Focus On The Fair Grounds

Focus on the Fair Grounds for Good Racing
By Noel Michaels

Horseplayers everywhere are cringing when they look at the mid-December Thoroughbred racing calendar, which offers bettors slim pickings for the week leading up to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on Friday and Saturday, Dec, 24-25. Aqueduct will close for nine days after Dec. 19, Southern California will be closed after Dec. 19 until Santa Anita opens on Dec. 26, and Calder is only just okay at the end of December while the horses and horsemen there get geared up for Gulfstream's opening in early January. Thankfully for us handicappers, however, there is great racing going strong right now at the Fair Grounds, which steps into the spotlight as the best thing on the racing and wagering calendar next week.

The Fair Grounds has long been one of the best fall-winter race meets in the country, yet it is often overlooked on the winter wagering landscape that also includes popular, high-profile tracks like Aqueduct, Gulfstream, and Santa Anita. Nevertheless, the Fair Grounds is a quality track with big, competitive fields that most bettors love. Plus, the track also hosts its share of quality wintertime grass races, not to mention a good stakes line-up with a good three-year-old stakes program that leads to the meet's premier event, the Louisiana Derby.

One of the most notable things for handicappers to discover when it comes to the Fair Grounds, is that the track is one of the most fair tracks in the country when it comes to running styles because the Fair Grounds seems to remain one of the few tracks that legitimately does not provide a consistant edge to any one running style or inside or outside path. No matter if your horse is a front runner, a pace-presser, a stalker, or a closer, you should indeed have a fair chance to win at the Fair Grounds.

One of the most unique aspects of racing at the Fair Grounds is the track's unusual configuration which results in a much longer than average stretch run. By comparison to other one-mile ovals, the Fair Grounds has an atypically long stretch, as demonstrated in the following graphic:

Track Length of stretch
Fair Grounds 1,346 feet
Oaklawn 1,155 feet
Santa Anita 900 feet

The number-one thing the Fair Grounds lengthy stretch does is level the playing field for off-the-pace runners against the pace setters, leaving a truly very small sample of horses who are left at a true disadvantage due to the track's layout.

Fair Grounds Track Trends
Even at fair race tracks like the Fair Grounds, it is always worth looking at the long term trends and statistics to try to determine what running styles and post positions give horses their best chances at success. Certain prevailing biases can be arrived at by a careful look at the results from the past several years.

In sprints, both early speed/pressers and the closers can usually be depended on to run well from pretty much any post position. The segment of horses at the most risk from bad trips in Fair Grounds sprints are the mid-pack stalkers, who could get caught in a bad spot wide on the turn if they draw outside posts in big fields. These horses often have to be used too hard to gain position going into the turn, or else end up falling into the Fair Grounds trap of trying to make their middle moves while wide on the turn instead of using the more prudent strategy of waiting until the long straightaway before launching their late bids.

Stay away from stalkers from the far outside posts in Fair Grounds sprints with big fields. If you are looking for a particular group of horses to favor in these Fair Grounds sprints, go ahead and give the advantage to either stretch-running sprinters or middle-distance horses that are cutting back in distance.

Meanwhile, in Fair Grounds route races run at 1 mile & 40 yards and 1 1/16-miles, post position is a key issue thanks to the short run up to the first turn due to the starting gate's close proximity to the turn. Horses that break from wide posts in these races usually suffer wide, ground-losing trips -- especially at a 1m & 40 yards when speed horses and pressers who break from the inside enjoy a huge tactical advantage.

The weather can often be a factor at the Fair Grounds, and a drying out track can sometimes lead to probably the strongest biases you will encounter during the typical Fair Grounds meet. These weather related biases are most likely to appear on the second day following heavy rains after the track has taken a lot of moisture and then had a day to dry out. The day or two after the drying out day is usually the time to key your plays on stalkers and closers who can ride an outside bias to victory with an outside rally to blow by the front runners and/or inside horses.

Three weeks of racing are already in the books for the Fair Grounds 2010-2011 meet, and I have pinpointed certain track biases of varying degrees already at the meet on a few occasions.

