprint turnbacks (3 for 8, $5.47) have been especially productive.
Saeed bin Suroor
A former policeman in his native Dubai, Suroor took out his training license in the United Arab Emirates in 1994 and soon afterward took over Sheikh Mohammed's Al Quoz Stable in Dubai and the Godolphin operation in England. They won their first U.S. stakes with Red Bishop in the 1995 San Juan Capistrano.
The long list of Godolphin/Suroor champions includes Balanchine; Breeders' Cup Turf winners Daylami and Fantastic Light; Arc de Triomphe winner Lammtarra; Sakhee, who came within a nose of an Arc de Triomphe/Breeders' Cup Classic double; Street Cry; Swain; and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Tempera.
Their fastest horse may have been Discreet Cat, who was purchased after winning his 2-year-old debut at Saratoga (106 Beyer) in 2005. A year later, he won the Jerome at Belmont Park and the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct in record-equaling time.
Astronomia ($16, John Velazquez), Council Member ($5.50, Ramon Dominguez), and Palace Episode ($15.20, Jean-Luc Samyn) gave Godolphin a three-win day last Aug. 15.
Rick Mettee oversees Godolphin's U.S. string.
Barclay Tagg is a hard man to pin down when it comes to getting a handle on his tendencies from a handicapping perspective.
That helps to explain why Tagg is virtually break-even ($1.98 ROI) the last five years at Saratoga, despite being thrust into the national spotlight by Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide in 2003.
Long before he caught lightning in a bottle with Funny Cide, Tagg, a former steeplechase rider, won five stakes with Miss Josh in 1991, and he also developed Royal Mountain Inn, who was 6 for 6 on turf at Belmont in his career, including the 1994 Man o' War.
Tagg's eight victories at Saratoga last year were divided equally among dirt and turf horses, and their average win mutuel was a solid $10.70.
Short layoff (31-60 days) horses have been consistently productive virtually forever and have won at a 20 percent clip ($2.04 ROI) at Saratoga the last three years.
Rick Violette has been averaging six wins per summer at Saratoga (30 for 189) during the past five years, so the Worchester, Mass., native was right on par with a 5-7-1 record from 42 starters in 2007.
"I used to show hunters and jumpers on the East Coast circuit and had a client that owned racehorses," he recalled. "He brought me to the track, and I started galloping. That turned into a full-time job, and I ended up choosing racehorses over show horses."
Violette's three-year stat sample indicates handicappers are well advised to respect his first-time starters (7 for 28, $2.02 ROI) and well-supported runners (11 for 23, $2.78 with favorites) at the Spa.
Violette has a 17-for-81 mark with Spa sprinters the last three years, highlighted by Dream Rush's score in the 2007 Test Stakes. Routers (3 for 46, $1.06) have not fared nearly as well.
George "Dream" Weaver is yet another young trainer among Saratoga's top 25 who started out as an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas. He subsequently worked for Todd Pletcher from 1996 to 2002 and started his own stable in November 2002. In December of that year he saddled his first winner, First Spear, at Calder.
A very respectable 21 for 199 at Saratoga the last five years, Weaver compiled a 7-for-44 record in 2007, along with a sparking average win payoff of $17.70.
First-time starters have been best avoided (0 for 26), but second-time maiden starters ($4.05 ROI) have tended to show quick improvement.
Other profitable categories include second-time Lasix users ($4.29), short layoffs ($3.19), and newly claimed runners ($2.76).
Weaver, a Louisville Ky., native, has developed five New York stakes winners: Christine's Outlaw (Poker 2004); Drum Major (Knickerbocker 2006); Fond (Open Mind 2003, Busher 2004); Indian Hawke (Albany 2006); and Saratoga County (Gotham 2004).
Nick Zito-trained first-time starters were automatic throw-outs for years, but the New York native has changed with the times : right or wrong?
Zito, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005, sent out six 2-year-olds to win their career debuts at Saratoga's 2006 meet: Irish Ace ($15.60); C P West ($8.20); Ruby Crown ($7.80); Boogie Boggs ($24.80); Debbie Got Even ($13.80); and Successful Ways ($12.80). Four of those six were coming off gate works.
Last summer, Zito unveiled eventual champion War Pass ($15.80) off a series of nondescript workouts on the first Saturday of the meet.
Zito, who won Kentucky Derbies with Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994), is 9 for 45 ($3.04 ROI) with first-time starters at Saratoga the last three years.
Zito-trained turf horses have been virtual throwouts (0 for 19) at Saratoga for the last three years, and everywhere else, for that matter. He is 20 for 158 on dirt at Saratoga the last three years.