by DICK POWELL
The 40-week Saratoga race meet ended on Labor Day and not a moment too soon. For anyone that works in the industry, each day feels like a week and with only one day off per week, the 40 days blend into each other to where Saratoga becomes one, big blur.
Not only did the meet enjoy perfect weather with only two days affected by rain and only 10 races taken off the turf, but the weather warmed up to record levels at the end of the meet with each day being sunny and hot. With closing day on September 7 this year, one could expect some chilly weather in the back half of the meet but the weather got warmer to the point where Labor Day might have been the hottest and muggiest day of the meet.
Good weather means races stay on the turf and favorable forecasts resulted in the racing office scheduling even more turf races on their extras. The final results were unbelievable as 211 races were run on the turf compared to 202 on the dirt. In 2014, 30 races were taken off the turf, three times this year’s total.
Field sizes rose from 7.87 to 8.25; an increase of 4.8%, which helped engineer a total increase in betting of 13.5%.
Things were good at Saratoga in 2015 and you can thank the weather all you want but the real reason for success was the Saratoga horse racing fan. Raise prices, restrict access — it doesn’t matter how bad they are treated, the Saratoga horse racing fan shows up.
Saratoga patrons are worthy of a special Eclipse Award of Merit for their dedication.
The race for the trainer’s title looked like it was going to go to Chad Brown for the first time given that with a week remaining, he had a four-win lead over defending champ Todd Pletcher. Yet, despite more turf races being run than dirt ones, Pletcher was able to come from behind and win the trainer’s title 34 to 31. Pletcher started 31 more runners and his 20% win rate was lower than Brown’s 22%.
Pletcher won 22 races on dirt and 12 on the turf. Brown won 22 races on turf but only 9 on the dirt. That was the difference between winning and losing although the plurality of races being run on turf compared to dirt certainly favored Brown.
Earlier in the year, Brown said Irad Ortiz Jr. was the best turf rider in America. On the Saratoga turf, Ortiz Jr. won 34 of 156 races for a win percentage of 22%. On dirt, he won 23 of 128 races for a win percentage of 18%.
Javier Castellano, who was widely viewed as the best turf rider in New York heading into the Saratoga meet, won 24 of 155 turf races for a win percentage of 15%.
Considering that Ortiz Jr. beat Castellano by only four wins, the 10-win differential on the turf was clearly the difference. And Castellano would’ve been an odds-on favorite to win the riding title if you knew that there would be 211 turf races versus 202 on dirt.
But Brown was ahead of the curve and used Ortiz Jr. on most of his turf starters and while it wasn’t enough for the trainer’s title, it certainly helped Ortiz Jr. win the rider’s title.
Johnny Velazquez, who finished third in the rider’s race, was hurt the most by the lack of dirt racing. On dirt, Velazquez captured 29 of 107 mounts for a win percentage of 27%, the highest of anyone in the room.
When racing resumes at Belmont, pay attention to the turf races that were run up here when the rails were taken down. There were a number of upsets with horses that got loose on the lead and went unchallenged through soft fractions. It was a source of great frustration to watch and bet these races as too many jockeys rode passively.
The rule of thumb seemed to be that a horse that might be four lengths behind in a one-turn mile at Belmont Park was now 10 lengths behind in a two-turn mile on the turf at Saratoga, even with a slower pace. Not the conditions needed to make up ground, especially on the inner turf course, which favored inside paths throughout the meet.