When Saratoga Race Course first opened its doors in 1863, Abraham Lincoln was President and the United States was in the middle of a Civil War. Legendary sports writer Red Smith once offered simple directions to the hallowed grounds which still hold true today. “From New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue, and go back 100 years.” The 155th meet begins on Thursday with the first of 40 days loaded with races involving a who’s who of equine and human stars. Horse racing odds are always capable of being juicy at the Spa as handicappers are presented with challenges created by frequently large and competitive fields.
The Horses: Mage Hopes to Headline
Horse racing news from now until Labor Day will largely come from the Saratoga meet. Seventy-one stakes races will be run with all divisions well-represented. The highlight is the Travers Stakes on Aug. 26, one of five Grade I races to be run that day.
The Travers, also known as the Midsummer Derby, features the top 3-year-olds in the country. Mage, the Kentucky Derby winner, is working toward racing in the Travers. He could first run in the Jim Dandy Stakes, the local prep for the Travers, on July 29. Arcangelo, the Belmont Stakes champion, is already on the grounds.
The Whitney Stakes on Aug. 5, for older dirt horses, is among the most important and prestigious races in the world. Highlighting this year’s edition is Cody’s Wish, who has won six straight races but will attempt to run 1⅛ miles for only the second time. He finished third at nine furlongs in a maiden race at Saratoga in 2021.
Fast sprinters, headlined by Elite Power, square off in the Vanderbilt Handicap on July 29. Elite Power has won six straight races, including an allowance at Saratoga in 2022. The 5-year-old could additionally run in the Forego at 7 furlongs on Aug. 26.
The Jockeys: Irad is King of Strong Colony
A key factor in making your horse racing predictions is the jockey, and the best in the world alway congregate at Saratoga. At the top of the list is Irad Ortiz Jr., who won his fourth riding title at Saratoga in 2022 with 55 wins. “It’s amazing every time you have a chance to win a meet here,’’ Ortiz told the media. “It’s a lot of work and dedication.”
Flavien Prat and Luis Saez tied for a distant second with 41 and should continue to receive live mounts. Joel Rosario (39) and Jose Ortiz (36) rounded out the top five in the star-studded colony. Rosario won a record 12 graded stakes last year. The Ortiz brothers have won seven of the last eight titles (Saez, 2001). And then there’s John Velazquez, the all-time leader at Saratoga with more than 1,000 wins, including 22 in 2022.
It is hard to find value when betting online with those jockeys, so keep an eye on Dylan Davis and Junior Alvarado. Davis, the son of former New York jockey Robbie Davis, and Alvarado combined to win with only 10 percent of their mounts at Saratoga in 2022, but frequently earned assignments from live trainers such as Hall of Famers Mark Casse and Bill Mott.
The Trainers: What Can Brown Do for You?
Another strong consideration in your horse racing picks is the trainer. Chad Brown won his fifth Saratoga title in the last seven years in 2022 with 42 winners, four more than Todd Pletcher. The latter has won an eye-popping 14 titles at Saratoga. Christophe Clement (18) was well back in third, an indication of Brown and Pletcher’s dominance as the pair won a combined 22 percent of their races in 2022, and the last 12 titles at Saratoga.
Bill Mott, who trains Cody’s Wish and Elite Power, loves to celebrate his birthday at the Spa. Mott turns 70 on July 29, when Elite Power is expected to run in the Vanderbilt. Mott has won at least one race at Saratoga on 16 of his birthdays, but not since 2018.
Two Phil’s sadly retired after sustaining an ankle injury last month, but a pair of conditioners named Phil try to validate efficient seasons at Saratoga. Phillip Bauer went 6-for-13 while Phil Serpe was 6-for-16 at the Spa last year.
The Betting: Be Aware of the Graveyard
Saratoga is known as the Graveyard of Favorites, so remember that when venturing to the racebook. The famous moniker, though, really stems from two races. It began when Upset upset Man o’ War in 1919 and returned to glory as Onion stunned Secretariat in 1973. The latest major upset occurred in 2015 when Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner American Pharoah finished second in the Travers. Statistically, favorites tend to win a few percentage points lower than the national average.
Speed generally rules on the dirt at Saratoga, so beware of short-priced closers. The turf courses are more friendly to come-from-behind types, but not those with outside posts. A good opportunity to make money is to bet against a big favorite starting from post nine or higher on the turf. Outside posts also do not fare well in dirt routes.