Chalk is hot at Saratoga but not at Del Mar

By Ron Flatter  ( 

Long known as the “Graveyard of Favorites,” Saratoga has been anything but this summer with short-priced horses winning at an abnormally high rate. (New York Racing Association photo)

Louisville, Ky.

The taste of chalk is a bitter one, unless it is the only way back to the window to cash a bet. Then it is merely bland, albeit nourishing. So far this summer it has been worth savoring in the east and spitting out in the west.

Go figure the “Graveyard of Favorites,” or whatever nickname Saratoga is going by these days. The racetrack that supposedly gave us the term “upset” 102 years ago has been kinder and gentler to short odds in the early days of the current meet. (By the way, that “upset” origin is an urban myth. See way below.)

Of the 111 races run so far in the upstate meet, 43 were won by favorites. That is 38.7 percent, appreciably higher than the 35 percent that has been the sport’s eternal benchmark. There have been only eight winners carrying odds of at least 10-1, and three were clustered in consecutive races Saturday.

Contrast this to what has been happening at Del Mar. In a continuing trend discovered by Ed DeRosa at Brisnet, only 18 of 69 favorites have returned to the winner’s circle, or 26.1 percent. Of course, five were clustered in a span of six races on the first Sunday of the meet. The late Pick 5 paid a whopping 251-1 that day. Pffft. The Pick 6 jackpot returned only 814-1. No one was running out to buy a yacht on the back of that card. (For the sake of easy comparisons, the 20-cent and 50-cent increments have been adjusted to traditional returns on the dollar.)

Otherwise, value hunters in the right place at the right time have been rewarded at Del Mar. Of the 51 races in which favorites lost, nine have had double-digit odds at the top of the charts. Other than that one chalk-infested day, upsets have been clustered at opportune times.

Last Saturday only two favorites won at Del Mar, and chalk was defeated in the last seven races. The late Pick 5 yielded 9,394-1, and the 20-cent Pick 6 jackpot was worth 37,950-1. Exactly one week earlier the last six races produced upsets, including two winners that paid 10-1 and 12-1. The Pick 5 returned 65,044-1; the Pick 6 jackpot 1,457,046-1.

The problem is value remains a moving target. It is not, however, random. Racing secretaries know good and well how to make it difficult to win a Pick 6, the better to have a carryover to attract a bigger handle the next day. If an important race comes up short of entries, that is often the reason it is carded earlier in the day – and away from attracting fewer spread plays for the Pick 6.

What about those allowance races that always seem to end the betting day? Those are not so much get-even specials as they are a temptation to hit “all” in a horizontal wager, the better to pad the handle. David Jerkens, the racing secretary at Del Mar, earned his July paycheck by filling seven finales with fields that produced upsets to finish each day, including one winner that paid 12-1.

Back east, where the chalk has been palpable, the payouts have been far less substantial. Throw out opening day July 15 at Saratoga, when the late Pick 5 paid 10,165-1 and the Pick 6 was worth 87,741-1. Winning multi-race tickets since averaged 2,949-1 and 2,408-1, respectively, through the first two weeks of the meet. That’s right. The Pick 5 has been paying more on the dollar than the Pick 6.

The sample sizes are thin, and these things do have a way of balancing themselves out over the summer. Take Wednesday, when the late Pick 5 at Saratoga yielded 14,875-1 and the Pick 6 paid 34,870-1. It did not hurt to have a 19-1 winner in those mixes.

For now Del Mar appears to be the better track for horizontal wagers. But the raw numbers hide the impact of batch bettors, who have more incentives through a smaller stake and bigger rebates to play there than they do at Saratoga. Most of those big bucks there are probably going to computer players, so the lack of chalk burn at Del Mar, where favorites lost 7 of 8 races Thursday, may not be all it is cracked up to be.

Nevertheless, these early figures from the big summer meets can be fascinating. Frankly, they should not be either attractive or repulsive to serious horseplayers, who know good and well that trends are only as good as the horses who are carrying them in any given race. It is the ultimate expression of taking them one day at a time.

What is that old line about past performance not guaranteeing future success? Take that to the bank.

