Handicapping Insights

Dick Powell offers a study of turf sprints at Saratoga.

JULY 12, 2013

by Dick Powell

So, last week I promised to conduct the definitive study of turf sprints at Saratoga. I have gone back and researched the past three years -- 140 races -- and while some of the results are what I expected, some were quite surprising.

For all the bettors who bemoan the presence of turf sprints at Saratoga because the results seem chaotic, consider that 49 favorites won out of 140 races resulting in a healthy 35 percent batting average for the chalk. That said, the average win price was $14.38, which is way above average for the favorite's win percentage. The mode winning price was $8.90.

There were few surprises in the trainers' category. Linda Rice has the most wins in the past three years -- 16 -- and yet only four of them were favored. This is pretty surprising as she clearly dominates these races but the betting public is not using her as much as you would think.

Rice had 10 winners in 2010, only one in 2011 and bounced back last year with five winners. In 2010 and 2011 she used a variety of riders, but in 2012 all five of her winners were ridden by Cornelio Velasquez.

Todd Pletcher had nine winners with six of them ridden by Johnny Velazquez and three by Javier Castellano. Chad Brown had eight with three of them ridden by Castellano and three by Ramon Dominguez.

Leading Saratoga turf sprint trainers

Linda Rice 16
Todd Pletcher 9
Chad Brown 8
Steve Asmussen 5
Gary Contessa 4
Tony Dutrow 4
Rudy Rodriguez 4
Dale Romans 4

With the jockeys, it was no surprise that Dominguez was the leader with 21 turf sprint wins. As usual, he won for 12 different trainers so it's going to be hard to predict where the business will go now that Dominguez is retired. Castellano had 18 turf sprint wins for 11 different trainers while Velazquez had 14, with six coming from Pletcher.

Velazquez surprised me with his 14 wins since I don't think of him as a turf sprint rider, but six of the 14 wins came aboard favorites. If you bet me who has more turf sprint wins at Saratoga the past three years, Johnny Velazquez or Cornelio Velasquez, I would have bet Cornelio and I would have lost. Even with the Rice business, he only had 10 turf sprint wins.

Leading Saratoga turf sprint jockeys

Ramon Dominguez 21
Javier Castellano 18
John Velazquez 14
Julien Leparoux 10
Cornelio Velasquez 10
Jose Lezcano 7
Rajiv Maragh 7
Alan Garcia 6
Eddie Castro 4
Kent Desormeaux 4
Joel Rosario 4

Pedigrees, or more specifically, sire lines, was another big surprise. With Rice being the clear leader among the trainers, you would think that City Zip would be one of the leading sires of turf sprinters, but he only has one winner in the past three years. Freud has four winners, three of them trained by Rice.

The leading sire of turf sprint winners at Saratoga the past three years is Speightstown, which should come as no surprise considering how fast he was and that his sire, Gone West, is a strong turf influence.

The real surprise here is that the second-leading sire at Saratoga the past three years is Grand Reward with five winners. This is due to the fact that one of his progeny, Isn'tlovejustgrand, won three times and another, One Note Samba, won twice.

The rest of the winning sires are spread out, with Stormy Atlantic having four and a bunch having three winners.

Leading Saratoga turf sprint sires

Speightstown 6
Grand Reward 5
Freud 4
Stormy Atlantic 4
Giant's Causeway 3
Kitten's Joy 3
Langfuhr 3
Proud Citizen 3
Smart Strike 3

Post positions in turf sprints at Saratoga are a critical factor in handicapping. For years, we have seen a pronounced negative bias against the rail but that began to change some last year. For the 140 turf sprints run the past three years at Saratoga, the average field size was 9.02 and the average winning post position was 5.18, which means that there is a tilt toward the outside where the winners are breaking from.

Post position 1 has the least amount of winners for the first eight post positions with 10. In 2010, there were only two winners who broke from the rail that won, in 2011 there was only one, but in 2012 there were seven winners breaking from the rail. Overall, the rail is not the place to be and it makes some sense the way these races are run.

If you draw the rail, you either have to gun to the front to maintain your inside position against the outside speed flow, or drop back and try to find a seam to run through in the stretch. The horse that makes the lead from the inside is under constant pressure, so even at the short distance of 5 1/2 furlongs he never gets a chance to relax and many of them tire in the stretch. The horses that come from behind on the inside face traffic while traveling at a high speed.

The post position with the most turf sprint wins the past three years is 5 with 19 winners. Post positions 2 and 4 produced 18 winners.

Leading Saratoga turf sprint post positions

Post Wins Races
1 10 140
2 18 140
3 15 140
4 18 140
5 19 140
6 12 140
7 14 135
8 14 126
9 8 92
10 8 55
11 4 20

The average winning time for the 140 turf sprints run at Saratoga going 5 1/2 furlongs was a very fast 1:02.73. Half the races were run faster than 1:02.71 and half were run slower than 1:02.71. Sub :45 first half-miles are the rule, not the exception, so this gives you a better understanding in analyzing final times and pace scenarios.

The fastest 5 1/2-furlong turf sprint run at Saratoga was Fiddlers Patriot, who stopped the teletimer in 1:00.59 on August 30, 2010, despite breaking from post 10. The slowest was Goldzar, who caught a soft turf course in the Ecclesiastic Stakes on September 5, 2011, when he took 1:07.28.

Another thing I looked at was the placement of the temporary rail. You would think that the farther out the temporary rail is placed, the slower the race will be due to the extra ground covered around the turn, but the effect of the temporary rail placement on the winning times is negligible.

Average winning times for the most used temporary rail placements
(Mellon turf course is firm)

Temporary Rail Placement Races Average Winning Time
0   feet 26 1:02.17
12 feet 47 1:02.49
18 feet 28 1:02.98
27 feet 12 1:02.48

Course condition is a much bigger factor on final winning times. In 115 races where the course was listed as "Firm," the average winning time was 1:02.53. In 25 races on courses listed as anything but "Firm," the average winning time was 1:03.60.

So what does it all mean? You can embrace these races like any others on the card. Form holds up but there is still good value to bet into. I will still avoid post 1 unless it is a horse with a proven, extreme running style.

With Dominguez retired, I think that Rosario and Lezcano will pick up the slack. Storm Cat sire lines do well in them, and Rice is always worth following as turf sprints have become her specialty.

We are one week away from Opening Day so let the games begin!