Churchill Meet Overview

Churchill's Fall Meet Offers Top-Notch November Racing and Wagering
by Noel Michaels

The Churchill Downs Fall meet, which this year was highlighted of course by the Breeders' Cup, is still going strong as racing under the Twin Spires heads into its final eight race days of 2010. Even though the Breeders' Cup is over, there is still plenty of good betting options remaining at Churchill, which is under the microscope even more than ever currently during the otherwise slow month of November in Thoroughbred racing. Yep, there is great betting action still going on at this time of year, and the best of it is now taking place. Now is the time to turn your focus on handicapping, watching, and wagering on the races from Churchill Downs as the meet heads down its home stretch until closing day on Sunday, Nov. 28. Don't miss out, because once Churchill is closed, it'll be a long winter in Kentucky on the Polytrack at Turfway until racing heads back to the main East coast and Kentucky circuit next spring. This article is about my observations and recommendations meant to aid you in forming a winning betting strategy for the remaining part of the Churchill Downs 2010 Fall meet. Good luck.

CHURCHILL DOWNS FALL MEET

Churchill Downs offers high-quality traditional dirt track racing ideal for handicappers who are tired of the constant curveballs thrown at them by synthetic racetracks elsewhere and at other times of the year. The Churchill Downs dirt races are competitive at all levels featuring mostly big fields, and the turf racing is the best in the country at the time of year when the Churchill Downs Fall meet takes center stage in November.

With the Breeders' Cup now in our rear-view mirror, the Churchill Downs meet still has a few headline events to look forward to the rest of the way, starting with the first and only twilight 'Downs After Dark' card scheduled for Friday, Nov. 19. After that, the remaining stakes features at the meet include the Mrs. Revere Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles on the turf, and then the big Thanksgiving holiday weekend stakes blowout headlined by the $150,000 Falls City Handicap on Thanksgiving Day and the last Grade 1 race of the year in Kentucky, the $500,000 Clark Handicap on Friday, November 26. Closing weekend is highlighted on Saturday, November 27 with the runnings of a pair of Grade 2 two-year-old features, the $150,000 Kentucky Jockey Club for colts and geldings and the $150,000 Golden Rod for fillies.

Horses racing at Churchill Downs during the Fall meet are coming from several places, and the one thing that immediately jumps off the page at handicappers this season has been the major influx of horses showing Hoosier Park form for their most recent race or races. This is due to a few factors, including the higher-profile emergence of Indiana racing thanks to purses which have risen to Kentucky-like levels thanks to a shot-in-the-arm from the state's increasing slots revenue. For horses that want to stay on dirt and avoid racing on Polytrack, they now have a mini-dirt circuit in the Midwest with Hawthorne, Hoosier, and Churchill until Churchill closes at the end of November. Among other things, this means that horses shipping in with Hoosier Park form should not be downgraded or discarded as inferior as they have in years past. Other than that, most of the better horses running at Churchill Downs this season have come in from Belmont and Keeneland, and by now all or most of these live runners will have already had a race over the track at Churchill.

Churchill Downs Dirt Races

Both of Churchill Downs' racing surfaces, the main track and the turf course, are unique surfaces that each have their own respective quirks that are important for handicappers to understand. The Churchill Downs dirt course is generally regarded as a cuppy surface at times, meaning that 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.

Handicapping Churchill Downs dirt races is often made difficult by all of the locally-based horses whose form is clouded by a large amount of Polytrack form from both Keeneland and Turfway Park, not to mention horses coming from Arlington Park. Always keep in mind that artificial track form is nearly irrelevant when it comes to handicapping dirt races at Churchill. 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.

Track Biases at Churchill's 2010 Fall Meet

Nov. 11 7 of 8 winners on or close to the pace; 6 of 8 winners broke/raced outside
Nov. 10 Fairest track of the meet so far
Nov. 7 Outside bias, bad rail; closers, stalkers and pressers rallied wide
Nov. 6 Outside bias, bad rail; speed horses needed to get off the inside
Nov. 5 Outside bias, bad rail; speed horses needed to get off the inside
Nov. 4 Outside bias, bad rail; speed horses needed to get off the inside
Nov. 3 Outside bias, bad rail; speed horses needed to get off the inside
Nov. 1 Speed and close up horses had the edge
Oct. 31 All winners up close and off the rail

As mentioned above, 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 a horse's recent form, based mainly on whether it was compiled on a dirt track or on Polytrack. The best advice in this regard is to totally dismiss Polytrack form when handicapping dirt races at Churchill, and instead try to rate a horse's chances of winning based only on its prior dirt form, particularly if the horse's prior running lines were at Churchill Downs.

