Friday, 29 July 2016 11:52

The Most Difficult Race Meet in The World

By Tom Amello | Sports

Saratoga is also the Graveyard of Many a Wallet

Could you hear the weeping? It began approximately two minutes after track announcer Larry Collmus led the crowd in the annual “And they’re off at Sarato¬¬ga.” When #1 Clifton Pleasure (6-1) angled out off the rail to run down Battle of Evermore (5-1) and crossed the finish line ahead of favored Jet Black in the July 22nd nine furlong opener, most players here and watching from around the country were officially re-introduced to the most difficult race meet in the world.

So why and how is this race meet we love so difficult? Let me count the ways.

1) For starters, Saratoga is a boutique meet for the fashionable and sophisticated. Thoroughbred aficionados (and that includes serious recreational handicappers) point to this race meeting. The prestige of winning a race (and cashing tickets) at Saratoga will forever draw the best horses that have been bred to the best race mares. I was in the paddock some time back with a group of West Point Thoroughbred partners. When jockey Mike Smith shook hands with one partner, this gentleman leaned in and said in a graveled tone, “Get me the picture, Mike.” To a certain degree, for those directly involved, winning a race, any race, at Saratoga is like the Super Bowl or seventh game series final in other major sports…extremely competitive, and everyone wants that picture.

2) The racing season at Saratoga has always been compressed into a limited calendar. My personal experience began when Saratoga was the “August Place to Be.” It was a frenetic 24-day happening. Most trainers and owners took one shot with their horses during the meeting. Some horses thrived on the dirt or turf surfaces; others failed to handle either the August heat or the heat of competition. A few sharp trainers squeezed a second run from horses. Those horses able to win once often returned to repeat their winning efforts, creating a “horse-for-the-course” mythology grounded on the efforts of runners like Quick Call and Fourstardave. A win or near-winning effort over Saratoga dirt or turf continues to be powerful medicine. The current 40-day stand gives connections more opportunities to race. Each year more horses become potential horses-for-the-course. Leave previous Spa winners, regardless of current form, off your tickets at your own peril. It’s a tough meet.

3) Saratoga is synonymous with juvenile racing. The Saratoga race meet offers breeders and owners of juvenile colts and fillies the opportunity to showcase their stock. From sprint dashes for non-winners to end of meet stakes at longer distances, young horses begin the sorting and selecting process for the Triple Crown and major Filly races of their sophomore year.

4) Saratoga draws from all the major racing circuits around the country. Also, connections with runners from lesser tracks ship in to test the deep waters. Sometimes they snare a purse and a prize. Maiden Special Weight races for unraced and lightly raced juveniles are particularly difficult. Like a spiritualist reading tea leaves, one must consider nature (pedigree) and nurture (trainers). The few specialists in pedigree, physicality and supporting trainer stats might have an advantage over a much less informed public. But knowledge and hard work only reduce the degree of difficulty that is the Saratoga meet.

5) Turf racing around two-turns (and two turf courses!) is another feature of the Saratoga race meet. As important as juvenile racing, the very nature of turf racing makes this premier meet more difficult. Sprinting on dirt or turf is the polar opposite of distance running over turf. Sprinting is all about gaining position in the early going. Distance turf racing is about gaining inside position and saving ground to avoid racing wide. Distance turf racing is about position among the herd down the straight, then into and around a turn. Unlike the sprinter’s beginning dash, distance turf racing culminates in a late sprint to the wire. The nature of turf racing leaves betting favorites more vulnerable than their sprinting counterparts. Add pedigree analysis to the equation, whether the horse will perform well over turf, and the level of difficulty increases further. Turf fields are usually full fields, sometimes with 14 meeting the starter. Contention often runs deep - the process of elimination difficult. Oy!

6) And, of course, Saratoga’s often quirky weather pattern (Hazy, Hot and Humid with a 30 percent chance of a monsoon) wreaks havoc on turf racing. Races switched or rained-off from turf-to-dirt are maddening to handicappers. First, there are the scratches. Next, there is the search for horses meant to run on turf that can handle a track labeled “off”. Finally, certain horses were originally entered in hopes the race would be rained off. Yeesh!

7) Intent increases the difficulty of the Saratoga meet. Everyone wants to win. Everyone shops a spot where they can be competitive enough to win. Many prepare horses months out hoping their horse will peak during Saratoga. Such preps often hide or darken form, nothing unethical or shameful, but another factor that makes this meet an absolute killer.

8) Finally, Saratoga brings together the best of the best in terms of jockey colony and trainers. Top riders from far away circuits struggle to obtain and keep business at Saratoga. Lesser-known or obscure trainers sometimes get the best of a Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown or Steve Asmussen…but not with any regularity. These irregular winners are often head scratchers that bust up more logical plays. Yeesh again!

Yes, the annual race meet at Saratoga is a difficult and tough meet. It’s tough on breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys, backstretch employees, and handicappers. But these folks love being in Saratoga, competing at Saratoga, winning and, yes, non-winning at Saratoga…after all, a difficult day at Saratoga is better than an easy day anywhere else.

Tom Amello began his Thoroughbred education over 50 years ago. In 1984, Tom created his own database of New York trainers and horses that became the foundation for the Saratoga selection sheet, Trackfacts. For over twenty years Tom produced and hosted original programming covering Thoroughbred racing for Capital District OTB Television. Tom conducts numerous handicapping seminars and workshops, including participation in “Count Down to…” programs at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame and the “History, Horses and Handicapping” program at SUNY Empire State College’s Academy for Lifelong Learning. In 2013, Tom published Playing the Odds Board: Gateway to the Game ™, a guide that makes betting easier to understand and more fun for those new to Thoroughbred racing. Tom, with his daughter Kate, owns and operates the Brunswick at Saratoga Bed and Breakfast at 143 Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs. Contact Tom at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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