After the grandstands were empty in 2020 due to the pandemic, the Saratoga meeting kicks off on Thursday with fans back in the stands and the best horses, trainers and jockeys competing over the historic racetrack.
Opening day on Thursday will feature the first two of 76 stakes over the six week meet that concludes on Monday Sept. 6, running on mostly a Wednesday through Sunday schedule.
Over the 40 days of racing there will be 20 Grade 1 races including seven Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” races.
There will be at least one stakes race each racing day with the marquee event being the $1.25 million Travers (G1) on Aug. 28. The race anchors an outstanding card that includes six supporting stakes. Among those are the Grade 1’s $600,000 Forego, $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens, $600,000 Personal Ensign, and the $750,000 Sword Dancer.
There are seven graded stakes over the closing day weekend including a pair of Breeders’ Cup Challenge races on Sept. 4—the $600,000 Flower Bowl and the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Todd Pletcher won his 14th training title in 2020 with 32 winners, four more than Chad Brown, who was the leading trainer in 2018 and 2019 at Saratoga. Since Linda Rice won the training title in 2009, it has been Pletcher eight times and Brown winning the honors three times.
An Ortiz brother has been the leading rider in each of the last six years. Irad was the leading jock last year as well as in 2015 and 2018. His brother Jose won the top jockey honors in 2016, 2017 and 2019.
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Here are the major trainers to keep an eye on:
In 2018 Chad Brown ran away with the training title with 46 winners to Pletcher’s 19 and it looked like a major shift on who was New York’s top barn. Pletcher struggled with his juveniles, with his first timers seeming to need a race and early in the meet they seemed to be not breaking alertly. We rode that fade throughout the meeting and when the dust cleared Pletcher ended the meet an astounding 1 for 27 with his debut runners. That really helped my profit margin. He rebounded in 2019 winning with 8 of 33 firsters (24%) but was still a distant second in the standings with 21 winners to Brown’s 41 trips to the winner’s circle.
There was no reason to think anything would change in 2020. But hey, it was 2020, and nothing was normal. Pletcher bounced back to edge Brown for the title 32 to 28. His firsters won at a respectable 19% clip. Pletcher was also strong in turf routes, winning 11 times with a +ROI of $2.43.
Through Saturday Pletcher has “only” won 18 races at the Belmont Park meeting, winning at a 17% clip. That puts him fourth in the trainer standings, behind Brown, Clement and Atras. He has won with just one of his last nine first timers at Belmont Park.
The first few days of the meet may be a “tell” of how this barn is going to go, but I am leaning toward seeing another strong showing this season. But, despite wining 32 races and winning at a 23% clip last year, his ROI overall was still in the negative.
A nagging number that may keep me up at night is Pletcher’s 1 for 13 mark in graded stakes here last summer. The lone win was Halladay in the Fourstardave (G1) who paid $12.60. Seven of his losers were horses at odds of 4-1 or less.
This is another trainer that despite racking up a ton of wins, finding value can be difficult. His win percentage has dropped over the past three summers. He won at a 27% clip in his recording setting 2018 meet, won at a 23% clip in 2019 and at 19% last year. His average win payoff last year was $6.19.
Most of his wins have come in turf routes, but his win percentage is fairly consistent whether it is dirt or turf and sprint or route. Of his 28 winners last year a dozen were on dirt with an average win payoff of $6.85.
Brown was just 5 for 33 (15%) with first time starters here last summer. Three of those winners were in turf routes, two in dirt sprints. Brown did show a +ROI with his horses coming back off a +180-day layoff, going 4 for 17, two each on dirt and turf.
With juveniles last year, Brown went 5 for 30 (17%), three of those winners coming on turf, and all five were first time starters.
Brown was 4 for 25 in graded stakes here last year (with a +ROI). His winners were Country Grammar (Peter Pan), My Sister Nat (Waya), Rushing Fall (Diana) and Selflessly (Lake George).
We know Brown and Pletcher are going to combine to win 60+ races at the meeting, but there are other trainers that are likely to have a bigger impact on our bankrolls.
We were on the Clement bandwagon early at the meet last summer and it paid off as he picked up 13 wins in July and was the leading trainer going into August. He cooled off a bit the remainder of the meeting, finishing with 20 wins from 101 starters with 15 seconds and 22 thirds. 16 of his 20 winners came on turf.
The trainer won with 3 of 19 first timers (with a +ROI) two of those coming on turf, one route and one in a sprint. The other was a dirt sprint, Momos paying $15.60 during the opening weekend of the meet.
While most of his wins will come on turf, do not dismiss his dirt starters. He was 4 for 17 last year on the main track (with a +ROI).
