By: William G. Gotimer, Jr.
Another Saratoga race meeting is upon us and just as they have for more than 150 years, handicappers will scan past performances and use handicapping tools new and old to discern winners and value. While the tools have been greatly expanded over the years with easy access to video replay and ever more sophisticated speed and pace figures, the mission remains the same – pick winners. Any handicapper will tell you how frustrating the chase can be but also how rewarding. Like many things in life the pursuit is as enjoyable as the victory, but when victory is elusive the frustrations mount.
This article is meant to explore how and why the Saratoga race meet is different. I like to say the race meeting is about humans not horses, which is a departure from the norm at most times at most racetracks. Saratoga is a high profile niche meet that holds historical and aesthetic significance beyond dollars and cents, and when dollars and cents are in play they often exceed those that are earned or won on the track. For that reason there is an additional element that is hard to quantify in a pace figure or on paper – it is human emotion and desire.
Those of us who have owned or trained horses will tell you how difficult it is to win a race anywhere at any time. The winner’s circle is a goal that proves elusive to all but one in each race and there are a million ways to lose a race. Each trip to the Winner’s Circle should be enjoyed as the accomplishment it is regardless of the time of year or conditions under which it occurs, but human nature being what it is, it simply is not. The Winner’s Circle before a sparse or grizzled crowd of gamblers simply does not compare to that during big days or big meets such as Saratoga. Similarly, the congratulations one gets for winning a race in New York City or other area where racing is not on everyone’s mind cannot compare with being congratulated by friends new and old as you walk down Saratoga’s streets or eat and drink in Saratoga’s many restaurants and bars. It is simply a high whose value exceeds its cost.
Similarly, a splashy performance by a runner at Saratoga during sales week can slingshot its’ sire to unexpected levels in that week’s select sales. An eye-popping first time starter by a new sire is immeasurably more valuable sales week than it is the rest of the year and this is not lost on the human connections. It is not a coincidence that two year maiden special weights are full in the days preceding the yearling sales and it is not uncommon for owners to save well-meant first time starters for that week in hopes of sparking interest in the bloodlines.
The battle for sire supremacy can even extend into the races on the track. The way in which last year’s Travers Stakes, which saw American Pharoah defeated for the only time last year, was a surprise to many handicappers but not so surprising when one realizes that more than purse money was on the line.
In the race were horses owned by the titans of the stud world – Coolmore and Godolphin. American Pharoah riding the crest of his awesome performances throughout his Triple Crown and Haskell sweep was poised to stamp himself as the desired sire of the next five years. His opponent, Frosted, was owned by the other stud powerhouse – Godolphin (who years earlier had recognized the importance of Saratoga in making a stallion by bringing Street Cry to run there after winning the Dubai World Cup in 2002,) had every reason to see to it that American Pharoah had a blemish on his three year old record. It is therefore no real surprise that Frosted’s rider took the one-time tact of tackling American Pharoah’s speed from the outset in effectively costing Frosted all chance for victory but making American Pharoah’s victory far less likely.
These and other emotional and personal reasons make winning at Saratoga more rewarding to certain connections than winning elsewhere, even if the overall annual dollars earned are fewer by waiting for the spa meet. You cannot underestimate this in your handicapping lest you miss otherwise unlikely winners. Each year I see solid handicappers shake their heads in disbelief at winners that stood out to me based upon this method of handicapping people not horses. With that said where do you begin?
No discussion of aiming for Saratoga would be complete without a discussion of one of the grandest Saratoga-aimers of all-time- G.P. Odom. George Odom known as Major or Maje since he was a child was born in 1906 and was winning races at Saratoga until 1987. From a racing family (his father was a jockey and trainer, and part of the 1955 inaugural class of inductees to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame) he went to Columbia University and then to work on Wall Street in 1930. He was quoted as saying “Bad timing. People were jumping out of windows so fast you had to watch out or they’d fall on you and crush you. Then in 1932, President Roosevelt declared the bank holiday. Well, I went to the races for the holiday and stayed there.”
Maje Odom loved to cash a bet and it has been recalled that he won so much money on his 1938 Belmont Stakes winner – Pasteurize – surviving a foul claim at a plush 8-1 in a six horse field – that he bought an airplane! When later in his career he ceased training a public stable he settled into training primarily for he and his wife Mary and aimed for Saratoga. Each year he would start in March or April on the farm, have the requisite public works at Delaware Park in the months leading to Saratoga and head to the spa ready for bear. He won a race at Saratoga nearly every year until his final starter Waggley won on August 23rd 1987. They were always well-meant and fast, and many were first time starters or off a lay-off. More often than not they scored as planned. To those who remembered from year to year it was a ritual and meant all was right with the world when one of his horses was well-bet and ran to it at Saratoga. Those that didn’t remember got to tear up tickets.
Today trainer statistics are readily available and Maje Odom’s 30% winning percentage would be common knowledge. But what about the less obvious owner statistics? We all know of the owners who actively seek the owner title and run horses every day in all sorts of spots to garner wins. They command most of the attention but what is more difficult to discern are the owners who aim for this meet but have limited starters. This article is meant to draw your attention to them as a warning to remember what you see in the Racing Form or speed numbers doesn’t capture everything.
Every trainer would relish the type of owner who would instruct them that making money was not the top priority but having a horse in top form for Saratoga was. Making an owner satisfied by having a horse in top form in a six week window allows the trainer to plan accordingly and seek the proper spot to accomplish the goal. It is a luxury many round the year owners don’t have but one that provides a distinct advantage on the racetrack and at the betting window. There are many trainers who get this instruction each year from long-time owners but some are new to the owner and receive the same instruction.
Below is my list of owners who tend to run better at Saratoga than elsewhere. Including their horses even when conventional handicapping tools and methods don’t point to them, will provide you with an opportunity to have a few hidden winners and even more live competitors at compelling prices.
Owner names to watch include:
-Peter J. Callahan
– the family of the late Harry C. Meyerhoff (owner of Spectacular Bid)
-R. Larry Johnson
– William L. Clifton, Jr.
– Roy S. Lerman
– Roddy J. Valente
– Patricia Generazio (Jim Ryerson division)
– Morris Bailey
– Sovereign Stable,
– former Seattle Slew owners Jim and Susan Hill,
– William C. Schettine,
– Timber Bay Farms (Estate of William Entenmann);
– Hudson River Farms
– Alex G. Campbell, Jr.
– Mrs. Fitriani Hay
– Gilbert G. Campbell
Each of these owners, for varying reasons, finds the added excitement and fun that a win at Saratoga brings worth striving for all year. What is more important is that each of them has proven they know how to target Saratoga successfully. Scanning the owner listings each morning for these owners will yield surprising results.
Saratoga racing – it’s as much about people as it is about horses.