Churchill Season Preview

By Noel Michaels

The Churchill Downs spring meet, which began on Saturday, April 24, is in full swing now that the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby has come and gone, and the season is already off to a fast start. Big carryovers headlined the first post-Derby race card under the Twin Spires on Thursday, May 6, and that challenging and evenly-matched race day should serve as a springboard to what figures to be a great two months of racing, which will be conducted four days a week, Thursdays through Sundays, until Independence Day.

For dirt racing lovers, the opening of Churchill Downs is truly a time to rejoice after so many long months of Polytrack racing being conducted on the circuit at both Keeneland and Turfway.

This time of year, it doesn't take a genius to notice that things start to change quickly for the better for handicappers who understand the differences between dirt racing and Polytrack racing, and how it will affect the outcomes of the races and the types of horses that tend to win. Since so much of the other main track racing on the Kentucky circuit is conducted on Polytrack courses, you have to be very careful when trying to assess each Churchill Downs entrant's recent and current form, basing your opinion mainly on whether the horse's recent races were run on dirt or Polytrack. The best advice in this regard, as always, is to dismiss Polytrack form when handicapping dirt races at Churchill, and instead try to judge a horse's chances based only on its prior dirt form, particularly if the horse's prior dirt running lines came at Churchill Downs.

Handicapping at Keeneland used to begin and end with a discussion of the track'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. Now, however, the days of the Keeneland speed bias are long gone because of the Polytrack there that is widely known as the most anti-speed biased surface in all of North American main track racing.

Keeneland went from being probably the single most speed friendly track in America to being the most unfriendly track when it comes to early speed. Keeneland speed horses and close-to-the-lead pace-pressers could face almost certain doom, especially in route races. This means that Keeneland favor closers over speed horses much more than does Churchill Downs. Therefore, it is advisable to downgrade any late runner exiting a race or races at Keeneland (or Turfway, too, for that matter) while at the same time increasing the value of speed horses coming from Keeneland or Turfway. Those speed horses that went to the front and tired on Polytrack have a much better opportunity to go wire-to-wire at Churchill, where the track is faster and the speed carries further.

After you upgrade speed horses and downgrade closers, the next thing handicappers should do when evaluating a horse's chances is to win at Churchill is pay special attention to the post positions that the horse broke from in its recent races at either Keeneland or Gulfstream (many of the horses running at Churchill will have made their last starts at one of these two tracks). At Gulfstream, horses who drew outside posts in 1 1/8-mile dirt races were at an enormous disadvantage, and horses who drew inside in one mile dirt races were at a huge disadvantage. Therefore, if you see a Churchill starter exiting a bad effort in one of those kinds of races at Gulfstream, you should remember to give that horse an excuse for the loss if it broke from anywhere outside Post 6 at 1 1/8-miles, and give that horse an excuse if it broke from Posts 1-2 in a recent loss at one mile.

As for the horses coming to Churchill from Keeneland, keep in mind that the inside three post positions were dominant at this spring's meet in Keeneland sprints, while the far inside posts 1-2 were king in Keeneland two-turn routes. If you see a horse coming out of a big Keeneland sprint effort from Posts 1-3 in a sprint, and 1-2 in a route, you might want to downgrade the horse slightly at Churchill based on the fact it benefited from its post position in that recent Keeneland race. Conversely, if you see a horse coming out of a loss in a Keeneland race where it broke from the outside, you might want to consider giving that horse a big excuse and betting him back early in the meet at Churchill Downs.

Finally, on the turf, keep in mind that horses coming from Keeneland enjoyed a big advantage from inside posts in Keeneland grass races. Horses that drew posts anywhere from Post 6 and outward were at a big disadvantage since most of Keeneland's turf routes were won from posts 1-5. Horses from these five inside posts accounted for two-thirds of Keeneland's turf starters, and 71% of the winners. The real place to be was the rail, which won more than 30% of the time in Keeneland turf routes.

Both of Churchill Downs' racing surfaces, the main track and the turf course, are rather unique surfaces that each have their own respective quirks that are important for handicappers to understand.

