Keeneland Spring Meet Handicapping Preview

KEENELAND SPRING MEET HANDICAPPING PREVIEW

By Noel Michaels - OTB Learning Labs.com

Top class racing returns to Kentucky as Keeneland's much-anticipated Spring Meet opens for its three-week world class race meet from Friday, April 5 to Friday, April 26.  The meet will attract Polytrack fans from everywhere, and will also boast big fields, top horses, and a load of high-profile jockeys and trainers befitting the world epicenter of Thoroughbred horseracing in Lexington, Kentucky.

Since Keeneland's Spring Meet is only three weeks long, handicappers better start brushing up now on some of the things they need to know to make money at the brief, blink-and-you-miss-it meet.

Even if you don't like Polytrack, Keeneland is still well worth paying attention to for horseplayers.  The track boasts big fields loaded with betting opportunities.  Keeneland's previous spring meetings on Polytrack have averaged over 10 starters per race, and that means value for horseplayers because big prices always follow big fields.

People have the misconception that favorites win much less at Keeneland and that the track is too unpredictable to handicap reliably.  The truth is, however, that favorites have won at a 30 percent clip in Keeneland Polytrack sprints, which is pretty much the norm for racing in North America.  However, the average win payoff of in excess of $16.00 is still much higher than normal, making Keeneland a good bet if you're willing to go the extra mile in order to find overlays.

The other thing you definitely want to pay attention to at Keeneland is all the stakes racing, which during the Spring Meet has direct implications on next month's Triple Crown, as well as all of the other top stakes and allowance races at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park for the remainder of the spring.

The Keeneland spring stakes schedule will consist of 16 stakes including 15 graded stakes this year. Unlike the Fall Meet when most of the stakes are scrunched together early in the meet to accommodate the Breeders' Cup preps, the Spring Meet has a stakes schedule that is well distributed with premier races being run all throughout the meet.

The five Grade 1 races to be run at this year's Keeneland Spring Meet include the $500,000 Ashland Stakes on Saturday, April 6 (prep for the Kentucky Oaks), plus the Madison Stakes for grass fillies on April 13, the Maker's Mark Mile for male turf milers on April 13, and the Jenny Wiley along with the meet's signature Kentucky Derby prep race, the Blue Grass Stakes, on April 13 for a total of five graded stakes races on Blue Grass Day.  Keeneland's secondary Derby or Preakness prep race, the Grade 2 Lexington Stakes, will be run on Saturday, April 20.

This Saturday it's the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and Santa Anita Derby. I'll have my picks in both races along with full cards from both tracks. Click here to get on board for a Saturday of ticket-cashing! Plus these other upcoming Derby Preps are included

April 6 - Wood Memorial (Plus Full Card) - Santa Anita Derby
April 13 - Arkansas Derby (Plus Full Card)
April 13 - Blue Grass Stakes (Plus Full Card)
April 20 - Lexington Stakes
April 27 - Derby Trial

KEENELAND POLYTRACK WINNING PROFILE

Long gone are the days of Keeneland's infamous inside speed bias, which routinely favored early speed burners and front-runners who would ride the rail conveyor belt to wire-to-wire victories at low odds. The 2013 Spring Meet will be Keeneland's thirteenth Polytrack meet, and seventh Spring Meet since the track switched to Polytrack back in October, 2006.

During the Keeneland Polytrack era, the track went from being probably the single most speed-friendly track in America to being one of the more difficult tracks in the country to win on going wire-to-wire. These days, speed horses and close-to-the-lead pace-pressers certainly no longer have an advantage, especially in route races where speed is often a disadvantage with closers customarily rallying late down the center of the track.

Just when it looked like Keeneland's winning main track profile could be totally relied on to favor all closers, all the time, the track then started to change, again, a few years ago.

Instead of the speed-killing Keeneland Polytrack we saw in the years 2006-2009, the Polytrack main track at Keeneland now has totally "broken-in" over the course of the last couple of years.  Polytrack racing fans have also witnessed this phenomenon the last couple years at Del Mar, which started as an extraordinarily slow Polytrack surface at the beginning but now has changed now that it has broken in.

Since 2010, the Keeneland main track Polytrack surface could accurately be characterized as playing fair to most paths, posts, and running styles. However, no matter how fair the track at Keeneland becomes, the one thing it hasn't done - and still doesn't do - is play similarly to a conventional dirt track.  Keeneland's track plays much closer to turf racing, and still does not in any way resemble the traditional dirt track racing conducted at other venues such as Churchill Downs.

Even without its old off-the-pace bias, the truth of the matter is that Keeneland still favors off-the-pace horses over speed horses much more than Churchill Downs does.  Therefore, it is still advisable to downgrade any dirt speed horse slightly, while at the same time increasing the value of closers coming from off the pace.

KEENELAND MAIN TRACK SPRINTS

In Keeneland sprints, horses' running styles are important factors to winning or losing at Keeneland, so you definitely want to pay attention to what types of horses have had success in the past on Keeneland's unique Polytrack surface.  Based on sprint stats from the Keeneland Spring Meets in the Polytrack era, the horse you are looking for is one who can sit just off the pace.

