It has been a staple of Open competition at Saratoga Casino and Raceway that when a horse records a win in a feature race, they usually are forced to draw an outside post (if not THE outside post) in their following start. A horse who may have been an odds-on favorite had he drawn inside becomes perhaps one of the longer shots in the race because of being assigned that outside post. Conversely, some of the less impactful horses participating in Opens wind up being assigned inside posts to help try to make them competitive due to the obvious advantage of starting from, say, posts one and two on a half mile track. The Fillies and Mares Open has become the regular Friday feature in recent years while Saturday nights showcase the track’s top Open Pacers with the Open Trot being the Sunday afternoon feature. That schedule has remained the same this year but the weekend features have taken on a whole new look here in the early stages of 2016.
Beginning on the season’s opening weekend, the Opens at Saratoga have all been contested at a distance of a mile and 1/16. In 2015, there were several races per week being run at the elongated distance while some were even raced as sprints covering a distance of 11/16 of a mile. While the differing distances went away around the midpoint of last year, the 2016 campaign has seen the return of 1 1/16 mile competition. Race secretary PJ Iovino began the elongated Opens as a bit of an experiment, one that is still in the process of playing out. By starting the feature races a 1/16 of a mile early, horses have more time in the straightaway before heading into the first turn thus neutralizing the effectiveness of the inside posts and creating a bit action early in the race. What often happens in the 1 1/16 mile races is the opening quarters are usually hotly contested with a host of leavers jockeying for early position. In theory, the longer distance benefits the leaver because now the horses who are quickest off the gate have more time to overcome an outside post and to utilize their early speed. Contrastingly, the distance can benefit closers because since so often there are several leavers in a race, the fractions wind up being very fast in the early going setting the table for the closers who have sat back early. Also, these closers have the extra distance and time to overcome the task of coming from behind. Essentially, this distance variation was put in place to change some of the advantages or stigmas attached to half mile racing and to create a more competitive race in the feature on a Friday or Saturday evening or on a Sunday matinee program.
What has occurred in years past in local Opens remains the case this year and the “stronger” horses are often assigned outside posts. If a horse, for example, won the Open last week, he or she is usually assigned the outside post or draws in the outside lot. The race may have posts 1-5 and 6-8 drawn in lots for example with the 6, 7 and 8 being the horses who are perceived as the strongest or sharpest in the field. Early on this season, though, while the action has been hot and heavy early on in these feature races, the advantages of drawing the inside posts have fallen by the wayside. For years, a horse who may not necessarily be an Open caliber horse may wind up squaring off against Open competitors but to help compensate for maybe being a bit “over his head” may be assigned post one or two. Oftentimes, the rail (post one) is such an advantage that even the horse who is battling better horses winds up being a threat and sometimes even prevailing in the Open. This year, while the 1 1/16 mile races have had action and oftentimes resulted in some great stretch drives and blanket finishes, the inside post positions have not only not helped the horse who may be a notch below Open caliber but it has seemed to significantly hurt said horse’s chances.
Here are some numbers to show that the inside post horses have just not been competitive enough in the Opens thus far this year. At the conclusion of last weekend’s action, there had been 24 1 1/16 mile races contested thus far this year. In those starts, not one horse starting from post one has prevailed. There has been one winner from post position two and just one that started from post three. Only two horses starting from the rail has even hit the board in the 24 races! So much for half mile racing benefitting the inside posts. Well, kind of. The 1 1/16 mile distance races basically make it so that it is not really half mile racing. The place to be is the center of the track as there has been six winners from the four hole, seven winners from post five, five from post six and four from post seven. There weren’t any horses from post eight who recorded victories although far less than half of the elongated distance races had as many as eight horses competing. Though it is still a relatively small sample size, it is clear that posts four and five are the places to be in the 1 1/16 mile races (with the six and seven holes not far behind) and that the inside posts have offered a distinct disadvantage.
While the experimental phase of racing elongated distances in the local features is still ongoing, there will be some changes made beginning this week. Instead of the “weaker” horses who traditionally may have needed inside posts to be competitive at an Open level drawing inside, the stronger horses in the race will be assigned inside or will be drawing within the inside lot. This Friday will be the first installment of the new look features as the Winners Over for Fillies and Mares will have the two strongest participants starting from their assigned posts of one and two. In previous weeks, Bettorhaveanother and Campanile would have been assigned posts six and seven in the feature but with the adjustments being made starting this week, the top two mares in the field will each have to start from an inside post, a scenario that should make for a more well-balanced race. We will see how things transpire this week in the Saturday and Sunday Opens but most likely we will see the horses who had been assigned outside posts start with the slight negative handicap of the inside positions. It will be interesting to see how much different the Opens look in this and future weeks as the “longshots” will now be starting from the catbird post positions of four, five and six. Though the look of the Opens continues to change and will likely see some more tweaking in the near future, the 1 1/16 mile distance racing appears to be here to stay.
Live racing takes place on Thursdays starting at 4pm and continues on Friday and Saturday nights beginning at 6:45pm. Sunday matinees begin each week at 12:15pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!