Churchill Downs Spring Preview

By Noel Michaels

The Churchill Downs spring meet, which began on Saturday, April 30, is in full swing now that the running of the 137th Kentucky Derby and the first week of racing is in the books. The season is already off to a fast start, and the challenging and evenly-matched racing that we saw in Week 1 should serve as a springboard to what figures to be a great two months of racing at Churchill Downs. Racing will continue four days a week, Thursdays through Sundays, until Independence Day. I'm already on the scene and winning, with my Best Bets Daily Selection Service, not just here, but at Belmont and Hollywood.

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 Kentucky 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 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.

Churchill's Track Biases -- Is the Rail Still Dead?
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 during the opening week of action at this Spring's meet, the rail and inside posts and paths were disadvantages all week, with outside runners enjoying the strong edge. This was true to some extent on Derby Day itself, but the bias was not as strong as it was earlier in the week.

Did this outside bias have any effect on the runnings of the 2011 Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks? Well, not necessarily. However, the winning exacta in the Oaks was 12-13, and the first five finishers in the Kentucky Derby were numbers 16-19-13-14-11. Food for thought?

Aside from just the 2011 Derby and Oaks and the results from the first week at the 2011 Spring/Summer meet at Churchill, it should be noted that last year's Churchill Fall meet was substantially marred by an anti-inside bias on nearly every racing day of the meet. Calvin 'Bo-Rail', the second all-time leading jockey at Churchill Downs, won at a horrific 5% win percentage last fall -- despite riding a truck-load of favorites -- due in large part to the dead rail.

Has the Churchill dead rail from last fall officially now carried over to the current Spring/Summer meet? It looks like a distinct possibility. What does the track superintendent have to say about it? Isn't it some for some accountability?

Churchill Downs Winning Profiles
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.

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.

What Should You Do About All The Polytrack Horses?
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, which started off as the most anti-speed biased surfaces in all of North American main track racing before finally starting to 'break-in' the last couple meets. 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 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 Churchill Downs.

Even without its old off-the-pace bias, the truth of the matter is that Keeneland still favors closers over speed horses much more than does Churchill Downs. Therefore, it is still 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. Some 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.

Churchill Downs Jockeys to Watch
For one prime example of how Keeneland's Polytrack races play differently than dirt races, look no further than the case of jockey Rosie Napravnik. Rosie was leading rider at Fair Grounds this winter and has enjoyed a fast start at Churchill Downs. In-between, however, Napravnik had a disastrous Keeneland meet where she won at an alarmingly low percentage. Was it a slump? Unlikely. The more likely explanation is that Napravnik lacked experience on Polytrack, and that inexperience led her to ride races the wrong way for the purposes of Polytrack racing. Other riders with more experience on artificial surfaces took Rosie to school at Keeneland.

Now that we're back on dirt at Churchill Downs, however, Napravnik should once again hold her own at or near the top of the jockey colony with guys like Julien Leparoux, Calvin Borel, and Robbie Alvarado.

If the anti-inside bias from Week 1 does continue further into the Churchill Downs Spring/Summer meet, it would be advisable to start betting against Calvin Borel soon and continue doing so until the track shows sustained signs that the inside is improving. Borel failed to adjust his 'Bo-Rail' riding style last fall, and his win percentage and especially ROI suffered immensely. Can this happen again? Absolutely, and the bet-against-Borel wagering angle could once again prove to be a valuable one once again since, as mentioned earlier, Borel is often aboard favorites on the Churchill Downs main track.

I would instead suggest betting Leparoux, who is dependable for the big stables like Mike Maker and Eddie Kenneally at this meet. I would also go back to betting Rosie Napravnik, who will make amends for her bad Keeneland now that she's back on dirt.

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

Evaluating Horses Coming from Gulfstream and Keeneland
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 two-turn routes. If you see a horse coming out of a big Keeneland route effort from Posts 1-3, 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 in a route, you might want to consider giving that horse an excuse and betting him back early in the Churchill meet.

Churchill Downs Turf Races
Beyond looking at post positions, 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 generally 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 winning profile on the Churchill turf is a stalker that runs 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).

Finally, on the turf, keep in mind that horses coming from Keeneland this year raced mainly on less-than-firm turf due to an extremely rainy month of April. Many horses will be exiting bad efforts due to soft turf conditions and will be able to quickly reverse that form on firm turf, and vice-versa. . . many horses that benefited from soft and yielding turf at Keeneland will not run as well if and when the turf ever gets back to firm at Churchill. This goes particularly for front-running turf horses who have a better chance to go wire-to-wire on firm turf than when the turf is soft, yielding, or good.

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 3-4% winners. Therefore, generally speaking, posts outside No. 8 are not great, and can be downright disastrous in turf 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.

The Churchill Downs Spring/Summer meet is always one of the best race meets at this time of year, and there is plenty of money to be made by handicappers who stay on top of the winning trends. Best of luck, and enjoy the season at Churchill Downs. Make sure to get with me to ensure maximum profitability for yourself.


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