January. Winter racing on cold days.
You can’t get much farther removed from the glorious summer days at Saratoga and Del Mar, can you?
While some tracks in warmer climes provide some semblance of the summer sport even during the doldrums of winter, the differences between racing in summer and racing in January extend well beyond a shift in average outdoor temperature. Actually, handicapping races in January requires a specialized approach and a slightly different mindset than during the summer.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind for boosting your winter handicapping skills….
Check the Weather (Often!)
Wet weather is part of winter in many areas of the country, so don’t count on a fast main track and a firm turf course the way you might at other times of year. If turf racing is scheduled at all, check the weather forecasts to see if precipitation is on the way and have a backup plan in case the grass races are transferred to the main track. Be prepared for sloppy tracks. And if frigid temperatures are forecast, don’t invest a lot of time handicapping a race card that might well get cancelled.
Know How Tracks Respond to Rain
As an extension of the above, some dirt tracks play very differently when they’re wet compared to when they’re dry. A great example is Santa Anita
, which frequently presents a rather dull main track on dry days. This is quite a contrast to six or eight years ago when Santa Anita had a reputation for being extremely fast, but when rain hits, the Santa Anita of old can still reemerge. On January 12th, 2019, the track was labeled “wet fast” and front-runners repeatedly won sprints after setting fractions of :21-and-change and :43-and-change.
Remember, the Champions Are Hibernating
Many of North America’s best horses are getting time off during the month of January, particularly top-tier Kentucky Derby
contenders awaiting races in February or March, which means the door can be open for lesser-known runners to shine on big stages. Just check out the recent La Canada Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, where veteran mares from Arizona and New Mexico ran first and second. Don’t just assume that a maiden or allowance winner isn’t good enough to compete in a graded stakes race, or that a shipper from Turfway Park or Laurel Park can’t be competitive in Florida. Against the right field, horses that you wouldn’t typically consider can be surprisingly competitive in high-class races during the quiet month of January.
Some Horses Like the Cold
Examine the past performances of enough horses, and you’re bound to come across examples of runners who are superior during the winter months when temperatures are cooler. A few recent examples of horses known for their cold-weather preferences are Irish War Cry and Divisidero, who have been known to falter in hot weather and rebound when temperatures drop. Or how about Green Gratto, that wily old veteran who made a habit of finding his best stride during the winter months at Aqueduct? His 54-1 upset in the 2017 Carter Handicap (gr. I) ranks among the biggest Grade 1 upsets in recent memory.
In other words, it’s a good habit to take at least a brief glance at the lifetime past performances of every horse in a race, particularly longshots. If they’ve shown a tendency to “wake up” during the winter and disappoint during the summer, you might be able to bank on form reversals when winter comes again.
Good luck, and may your January wagers be profitable!