Another Saratoga race meeting, albeit a strange one, has recently ended and despite the lack of on track fans, handicappers scanned past performances and used 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.
This article is meant to explore how and why the Saratoga race meet is different than most. I like to say the race meeting is about humans not horses. Saratoga is a high-profile niche meet that holds historical and aesthetic significance beyond dollars. Often when dollars and cents are in play those off the track often exceed those that are earned 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 and that 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. Due to its high profile a win at Saratoga simply has a high value that exceeds its cost.
Notably in normal years, 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
These emotional and less obvious 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.
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 23, 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 connections who aim for this meet but have limited starters.
Below is my list of owners who tend to run better at Saratoga than elsewhere who even in this very odd year showed peak performance in Saratoga. Mark them for next year as well. 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.
Trainers to watch:
• James Bond – that’s worth repeating James Bond. A locally based family operation that absolutely excels at Saratoga.
• David Donk – the phrase “Honk if you like Donk” will echo in your head as one long priced winner after anther hits the wire first.
• Roy S. Lerman – very few runners, very long prices but springs in the money finishes each year
Owners to watch include:
• Peter J. Callahan • William L. Clifton, Jr.
• Roy S. Lerman • Roddy J. Valente
• Patricia Generazio • Alex G. Campbell, Jr.
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.