Current Main Track Trends

An interesting anomaly is worth noting in Churchill Downs dirt races through the first several weeks of the season that has to do with post positions. Specifically, the rail Post #1 has been death in Churchill Downs dirt sprints so far at the 2010 Fall meet with the horses breaking from Post 1 posting only 3 wins in 70 dirt sprints through Nov. 17. This is not to say the rail has been bad all of the time, or that the other inside posts have been bad, however, you definitely do want to think twice about betting a horse to win from the rail on the Churchill main track based on this startling statistic.

Other than the 'death rail' post, other post position trend to note on the main track is that, not surprisingly, the rail Post 1 has been as good in routes as it has been bad in sprints. Horses breaking from the rail post in main track routes have had a tremendous advantage to date, winning 7-for-30 for a win percentage of 23%. No other single post position can boast a percentage better than 17 percent (Post 5 has won 5-of-30 dirt routes).

In sprints, with the exception of the horrific rail post, all post positions have played fairly including the outside gates 11-12, which have won at giant 15% and 25% win percentages, due mainly to the bad rail that has existed for most of this year's Churchill Downs Fall meet. As a general rule, the prevailing bias all throughout the 2010 Fall meet to date has been favoring the outside in sprints and hurting the horses breaking from the rail and/or racing in inside paths.

Jocks and Trainers

There have been many surprises in this category so far at this year's Churchill Downs Fall meet. Jockeys you would expect to be off to hot starts such as Calvin Borel and Julien Leparoux have both been having disappointing meets to say the least. Leparoux is right up there but hardly running away with the jockey race with 13 wins with his first 77 mounts (17%), which is lower than what you would expect based on his Spring meet numbers. Calvin Borel, meanwhile, won an awful 6 races with his first 72 Churchill Fall meet mounts for a low 8% winners. This low-percentage and bad meet for Borel is probably directly attributable to the bad rail at Churchill Downs this fall on the main track. Borel saves ground and races inside, and that has been the path to the poor house instead of the winners' circle this fall as the anti-rail bias has prevailed almost every day of the meet.

As Julien Leparoux's success goes, so goes the success of trainer Mike Maker, and vice versa. Last year, Maker's stable got off to a bad 1-for-19 start at the Churchill Fall meet (5%), and this season the Maker stable has again followed suit with a cold Fall meet to the tune of a 1-for-14 win record (7%). With Maker hitting such a low percentage, Leparoux is needing to find another stream to tap into for his winners, which instead have often come from trainers such as Eddie Kenneally and Ken McPeek.

The news in the trainer's ranks is also topped by the hot Fall of leading trainer Steve Asmussen , who is often quiet at the Keeneland meet so he can gear up his stable for a big run at the dirt track during the Churchill Fall meet, and this year is no exception. Asmussen is atop the trainer's standings with 10 wins and a 30% win percentage, and this trend should continue to the rest of the season. Other trainers winning a high percentage you should include in your wagers whenever possible include Todd Pletcher (7 wins, 25%), Bill Mott (6 wins, 33%), Ken McPeek (5 wins, 19%), and of course, the red-hot Al Stall, who has won with 5 of his first 8 starters at the meet for a huge 63% win percentage.

Churchill Turf Races

The Churchill Downs turf course is sand based in order to promote good drainage, and it is this composition that makes this turf course different from most other turf courses, with the exceptions of perhaps Keeneland and Fair Grounds. Chances are, if a horse has recently run well on the turf at Keeneland, the 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, because horses-for-the-course are such a valuable commodity.

As far as biases go, Churchill Downs' turf course is generally fair to horses breaking from all post positions out to Post 8. However, at this year's Fall meet, outside posts on the turf, including the far outside posts 9-12, have all done just as well or perhaps even better than the inside posts, which have been unusually dead this season. And so, for the rest of the 2010 Fall meet, it is recommended that handicappers give the advantage to the outside horses in turf routes, while downgrading the inside horses. This is an exact opposite from the way the turf usually plays, but the numbers don't lie. Thus far, through the races of Nov. 17, horses breaking from the four inside posts 1-4 have won a combined 4-for-84 starts for a horrible 4.7% win percentage. Conversely, the four far outside posts 9-12 have won a combined 9-for-48 for an amazing average win percentage of 19% each.

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 speed horses have a difficult time going wire-to-wire on this turf course, and deep 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 rarely ever win. The ideal running style for best 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).

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