How to Beat Saratoga!

By Rich Nilsen


Nothing like Saratoga racing in the summer

How can one possibly beat Saratoga, one of the toughest meets that handicappers will face all year long? The top barns converge on the beautiful upstate New York track every summer, and the money of horseplayers everywhere follows in droves. Pools are plentiful, but so are the contentious races. And it is those contentious races that can make Saratoga racetrack so difficult to beat.

I have been going to “the Spa” since I was a young boy. In fact the first trip I know of, there were a couple of two years olds by the name of Affirmed and Alydar running that day. My Dad liked Alydar. My Mom and brother, neither of whom knew how to handicap, were on Affirmed. I guess this was my first lesson that handicapping can be a humbling game.

Over the past several years I have skipped my trip to Saratoga and instead watched this fabulous meet from the comfort of my home. However, that is changing this year as I head back to Saratoga in August. I can’t wait! There is nothing like Saratoga racing in the summer. For a horse racing fan it doesn’t get much better.

There are several facets of Saratoga that every handicapper should know, and there are some strategies that I recommend for beating the upcoming 2012 meet or at least putting the percentages in your favor over 95 percent of the wagering public.

How the Tracks Play

On most days the Saratoga main track plays very kindly to speed horses. It can be very difficult to make a wide move on the turn for home, sustain that run and get up for the win. The predominant speed bias, of course, is more prevalent the shorter the distance, but on many days, the tracks favors speed in all of the dirt races.

However, there is always a range of days at Saratoga when the speed bias not only disappears but the track starts to strongly favoring closers. This is one of the most important times of the meet for the serious player. Catch on to this reverse bias early enough and you could “make your entire meet” in a matter of days. It will happen so keep an eye out for it.

In my opinion the two turf courses can be very inconsistent, especially from one year to the next. Just because the inner turf course favored closers in one mile races last year doesn’t mean that is going to happen in 2012. In general both turf courses give the edge to closers, but there are plenty of races and plenty of days when that is not the case.

Do beware of the inside posts in the now commonly-run 5 1/2 furlong turf sprints. The rail (one post) has only had four winners from the last 129 races. That is pretty remarkable; especially when you consider that every turf sprint features a horse breaking from the rail. Middle and outside posts are the best draws in this swiftly run races.

Winning Strategies for the Spa

Have a game plan. How often do we approach an important meet like this and we have no idea what we are hoping to accomplish and how we are going to wager from one day to the next. The overwhelming majority of players, myself included, oftentimes just shoot from the hip. We will make plays based on the races we handicap and “who we like.” We will make all sorts of bets, from straight wagers to stabs at the Pick Six.

The better choice is decide what your game plan is going to be prior to opening day. It is certainly fine to make various types of bets, but you may want to focus most of your wagering strategy on one or two bet types.  Maybe you are good at structuring Trifecta or Pick-4 wagers. Well, there you go. Having a game plan falls right into the next suggestion.

Pick your spots. This is the key to beating the meet. You are not going to finish ahead by the time Labor Day rolls around if you are playing every available race at the Spa. This simply isn’t going to happen, with rare exceptions.

Needless to say, this is good advice year-round for horseplayers but especially so for Saratoga due to all the contentious races. Handicappers looking to turn a profit over the 40 days have to pick their spots. Focus on the races you excel at and avoid the ones you typically don’t have a good handle on. You know what they are, so use that knowledge to your advantage. Or pay the consequences.

More Advice

Keep a horses to watch list starting…yesterday. Follow the action every day and take note of horses who were “up against it” for various reasons. It may be a typical Saratoga speed bias and you see a horse that made a strong wide, middle move only to flatten out in the lane behind the gate-to-wire winner. Or maybe it is a contender who breaks from the rail in a turf sprint and encounters a difficult trip as a result. There are numerous, valid reasons why horses don’t run well. We will offer any troubled trips runners we see in our FREE “Off the Charts” Trip Notes feature here at

Know the barns that win, and the ones that don’t. Typically, some of the best claiming barns during the other 10 months of the year (at both Aqueduct and Belmont Park) hit the skids when they come to Saratoga. There are exceptions to this rule, such as Richard Dutrow and Rudy Rodriguez, who learned his trade under Dutrow.

Trainer Chad Brown, who apprenticed under the great Bobby Frankel, may not be a household name, yet, but he has been the best trainer to follow and support over the past two years. Brown, unlike many trainers, wins at a high percentage in all types of races. Two of his best categories are runners making their second start off a layoff and claimers dropping in class.

Trainer Todd Pletcher is the leading horsemen and almost always over bet. Look for every opportunity you can to beat the Pletcher-trained underlays. Surprisingly, Pletcher has been very poor in turf races over the past few years, hitting only 14 percent. I don’t have the specific numbers, but can you imagine how many of his losers on the lawn were 4-1 or less.  Instead, look for opportunities to play solid grass trainers such as Chad Brown, Bill Mott, Linda Rice, Tom Proctor, Jonathan Shepard, George Weaver, both Dutrows, and Kiaran McLaughlin.

Keep an eye on the weather. There are few meets where Mother Nature can wreak havoc more than at Saratoga. If you are handicapping a day or two out, be sure to check the weather forecast before you waste time handicapping a turf race that might not happen.

If the races do come off the lawn, and the track is indeed wet, be sure to closely examine each horse’s record for their off-track performances. Horses with proven fondness for the slop or mud are the ones most likely to succeed on a wet main track at the Spa. Think long and hard before you wager your dollars on a horse that either lacks a wet track pedigree or lacks a proven record on that type of going.


You can enjoy the best meet in the country without wagering on every race. Pick your spots, be prepared and focus on your strengths. If the race is too tough, pass.  Sit back and watch as you may see a horse or horses to bet on later in the meet.

Best of luck!

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is a 19-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.


  1. Bill Jacobs says

    Very well written blog. I’ve been a student of handicapping since reading my first book named, “The Complete Horse Player”, by Tom Ainsle. His “Million Dollar Move” has more than kept me alive in the game. I was a guest at a seminal in Hot Springs, and had found one of these moves, explained it, horse won and paid double digits. I agree with you on your main point – you must pay attention if you are serious.

    Bill Jacobs
    Lafayette, LA

  2. Rashelkhane says

    This is an interesting post,
    thanks for your details. i enjoy this site.

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