Gazette handicapper Matt Donato looks back at the Saratoga horse racing season


Summer officially ended the moment that Happy Hill Lil and jockey Eric Cancel crossed the finish line. That final race of the 2021 Saratoga meet completed a series of uncharacteristic races when compared to the 427 that were run overall. In each of the day’s final four races, the winner paid double digits on a $2 wager. The final $0.50 Pick 4 paid $6,411.50.

The implication of a high-paying winner, of course, is that the result is a bit of a surprise to the viewers. As a collective whole, the betting public has correctly identified the winning horse, by means of it being the off favorite, in 33.5% of all races at Saratoga from 2014-2021. Identifying winners is no easy task.

However, in the 2021 meet, we all as a studious and insightful forecasting collective, outperformed the mean when it came to picking winners at Saratoga. The off-favorite in 2021 was correct in 37.7% of all races this meet, a 4.25% increase on the recent average and a full 5% improvement on the 2020 meet. Those percentages may not seem significant at first, but they represent a 24-win improvement for the betting public over the 2020 meet.

It is easy to suggest that the variable between the two years was COVID-19, and that there were not fans in the 2020 meet, but the statistics behind the 2020 meet suggest it was a fairly average year, and the public fared about equally to 2020 in the 2017 and 2014 meets, and was far better than the 2018 and 2015 meets. This shows that 2021 was far better than average. In fact, of the last eight years tracked, 2021 is the public’s second best showing, trailing only 2019 in win percentage by .4%.

Betting favorites does not tend to produce a positive return on investment in the long run, though, but there were specific types of races where betting the favorite this year would have been lightly profitable. In dirt races, the public identified the winner in 55% of both claiming races and maiden claiming races. In turf races, the public identified the winner in 40% of maiden claimers and 46% of Stakes races. When spread out over the last eight meets, tailing the public in those types of races is not profitable, but it does align closely to where the public has been the most accurate during that stretch.

This column saw a similar improvement in the 2021 meet, giving out 27 more winners than 2020 and a win percentage increase of 6.25%. The final stats here were 122 winners in 413 races, good for a 29.5% hit rate. The improvement can likely be attributed, in part, both to the overall increase in morning-line and off-favorites winning in 2021, as well as the shift in the deployment of the algorithm used to pick horses for this column. Whereas in 2020, the algorithm was the whole product, this year it was used more as a tool which could be overridden when more evidence was presented. This year’s data has presented more theories which will be tested to further improve the means of selection for the 2022 meet.

The Saratoga meet was not just about the numbers. The performances of Essential Quality, Malathaat, Jackie’s Warrior, and Max Player are among so many that will stand out from this year. Chad Brown taking the trainer title after starting 2-for-21. Luis Saez having to be considered no matter who he was riding. The 2-year-olds who made a name for themselves this summer, like Wit and Echo Zulu, who we can only hope continue to continue to grow as racers until we can see them again next year. There is plenty to reflect on now that Happy Hill Lil has crossed the racing equinox.

Categories: Sports

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