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How to Pick the Winner of the Belmont

The Belmont Stakes will be run at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday while Belmont Park gets rebuilt, and it will be one of the few times of the year that casual sports fans pay attention to horse racing.

If you are one of them, you may find the idea of picking the winner of a horse race somewhat daunting. So much data is available: What should you look at? What to ignore?

Please don’t throw up your hands and just pick a name or number that you like. With the help of some experts, we’re going to give you the basics, so that when the race finishes, you can join those at the rail shouting “I got it!” and feel just a little smarter than those poor souls around you tearing up their tickets.

Each horse’s last few races. How fast did it run them?

“The most important factor is how fast a horse can run from point A to point B,” said Steven Crist, a former horse racing reporter and columnist for The New York Times who wrote the book “Exotic Betting” about how to tackle complex bets. But “you can’t rely on raw time, because tracks can yield faster or slower times from day to day, and some surfaces are always quicker than others.”

Andy Serling, who hosts a daily handicapping show, “Talking Horses,” that airs at New York Racing Association tracks, agreed. “We’d like to find the fastest horse,” he said. “How you determine that is the hard part.”

Crist noted a helpful stat that addresses all these variables: speed figures. The higher a horse’s speed figure, the faster it is.

Both Crist and Serling recommend Beyer Speed Figures, which are printed in The Daily Racing Form, the long-running horse racing newspaper, which includes statistical data about racing. (Crist once worked for The Form, as did I, more than 20 years ago.) “Look for the horses’ last three speed figures,” Serling said. “That would do a reasonable job of finding the fastest horse.”

But be wary. A horse that can run fast in a grass race will not necessarily match that on dirt. And a sprinter might be a lot slower in a long race.

“The next most important handicapping factor is whether the distance of today’s race is right for the horse,” Crist said.

Your horse’s running style.

In the program or Racing Form, a horse will have a series of numbers for each race showing where it was at various points. A line like “21211” shows a horse that was in or close to the lead the whole race: a front-runner. If the line reads “85321,” the horse started slowly and passed others to win: a closer.

“If you can find a race where there’s only one real front-runner, that horse could have an edge,” Serling said. “If a race has quite a few horses with speed, that would favor horses that come from behind.”

Weight, post positions and weather.

Horses carry a certain amount of weight each race: 126 pounds in the Belmont. That is the combined weight of the jockey, saddle and so on.

If you read a handicapping book from the ’40s or ’50s, you’ll find an obsession with weight. Pundits would be convinced that a horse that won carrying 124 pounds would lose next time because it had to carry 126.

But racehorses are big and strong — 1,000 pounds or so. A couple extra pounds on board won’t make much difference.

Crist cited post positions as an overrated factor.

In the days before a big race, there is a lot of speculation about whether certain horses will get an edge by starting on the inside or the outside of the track. But races are long enough that this is a mostly marginal factor.

Another overweighted factor is the weather. In the musical “Guys and Dolls,” handicappers get excited looking at horses’ past performances and sing, “This X means the horse likes mud.”

But Serling said: “Don’t get overly caught up. Most horses run fairly similar races on wet and dry tracks. People will tell you a certain horse is a ‘mudder.’ Don’t believe them.”

The jockey is not running the race.

Since there are so many racehorses and so much to learn about them, some fans keep it simple and bet on a jockey they like instead.

“There’s a convenience to just betting your favorite jockey,” Serling said. “I’d argue that’s not a way to win. The best jockeys tend to get overbet.”

The odds.

“The key to successful wagering is in the odds,” Crist said. “Demand a price that exceeds your estimation of the horse’s chances. If you think a horse has a 25 percent chance of victory, he is a great bet at 6-1 and a terrible bet at 2-1.”

Perhaps you like Seabiscuit a tiny bit more than your second choice, Man o’ War. Don’t just blindly bet Seabiscuit without looking at the odds. Maybe Seabiscuit is 3-1 (giving you a payout of $8 for a $2 bet), but Man o’ War is 15-1 (giving you $32 back if you win). If that’s the case, you will want to take the better price.

Paradoxically enough, sometimes not betting on the best horse is the best play.

And you just want someone to tell you which of the 10 contenders is going to win the mile-and-a-quarter Belmont on Saturday, here are the picks of The New York Times’s experts, Joe Drape and Melissa Hoppert:

Drape: The Wine Steward, Sierra Leone, Antiquarian

Hoppert: Sierra Leone, Mindframe, Mystik Dan

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