First, the Churchill Downs dirt course is often regarded as a very cuppy surface, meaning the track does not retain enough moisture in it to hold the sand together. This causes the track to break away from under horse's feet resulting in footing that some horses love and others hate. This factor makes a horse's past performances at Churchill Downs very important, and makes Churchill Downs one of the tracks where the horses-for-the-course angle means the most.

Second, Churchill Downs' turf course is also sand based, making its composition very different from most other turf courses with the exceptions of Keeneland and Fair Grounds. Chances are, if a horse as recently run well on the turf at either Keeneland or Fair Grounds, than that horse's form is much more reliable than horses shipping to the Churchill turf from other places. The Churchill turf, just like the dirt, is another place where you'll want to heavily weight a horse's past performances specifically on the home track's oval.

As far as biases go, Churchill Downs' turf course is generally fair to horses breaking from all post positions no further out than post 8. Posts further out than post 8 are at a bit of a disadvantage. The main turf distance that is affected by post position draw is a flat mile, where the win percentages for outside posts drop to an extremely poor average of 3.3% winners. Therefore, generally speaking, posts outside No. 8 are not great, and can be downright disastrous in a races run at one mile. Take note also, that at a mile, middle posts 4-7 have, in the past, had an average win rate of nearly 20% making them clearly the best at that distance. In turf sprints at Churchill Downs, the inside six posts seem to enjoy an advantage, and any post outside 6 is a disadvantage. This is in stark contrast to the turf sprint races run in New York at Belmont and Saratoga, which favor outside posts and where the rail, and perhaps post 2, are both disadvantages.

Beyond post positions, however, the main thing you'll want to take into account on the Churchill Downs lawn is a horse's running style. Churchill's turf course favors mid-pack pace-pressers and stalkers strongly over all other running styles. Early leaders have a difficult time going wire-to-wire on this turf course, and the deepest of closers have a tough time getting up in time to win. Just as with post positions, this analysis is especially true in one mile turf races, where early speed horses win less than nine percent of the time, and closers coming from further than 10 lengths out of it rarely ever win. The ideal running style for success on the Churchill turf is a stalker running about four lengths off the pace at the first call (half-mile), and 2 1/2 lengths behind at the second call (6 furlong mark).

Handicapping Churchill Downs dirt races is another matter entirely. Day-to-day biases are much more common on this dirt track than long-term biases are (usually depending on how cuppy the track is), so you will always want to pay closer attention to how the track is playing at any given moment in terms of post position or running style biases instead of focusing on statistics from recent meets. When speaking of the day-to-day biases that can heavily affect the main track results at Churchill Downs, one needs to look no further for their proof than the 2006 Breeders' Cup, when the track that day clearly heavily favored the rail and inside running paths all day long.

Finally, due to the cuppiness of Churchill's dirt surface, the track is more likely to be faster and more conducive to speed in the summer when temperatures and humidity are higher. Early in the spring meet, the track is more likely to play slow when the weather is cool.

Finally, when it comes to jockeys at Churchill Downs, get used to hearing the name Julien Leparoux if you are going to be playing Churchill with any type of regularity. Leparoux is the defending Eclipse Award winning jockey who has enjoyed a series of big meets recently at Churchill Downs since setting the all-time CD Fall meet win record two years ago with 63 wins (beat the old record of Robbie Albarado by 22 wins). However, all bettors must realize that they'll have to take the good with the bad when it comes to Leparoux. The young Frenchman will win tons of races at this meet, but he is certainly no secret and his horses will always be well bet, particularly when sent out by trainer Mike Maker, who wins with a gigantic percentage of his starters ridden by Leparoux.

The other dominant jockey at this stage is another guy who is certainly no secret to bettors -- Calvin Borel. 'Bo-rail' has started the 2010 Churchill Spring meet atop the jockey standings with 11 wins in the first week including, of course, the Kentucky Derby victory which was his third such win in the last four years. Borel's win percentage early in the meet was up near 30%, and it might remain that high. On the negative side. Borel's horses, just like Leparoux's, can be expected to be bet accordingly.

Other productive jockeys, who might offer a bit more value as the meet progresses include Alex Solis, Corey Lanerie, and apprentice Frederic Lenclud.

Best of luck, and enjoy the season at Churchill Downs.


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