…but I love it. There really is nothing in handicapping horse races like diving into a card at Saratoga. There are so many appetizing longshots that oftentimes it’s hard to choose just two or three in a given race. There’s also the pleasure of seeing such top class horses as Jackson Bend and Caixa Eletronica nearly every day of the meet. And lest we forget the two-year-old races, which are usually totally inscrutable and likely to be more numerous than ever before this year. I couldn’t be more ready.
Tomorrow, I’ll be making my usual trip to Monmouth Park, but the live races will have to play second fiddle to Saratoga as far as my wagering is concerned. It’s hard to get excited about a steady diet of $10,000 claimers when there are race like Friday’s opener at the Spa to decipher:
Race 1: Optional Claiming $50,000/Allowance N2X at one mile on the turf
You have runners coming from so many different directions and varying class levels that it’s hard to know where to start when handicapping this race. So let’s begin with the likely overbet favorite, Salto. Salto has spent most of his career in France under the tutelage of trainer Freddie Head. He accomplished some very nice things in his native country, finishing second to Roderic O’Connor in the Criterium International (G1) as a two-year-old and winning a listed stakes race at three. Last November, he accompanied his stablemate Goldikova to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup and competed in the Commonwealth Turf Stakes (G3), in which he finished fifth as the favorite. Since then, he has been transferred into the care of Todd Pletcher and has strung together a line of quick local turf works coming into this spot. Salto will be tough to beat, no doubt, but I’m picking against, not really because of any negative view of the horse, but because I believe there are other talented runners in here at what will surely be better odds.
When choosing your selections in this race, you must first make a decision about the pace. On the surface, Writingonthewall is the only confirmed frontrunner. I’m against him, mostly because I don’t think he’s good enough, but also because I think he will face early pressure from stretchout sprinters Artest and Silver Menace. A solid pace means a more fairly run race, which was something Voodoo Storm (#9) did not experience last time when testing graded stakes company in the Poker (G3). That day, the horses who were close to the pace early basically ran around the track that way and sprinted home the final quarter in 22 4/5 seconds, making it pretty much impossible for the closers to make an impact. Voodoo Storm was inexplicably reserved over 10 lengths off this pace and not surprisingly could not make much of a dent in that deficit. However, prior to the Poker, he earned a 91 Beyer in a career best runner-up effort to the very good Za Approval. A repeat of that race and a fair pace should make him very tough to hold off in the stretch. I’m hoping this son of Voodoo Dancer, runner-up in the Diana, can get my Saratoga started off on the right foot.
$10 Win 9
Race 6: Claiming $20,000 at 1 1/16 miles on the turf
This is another humdinger of a race, but it’s made a little easier due to the presence of a horse that I have no choice but to pick. Every once in a while you come across a horse that contains all the components you look for in a live longshot and today that horse is Slambino (#6). Slambino recently changed trainers to George Weaver after making his previous 43 starts for Frank Alexander. This may not seem that significant based on yearly percentages, but Weaver has won with a whopping 36% of runners making their first start for his barn. I feel that this is especially important for a horse like Slambino, who at the age of seven, may just need a little change of scenery to wake him up a bit. Another thing I can’t ignore is the $20,000 claiming tag, the lowest of Slambino’s career. Last year at this time he was running in much tougher optional claiming races similar to today’s first race. Although he was dull at Gulfstream this winter and once again faces one of his arch rivals, Unaccountable, who usually gets the measure of him, I can’t ignore the likely price difference between Slambino and the other contenders. He’s listed at 15-1 on the morning line and based on the way this horse has been ignored at the windows in the past, I believe it could be accurate even though I would deem fair odds to be around 6-1. (I still remember him winning here at 88-1 a few summers ago.) Horses like the aforementioned Unaccountable, Tapanna, Red Leader, and Beckham Bend have all been facing weaker competition lately and are likely to be shorter odds than Slambino. Now usually this horse shows up or he doesn’t, so I’m hoping he’s coming into the race in good condition and has found the right spot with this very logical drop in class. Due to what I’m hoping will be a major overlay, I’m making him my first…
BEST BET OF THE DAY: $20 Win 6
Race 7: Maiden special weight at one mile on the turf
There is a “Horse to Watch” entered in this spot, Geisha Gal (#13), but she’s stuck on the also eligible list needing three scratches to draw in, so I’m going to analyze the race assuming she is not a part of it.
I see a pair of interesting price plays in here. Gloat (#3) is making her second start for trainer Shug McGaughey after an unsuccessful debut on the dirt last fall at Belmont. That doesn’t concern me so much since her pedigree strongly tilts towards turf. She is a half-sister to multiple graded turf/synthetic stakes winner Parading and is by solid turf sire Mr. Greeley. She has also been putting in some very quick works down at Belmont over the last month and may be ready for a much better effort off the layoff.
Living My Dream (#10) ran the sort of even debut race that suggests she may want more distance. Today she gets blinkers and stretches out around two turns with Javier Castellano climbing aboard so I’m not going to be surprised to see her show much more speed today. Mike Maker has very good numbers with second time starters and horses putting blinkers on for the first time. Living My Dream has some solid turf influences on her dam’s side and would be a bargain at her morning line odds of 10-1.
$5 Win 3
$5 Win 10
Race 10: Maiden claiming $25,000 at five and one half furlongs on the turf
Momentum Investor (#11) is my pick in a very competitive opening day finale. He didn’t draw so well and will have to show more speed than he has to date, but there are too many positive signs to ignore with this colt. Firstly, his trainer, Terri Pompay has excellent stats with horses going from maiden special weights to maiden claimers and with horses making their first starts on turf (27% with a $4.68 ROI). Momentum Investor has raced only twice, both times in dirt sprints, but took part, on April 7th, in one of the most productive key races of the year. The top four finishers all came back to win and many others came back to greatly improve their Beyer speed figures. Momentum Investor did improve a bit next time, but his pedigree suggests that turf is the surface that will really move him forward. His dam, Swift Alliance, has produced a couple of very nice turf winners and he gets more turf influences from his sire, Hard Spun. He could get lost in the shuffle in this very tough race.
$10 Win 11
Race 8: Jackson Bend and Caixa Eletronica will probably vie for favoritism in the James Marvin, but I believe Jackson Bend is the much more likely winner so long as Rosie Napravnik can avoid the sort of impatient ride that Corey Nakatani employed to get him beat in the Met Mile. When he’s on his game, he is the best seven furlong horse in the country and I’m thinking Nick Zito has him primed for his best at this Saratoga meet. He is great value at anything over even money. I’ll lean on him heavily in multi-race bets.
Plus, it’s always easy to root for former Horses to Watch that scored for us and Jackson Bend is just that as one of our Alumni.
Race 9: Handicapping the Schuylerville is usually a matter of determining which of these lightly raced fillies seems most likely to take a step forward off their first one or two races. I’m going to bank on that filly being Fully Living (#5), who had to endure an inside chasing trip in her debut and still out-gamed today’s rival Can’t Explain for the victory. She should love the extra furlong since her dam is a half-sister to Two Year Old Champion Filly Halfbridled and I like that McPeek has taken plenty of time and put quite a bit of work into her since her debut. I’ll take a small stab with her:
$5 Win 5