Racing notes and opinions

The run-the-table exercise is foolhardy in college football. Why should it be anything else in horse racing? Well, it is not. So take heed as this question is posed. If Essential Quality and Letruska win the rest of their races in 2021, which one will be the Horse of the Year? The answer is easy. With wins in the Belmont Stakes, Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic, it would be Essential Quality. If he were to do that, Letruska’s only path to the championship would be to take on the boys and beat them in the Classic. Since Fausto Gutiérrez said this month he expects to send his mare into the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, then it looks like it is Essential Quality’s Eclipse Award to lose. All it takes, though, is one upset to foul things up. It could conceivably come as soon as Saturday’s Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga. Facing five overmatched 3-year-old rivals, Essential Quality (1-2) is odds-on on the morning line, and he will be in real life, too. Since he is the best horse, he should win. But since he is also part of what could be a crowded group of pacesetters, I would not ignore the deep closing Keepmeinmind (6-1). I will include him underneath, but Essential Quality will be cold on top of my exacta ticket, and he will be the single when I include the Jim Dandy in multi-race wagers. The weather is forecast to be an ideally sunny 72 degrees for Saturday’s race at 5:39 p.m. EDT.

Mischevious Alex (2-1) is a curious, morning-line favorite for the six-furlong Grade 1 Vanderbilt Handicap on Saturday at 5:03 p.m. EDT. Giving away four pounds, he was still a close third to Silver State and By My Standards stretching from a sprint distance to run last month in the Met Mile. But I am not convinced his first three wins this year after being transferred to trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. were that good. The best of them would appear to be the Grade 1 Carter Handicap, but that was a wintertime race at Aqueduct, and I do not believe runner-up Mind Control belongs in that class. Firenze Fire (3-1) and reigning sprint champion Whitmore (4-1) will attract money, but they would be better bets at Belmont Park. I will take a flyer on Strike Power (15-1) to get a loose lead and keep it from gate to wire.

Even though Colonel Liam and Arklow were not entered, the Grade 2 Bowling Green should still be attractive for bettors. Eclipse Award winner Channel Maker (5-2) comes off the bench after a less than successful trip to the Middle East. He will probably set the early pace, but this is a 1⅜-mile turf race, so that may not be the ideal plan to win. I am leaning to Channel Cat (5-1), who scored a narrow victory nearly three months ago in the Grade 1 Man O’War. He tired going shorter last out in the Grade 1 Manhattan, but the pace was also hotter than it is likely to be this weekend. The time off should serve him well, too. The Bowling Green on Saratoga’s inner turf is scheduled for Saturday at 6:13 p.m. EDT.

C Z Rocket (5-2) leads a list of familiar names entered in the six-furlong Bing Crosby Stakes on Saturday at 9:36 p.m. EDT at Del Mar. Looking to get his first Grade 1 victory, the 7-year-old gelding is 4-for-8 at the distance, including back-to-back wins early this year at Oaklawn. The lightly raced 3-year-old Dr. Schivel (7-2), a Grade 1 winner at age 2, makes his second start after a nine-month break and is looking for his fourth win in a row. Flavien Prat has chosen to ride him, thinking he has more room for improvement. Instead, I will look to the stablemate that Prat is handing off to Tyler Baze. Trainer Mark Glatt’s 4-year-old Collusion Illusion (4-1) makes his first start in seven months, returning to a track where he is 3-for-3. That makes him a bird in the hand for me – and hopefully a trip back to the digital window.

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen was on an 0-for-20 schneid before he won once Wednesday and once Thursday. With 9,437 victories, he is eight away from tying the late Dale Baird to become the winningest Thoroughbred trainer in North American history. If he continues to score at the rate of nearly 1½ he has enjoyed all year, he could break the record next week. Baird’s brother, John, and nephew, Mike, discuss Asmussen’s chase on the new episode of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod.

About the word “upset.” The popular belief is that when the horse Upset upset Man O’War in the 1919 Sanford Stakes, that was the genesis for the term upset. Not so. According to, researcher George Thompson discovered the July 17, 1877, edition of The New York Times offered this racing preview: “The programme for to-day at Monmouth Park indicates a victory for the favorite in each of the first four events, but racing is so uncertain that there may be a startling upset.” It would seem, then, that Upset was named for an upset, not the other way around.

In addition to this weekly article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at This week’s episode features “Saratoga Live” TV host Laffit Pincay III previewing the Vanderbilt Handicap and Jim Dandy Stakes. John and Mike Baird remember the late Dale Baird, North America’s winningest trainer whose record is about to fall to Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. Las Vegas horseplayer and bookmaker Paul Zilm handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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