Maker had a big meet here last year, winning with 20 of his 98 starters with a ROI of $1.99. He doubled his win total of 2019 where he won with 10 of 61 starters.
He won 11 races on turf and nine races on the main track. He was 2 for 10 in graded stakes, winning the Bowling Green (G2) with Cross Border and Somelikeithotbrown in the Bernard Baruch (G2).
17 of his 20 winners were booted home by one of the Ortiz brothers.
The Hall of Fame trainer was fifth in the trainer standings last year, winning with 15 of 107 starters (14%) with a ROI of $1.77. These numbers were similar to his two previous years where he won 11 races in 2019 (13%) and 13 races in 2018 (15%).
Eight of his winners were on turf last year, seven in route races and one sprint. Mott was 3 for 25 (with a +ROI) with first timers. Two of the three debut winners were on turf and they both paid well, American Monarch at $16.60 and Lovestruck who returned $21.80.
In graded stakes last summer Mott went 3 for 16 (ROI of $1.81). Winners were with Channel Maker in the Sword Dancer (G1), Frank’s Rockette in the Prioress (G2) and Paris Lights in the CCA Oaks (G1).
This barn has been in a tailspin since Rice got suspended for three years and is back training after an appeal. Over the last month the barn has gone 2 for 26
Rice went 15 for 86 here last summer (17%) with a ROI of $2.38. Known for winning turf sprints, just 4 of her 15 wins here last summer were on turf. She was 0 of 3 with first timers.
While she showed an overall +ROI with a flat bet wager on each of her starters last summer, she certainly is not coming into this year’s meet with the same mojo.
Bond had one heck of a meeting here last year, winning with 12 of his 40 starters (30%) and showing a nice +ROI. He won with several runners coming back off layoffs.
It was an improvement off his 2019 numbers where he was 7 for 35 (20%). In 2018 he won with just 2 of 24 starters. Over the past three years 13 of his wins have come on turf and eight on the main track.
Donk won at just an 11% clip last year, winning with 8 of his 73 starters but showed a +ROI of $2.29. Six of his eight winners were on turf including Big Package at $48.80 (off a long layoff) and Sky Kitten at $37.00.
He struggled in 2019, winning with just 3 of his 51 starters. Over the last three meets he has had a dozen winners on turf and seven on the main track. Donk is not known to win early, but won with two first timers in 2019, paying $20.80 and $17.60, scored with a firster in 2018 that paid $20.60 and in 2017 he sent out debut winner Romantic Babe who paid $78.50.
I had barely heard of Orlando Noda when he sent out three winners from just nine starters in 2019. Noda formerly worked for Mark Casse and trains for his family including his brother. The barn tends to go hot and cold and went hot again last summer here where he went 9 for 29 (31%), again showing a flat bet profit, the ROI at $3.25.
Eight of his nine winners last year were on the main track, four sprints and four routes. He won two maiden special weight races last year, one a Gulfstream Park shipper.
The barn is having a solid Belmont Park meeting, winning at a 21% clip and expecting to see him win a few claiming and allowance races early in the meeting.
A former assistant to Chad Brown, Abreu had a solid 2018 meet with seven winners, but regressed in 2019 with just 4 winners from his 36 starters. He had a career meet last year winning with 9 of 31 starters (29%) with a +ROI.
The trainer can win any type of race. Dating back three years 12 of his wins have come on turf and eight on dirt. 10 of his wins have come in the maiden ranks.
Abreu is hitting at a 16% clip at the current Belmont Park meeting and horseplayers are getting very familiar with how good a trainer he is, which could suppress his odds a touch at this meet.
Cox is becoming one of the most well known trainers in the game. Last year at this meet he bounced back with 8 winners from 41 starters (20%) after going 5 for 34 in 2019 (15%).
Six of his eight winners last year were on the main track. He won with 3 of his 10 two-year-olds (with a +ROI) although none were with debut runners.
Shug had a good meet here last season winning with 8 of his 33 starters (24%). Hs winners took plenty of action, the biggest price among them was Hungry Kitten at $13.20.
Seven of his eight winners were on turf, his one dirt winner was in a race that was taken off the turf. He was 1 of 5 in graded stakes, the winner Civil Union who won the Glen Falls (G2). Shug was 0 for 7 with his first timers but they ran pretty well. He had a couple seconds at prices of 21-1 and 13-1.
Amoss showed a nice ROI last year at $3.30. He started 18 runners with four wins, four seconds and three thirds. His highlight was winning the Ballerina (G1) with Serengeti Empress. He also won a second level optional claimer with King Cause going a mile on turf, returning $36.00.
Dating back three years Amoss is 6 for 48 (13%). He was 2 for 17 in 2019 and 0 for 13 in 2018.