The average Keeneland Spring meet sprint winner has been, on average, roughly a little more than two lengths off the lead after the opening half-mile.  Only 21 percent of Keeneland sprint winners have led after the opening half-mile.  Interestingly, only 12 percent of the sprint winners rally from more than 5 lengths back after the opening half-mile.

Taking all the percentages into account, all told, 60 percent of all sprint winners during the last four Keeneland Spring Meets have been on the lead or within 2 lengths of the leader after the opening half-mile.

It is also important to pay attention to a horse's post position in sprints based on the statistics from the 2012 Keeneland Fall Meet - the most recent race meet run at Keeneland. Last fall, horses breaking from the inside two post positions 1-2 fared dreadfully, with those posts winning a combined 2-for-150, with both the one-hole and the two-hole going 1-for-75. Those are brutal numbers, and they are bad enough to make any astute horseplayer cringe at playing any horse breaking from one of those two inside posts in sprints at the 2013 Keeneland Spring Meet, at least until you see some evidence that the track is playing any differently this season.

KEENELAND MAIN TRACK ROUTES

In Keeneland main track route races, one of the most important things handicappers should look for outside of the pp's when evaluating a horse is to pay special attention to the post positions.  Keep in mind that the inside post that was a disaster in Keeneland sprints at the 2012 Fall Meet, was actually very good in two-turn route races. Horses breaking from post 1 in 2012 Fall Meet routes won 9-of-46 races for a very good 20% win percentage!

Typical Keeneland main track route races feature slower paces, resulting in a more bunched-up range of speed figures and smaller margins of victory (1.60 lengths average margin of victory on Polytrack down from an average margin of victory of 3.96 lengths on the old dirt track).  This is yet another way in which Keeneland's Polytrack course seems to approximate turf racing, because the way the races are run there tend to be a lot closer to the typical North American turf race, more so than the style of a dirt race.

KEENELAND GRASS RACING

Besides Polytrack, the other main staple of the quality day-to-day racing at Keeneland is the great turf racing, which features big full fields, tons of value, and loads of good overlays. With Polytrack installed on the main track, now more than ever, the most bettable racing taking place at Keeneland is usually happening on the grass.

One thing that differentiates Keeneland from so many other places is that they routinely run on wet turf courses that are listed as yielding or something other than firm. Don't overlook these softer turf courses when looking for value, because they are often a source of some of the best longshot payoffs at the meet. Handicappers in these races often make the mistake of paying too much attention to a horse's recent form while ignoring what really matters in many of these cases. What it often boils down to is whether or not the horse can run its best race on yielding or soft turf courses. Remember that certain horses like firm turf while others prefer a little bit of give in the ground. If you can differentiate between the two, you will have a big advantage over the general public in the races run on softer turf courses.

In Keeneland turf route races, generally speaking, it is very difficult to win from the far outside posts. Any turf route post from 1-8 should be considered fair, but horses drawing posts 9 and outward should be considered at a distinct disadvantage. At the most recent Keeneland meet, the 2012 Fall Meet, posts 9 and outward featured 83 starters and yielded just 3 winners for a combined win percentage from posts 9-12 of a putrid 3.6%.

SHIPPERS TO KEENELAND

When trying to evaluate a horse's past performances at Keeneland, obviously you want to consider a horse's past efforts on Polytrack - specifically in past races run at Keeneland, where the horse for the course angle is strong.  Past Polytrack success is also great to see from Arlington and Turfway.

Keeneland is obviously one of the country's premier meets, and at just three weeks in duration, shippers are obviously a big part of what you need to factor into your handicapping. Many of the best Keeneland runners will be coming from Florida where they had their most recent starts at Gulfstream, and to a lesser extent Tampa Bay Downs. However, those tracks are both dirt and can sometimes yield questionable and unreliable correlations and results on Keeneland's Polytrack. Because of that, it is not surprising that Turfway Park also produces its fair share of next-out winners on Polytrack, particularly in the cheaper races.

A COUPLE OF WINNING KEENELAND ANGLES

A couple of angles to look for at Keeneland's involve breeding, and cutbacks in distance.

As far as Keeneland Polytrack breeding is concerned, particularly in sprints, horses by Tale of the Cat have done the best. Other top Keeneland sprint sires have been Grand Slam, Unbridled's Song, and Indian Charlie.

The distance cutback angle is also a good one at Keeneland.  Horses cutting back in distance from a race at a mile or longer last time out into a sprint during Keeneland are better bets at this meet than they are anywhere else.  Particular trainers to watch for with this angle include Dallas Stewart, Graham Motion, and Ian Wilkes.

Whether your preference is Polytrack, grass racing, stakes racing, or just some of the better meat-and-potatoes claiming and allowance racing of the year, the Keeneland Spring Meet should have all the best of what you are looking for. Good luck!

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Nov

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