Observed Track Biases, FG (Nov. 25 -- Dec. 13)
Dec. 13 -- Helped to be close to pace w/ 8 of 9 races won from on or near pace
Dec. 12 -- Difficult to win from too far back
Dec. 10 -- Difficult to win from too far back
Dec. 6 -- Turf inside paths soggy and slow with poor drainage
Dec. 5 -- Strong outside bias and anti-speed bias; Turf inside paths slow
Dec. 4 -- Turf inside paths soggy and slow with poor drainage
Nov. 28 -- 5 of 6 dirt winners rallied from off the pace
Nov. 27 -- Winners of 8 of 9 dirt races were on or close to pace

The biggest bias of the young FG meet so far occurred on Dec. 5 on the main track when there was a solid anti-speed bias and a heavy outside bias. Look for horses who last raced on this date and either bet on them or bet against them next time out depending on whether or not the Dec. 5 bias worked for them or against them. Take note, that the track was so biased on Dec. 6, that the track superintendent reconditioned the track composition the next week to add more sand and make the track more speed favoring. The move appeared to have worked. The track played extremely slowly for the week of Dec. 9 -13, but speed did much better that week than in the two weeks prior, and the inside wasn't as bad as it was on 12/5.

Also of note so far this season at the Fair Grounds, was a drainage problem that negatively hindered inside horses on the turf course for three days from Dec. 4-6. Normally I am not an advocate for buying into turf course track biases, but in this case, a soggy rail definitely appeared to hurt inside runners and help outside horses. Following Dec. 6, the turf course was rolled and the inner rail was moved inward 20 feet to eliminate the bad inside lanes on the grass. Even under normal circumstances, the Fair Ground grass course, which usually plays kindly toward closers, tends to favor speed horses more than other times when the turf rail is out 10 feet or more (all turf courses trend to favor speed more when the turf rails are out -- the more the better).

Normally, the Fair Grounds turf course is an extremely interesting beast. Like the main track, it too has an unusual layout with tight turns and a long stretch. Some horses like the Fair Grounds grass course, while others hate it. This results in one of the strongest horse-for-the-course angles at any track. Always give preference to horses that have already proven themselves with wins or strong efforts on the local grass course. The same horses that have been running well on this course tend to be the most reliable horses to bet on to continue to do well. This, of course, goes for all races except for maiden races, where handicappers must revert to pedigree and trainer angles to decipher who the best bets are.

Fair Grounds Trainers
There is always a strong crew of Midwestern and national barns wintering in New Orleans with strings of horses of varying abilities. You can usually count on a few big-name out-of-towners showing up for the Fair Grounds meet with a few horses, however, these horses usually have varying degrees of success in relation to the local blue chip barns that can always be counted on to win here at huge percentages including Steve Asmussen, Cody Autrey, Merell Sherer, Mike Stidham, Steve Margolis, Bret Calhoun, and of course, last but not least, Al Stall and particularly Tom Amoss, who has been winning races in bunches around here since some of these other guys were in diapers.

The 2010-2011 Fair Grounds meet started off slow for Tom Amoss with just 3 wins with his first 28 starters, but take note that he had 16 of his horses finish second or third, so while his win numbers appear to be cold, really he's just had bad luck to start the meet and those numbers should start to turn around soon on the win end, perhaps at overlaid prices.

Another cold trainer of note to begin the 2011 meet was Steve Asmussen, who has tons of horses here for the winter but went just 3-for-18 to start the meet. No worries, however, Asmussen will probably end up leading the meet in wins even though his ROI will be nothing to write home about after starting out at $1.21 for every $2 bet.

Otherwise, the trainers atop the trainer standings early include some new names like Michelle Lovell (8-for 22, 36%) and Edward Johnston (4-for-16, 25%). Their barns are off to such hot starts here that they can't currently be overlooked.

Finally, keep your eyes out for Chicago horses, who have begun the meet in fine form and have been competing well against the shippers to this meet from other locales.

The meet comes to an end at the end of spring, and the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby can always be depended on to provide an exclamation point to what is annually one of the most enjoyable meets on the calendar. Enjoy the Fair Grounds, especially during the week up until the opening of Santa Anita on Sunday, December 26. Best of luck.

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