Notes from the Spa: 2nd Edition
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
by John Piassek
On the Tuesday dark days of Saratoga, we’ll be featuring a weekly column here on Danonymous Racing: Notes From the Spa. I, managing editor John Piassek, will be spending almost the entire meet up in Saratoga, working for NYRA’s “Bets Squad”. As such, I’ll be there every racing day, teaching people how to bet, helping customer sign up for NYRA Bets, and watching all the action. I’ll be chronicling any noteworthy observations right here in this column.
STAY GOLD, PONYBOY
Despite what some might say, I am skeptical of a rail bias on the dirt for Saturday’s card. Yes, a majority of winners showed speed on the inside, but most of those horses were odds-on favorites, who would have had a hard time losing no matter what. On Sunday, the track condition was a little more pronounced in favor of inside speed, but I remained doubtful. Unlike some (most) on twitter, I don’t go looking for biases. In order for it to be truly meaningful, I think that a bias has to pop out at you.
Well, on Monday, a golden rail popped out at everyone. All four dirt winners showed speed on the inside. Not only that, superior horses who tried to make moves on the outside saw their rallies fall short. In the third race, Smile Big got a clear inside lead and promptly drew off to a four-length score, while 1/5 Moana was wide throughout and fell short. In the race after, Joopster led just off the inside, and won gate-to-wire. Race 7 saw the bias really announce itself, as 11/1 Finger Lakes shipper Winstons Chance lead all the way around, as the 1/2 Minsky Moment made a bold move on the far turn and could not get by. In the finale, Martino crossed to the inside from post 9, grabbed the lead, and held off the late challenge of favored Dab. All those examples combine to form an example of a track powerfully biased toward inside speed.
There are a few ways to react to this. Many are taking to twitter to express their outrage over this biased strip. But that is looking at it the wrong way. As Andy Beyer related in several of his books, a powerful track bias can be the key to victory. While it’s ongoing, look for horses who are helped out by the track condition, and make notes of horses who are hindered by it. It can be a money-maker.
Going into Wednesday’s card, assume the bias will still be in play, and handicap the dirt races accordingly. It’s a lot more productive than a social media rant.
SMALL FIELDS OF THE PAST
There were several irrational twitter outrages over the past week at Saratoga. One was not totally irrational, but it got me thinking. The Shuvee, a stakes race for older fillies and mares, only drew three entries. It was moved to the first race on the Sunday card, and turned into a laugher as Paid Up Subscriber won by more than 20 lengths (officially 32+ according to the chart callers, around 24 lengths on Trakus).
While small fields in stakes races are no fun, every time one occurs, social media flares up and acts as if this is some newfound development. Whenever this happens, it gets me thinking about how people would have reacted to small stakes fields of the past.
My favorite example of this (and there are many) is the 1978 Travers. It’s remembered as a historic clash between the great champions Affirmed and Alydar, with Affirmed crossing the wire first, only to be disqualified for interference in the stretch.
However, the race only drew four horses: Affirmed and Alydar, Nasty and Bold, and Shake Shake Shake. The latter two were total non-factors.
Given the amount of vexing over the small field for the Shuvee, I cannot imagine the outrage that would result if the Travers drew a four-horse field this year. There might be full-scale rioting. It wouldn’t matter how good the horses in the field were, the whole idea of a big race drawing that small of a group would offend the sensibilities of countless racing fans. I wonder if any of the 50,000+ that packed Saratoga that day in 1978 felt the same way.
We’re ten days into the Saratoga meet, so jockey and trainer standings are becoming less and less of an anomaly. At this point, we’ve figured out who’s good, and who’s not as good.
While I have great respect for Paco Lopez, as he dominated my home base of Monmouth Park for several years, he is clearly in a major slump right now. His record at Saratoga stands at 34-0-4-5. That’s 34 mounts without a winner. I mean, I understand this is unlikely to continue forever, as Paco is a fine jockey and should get a few victories before Labor Day. However, betting Paco Lopez horses to win, and using them in multi-race bets, might not be the best betting strategy at the moment.
Paco has eight mounts in the next three racing days: three on Wednesday, three on Thursday, and two on Friday. If he can break the slump then, I will tip my cap. But I won’t be betting on it.
LIVIN’ IN THE FUTURE
One of the great things about Saratoga is the opportunity to see future stars. There’s at least one two-year-old race every day, and many horses who run at Saratoga at age 2 go on to do great things. Two young winners caught my eye over the past week. One got plenty of publicity; the other may have flown under the radar.
On Sunday, Separationofpowers absolutely destroyed a group of two-year-old fillies. She set the early pace from the inside post, and when she was asked on the turn, drew off to win by 11 3/4 lengths. The final time of 1:10.92 seconds for six furlongs was more than a second faster than the two-year-old fillies ran in the Schuylerville back on opening day. Obviously, it’s very early in her career, but this Chad Brown filly looks to have a big future.
Of course, flashy performances get lots of hype, but game ones tend to sneak under the radar. By that token, I was very impressed with the race El Dulce ran in the fourth on Saturday. He was pressure on the lead the entire way around, then got a stiff challenge from the Canadian invader, Ultima D, in the stretch. The two fiercely battled the entire way, but El Dulce never gave in, and broke his maiden by a neck. The time for 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass was a respectable 1:02.91.
Again, it’s early, but this Pletcher colt showed a lot of guts winning his debut. He’s one to watch in grass stakes in the future.
By the way, remember that thing I said last week about two-year-olds with experience? Well, there were seven two-year-old races last week, and every one of them was won by a first-time-starter. Trends come in waves, friends.
You know what’s really hard to handicap? A steeplechase race. However, if you bet Michael Mitchell’s horses this past week, you walked away with a lot of money in your pocket.
Mitchell recently returned to the saddle after suffering serious injuries in a fall in late April. He’s more than made up for lost time, capturing both steeplechase races at Saratoga thus far. On Wednesday, he won the Jonathan Kiser Stakes, aboard Show Court, and paid $14.20 to win. The next day, he won the grade 1 A.P. Smithwick Stakes, with 28/1 Swansea Mile.
He’s got mounts in each of the jump races this week: Any Given Royal on Wednesday, and Amazing Anthem on Thursday. Hopefully he’ll keep up the hot streak.
JOSE, CAN YOU SEE?
Jose Lezcano made waves on Wednesday, when he piloted Voodoo Song to victory for the second time in four days. He took his mount right to the front, sprinted out to a nearly 20-length lead, and held on to win.
Lezcano’s been a money machine on the grass so far. He’s had six victories on the Saratoga meet; all six have come on the lawn. He pulled off another front-running masterpiece on Sunday with Black Tide. On paper, the horse had plenty of early speed. Accordingly, Lezcano sent him right to the front, opened up the big advantage, and had enough in the tank to score. He hasn’t been perfect on grass, but all of his mounts over that surface deserve a look.