Some Saratoga Horse Sense

Wednesday marks the beginning of the third week of racing at Saratoga Race Course, and the second visit to the Spa for the Daily Racing Blog.

It is day 15 of a season of 40 racing cards, at a track where top horses, trainers, and jockeys congregate, for some of the best racing action all year long.

Saratoga is universally considered one of the premier racing meets in the country and the world. It’s also one of the most heavily bet. Last summer, the 40-day meet handled more than $800 million. You won’t find bigger pools on a regular basis anywhere else.

Many horseplayers make Saratoga the center of their wagering year. Here’s a bit of a refresher on what you need to know about playing the races at The Spa.

TRACK DIMENSIONS: Saratoga’s main track is a 1 ⅛-mile dirt track, featuring two grass courses on the inside. The outer grass course, known as the Mellon turf course after longtime owner and Saratoga benefactor Paul Mellon, is one mile in circumference. The Mellon course plays host to the popular 5 ½-furlong turf sprints. Saratoga’s inner turf course is seven furlongs around.

This season marks the return of the one-mile chute on the clubhouse turn of the main track, known as the Wilson chute. The chute was part of racing at Saratoga for many years, but fell into disuse in the early 1970s, only resurfacing for one season in 1992 before being dismantled.

BETTING ON BABIES: Saratoga is world renown for its 2-year-old races. Many trainers save their best 2-year-olds for the Saratoga meet, and anyone who Wins a Maiden race here is often marked as a horse to watch for the future. With Maiden race purses going for more than $100,000, virtually every promising East Coast 2-year-old will be slated for a Saratoga appearance.

Flashy first-time starters often take lots of money. Value can often be found in horses who have raced once or twice and showed some ability in those races. They sometimes have an edge over more inexperienced rivals. Generally, they finish in the top two or three and help complete a nice Exacta or Trifecta.

WAGERING MENU: Saratoga offers a plethora of wagering options. In addition to the standard Win, Place, and Show, there is Exacta wagering on every race (with a minimum of four betting interests), as well as Trifecta and Superfecta wagering on races with at least six betting interests.

Saratoga also features rolling doubles and Pick 3s on every consecutive two and three-race sequence. The most glamorous bets at Saratoga are the Pick 4 and the Pick 5, both of which feature 50-cent minimum wagers. The early Pick 4 starts in race 2 (or race 3 if there’s a steeplechase race to begin the day), while the late Pick 4 consists of the last four races on the card. Both these wagers feature gigantic pools. It’s not uncommon to see Pick 4 or Pick 5 pools exceed $1 million.

MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME: Horses from all over the country like to ship in to Saratoga to take their shot at Winning a race at the country’s most prestigious meet. However, it is worth noting that Shippers from Kentucky tracks have far and away the most success. Through the first two weeks of last year’s Saratoga meet, horses who made their last start in Kentucky Won 19 times from 90 total races, good for a 21.1% Win rate. As such, horses who last raced in Kentucky have to merit respect, at least in the early stages of the season.

TRAINERS AND JOCKEYS TO WATCH: The Saratoga jockey title is annually one of the most competitive in the country. Last year, no regular rider Won more than 20% of the time.  Luis Saez led the standings last year with 64 Wins in a breakthrough meet for him. The Ortiz brothers, Irad and Jose, also had excellent seasons (again), with 56 and 51 Wins, respectively. Irad previously Won the riding title in 2020 and 2018, while Jose took home the honors in 2019, 2017, and 2016. Leave them off your exotic tickets at your own risk.

On the training side, Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher are likely to dominate once again. Given that they have the largest barns, it stands to reason. Brown’s specialty is grass horses, but he’s begun to excel with horses of all types and led the 2021 standings with 176 Wins. Pletcher, who has led the trainers’ standings at Saratoga 14 times, finished second behind Brown in 2021 with 146 Wins and always sends out well-meant 2-year-olds at the meet.

The Daily Racing Blog hopes these little tidbits help in some of your decision making the next time you’re perusing a Saratoga racing program

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