Keeneland Preview


By Noel Michaels

Top class racing returns to Kentucky this week as Keeneland's annual fall meet gets ready to open for its three-week boutique race meet from Friday, Oct. 7 to Saturday, Oct. 29.  The meet will attract Polytrack fans from everywhere, and will also boast big fields, good horses, and a load of top jockeys and trainers befitting the world epicenter of Thoroughbred horseracing in Lexington, Kentucky.  Since Keeneland's fall meet is only three weeks long, it's never too early for handicappers to start brushing up on some of the things they need to know to make money at the brief marquee meet. I'm already set with an Opening Day Longshot and am looking forward to a lot of moneymaking opportunities throughout the month.

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

People have the misconception that favorites win much less at Keeneland and that the track is too unpredictable to handicap reliably.  The truth is 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 $16.60 is still much higher than normal, making Keeneland a good bet if you're willing to go the extra mile to look for overlays.

The other thing you definitely want to pay attention to at Keeneland is all of the stakes racing, which during the fall meet has direct implications on next month's Breeders' Cup – especially since the Breeders' Cup is again in Kentucky at Churchill Downs.

Keeneland's big stakes action for the most part takes place on the weekend of Oct. 7-9, when the Breeders' Cup implications are the highest.  Friday's opening day features are the Phoenix Stakes at 6 furlongs and the Alcibiades for 2-year-old fillies.  Saturday, Oct. 8 will then be a giant day with the runnings of the Shadwell Turf Mile, the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes, the Breeders' Futurity, the First Lady, and the Woodford Stakes.  Sunday, Oct. 9 follows with the runnings of the Spinster Stakes and the Bourbon Stakes to round out a tremendous opening weekend.

The second weekend of action will be headlined by the running of the Grade 1m $400,000 QEII Challenge Cup – perhaps the country's most prestigious turf stakes for 3-year-old fillies to be run on Saturday, Oct. 15.

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 2011 fall meet will be Keeneland's eleventh Polytrack meet, and sixth fall meet since switching to Polytrack 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 any 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, however, the track started to change again a couple years ago.  Now, instead of the speed-killing Keeneland Polytrack we saw from 2006-2009, the Polytrack main track at Keeneland finally started to 'break-in' over the course of the last couple of years.

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 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 does Churchill Downs.  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.

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 fall meets in the Polytrack era, the horse you are looking for is one who can sit just off the pace.

The average Keeneland fall sprint winner has been, on average, roughly 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 rallied from more than 5 lengths back after the opening half-mile.

Taking all the percentages into account, all told, 61 percent of all sprint winners during the last four Keeneland fall meets have been on the lead or within 2 lengths of the leader after the opening half-mile.

In Keeneland main track route races, one of the most important things handicappers should do when evaluating a horse is to pay special attention to the post positions.  Keep in mind that the inside three post positions were dominant at the spring 2011 Keeneland meet in two-turn route races.  Conversely, if you see a horse in a Keeneland route breaking from an outside post, you might want to downgrade that horse slightly and bet the horse back next time, either at Keeneland or at Churchill Downs.

Typical Keeneland main track route races feature slower paces, resulting in a more bunched-up range of speed figures and smaller margins of victory (1.63 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 North American dirt race.

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 last winter and even did well at Churchill Downs.  In-between, however, Napravnik had a disastrous Keeneland spring 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 at Keeneland, Napravnik's case should be used as an example that the most valuable thing a jockey can have at Keeneland is successful past experience riding on Polytrack.  For that, look no further in the jockey colony than to guys like Julien Leparoux, Calvin Borel, and Robbie Alvarado. Other productive jockeys, who might offer a bit of value as the meet progresses include Corey Lanerie, and Frederic Lenclud.

I would instead suggest betting Leparoux especially.  He is dependable for the big stables like Mike Maker and Eddie Kenneally at this meet, and is obviously a must-use on the Keeneland turf.

Once you get the hang of the Polytrack at Keeneland, you can then proceed to enjoy what is always a great, high-quality race meet featuring the East Coast's and Midwest's top trainers and barns, and most of the top jockeys who had previously spent their winters riding at other premier meets like Saratoga and Belmont.

The discussion of Keeneland trainers must begin with Mike Maker, who has been winning at giant win percentages at all of the recent major Kentucky meets including Keeneland and Churchill Downs.  Maker wins in all kinds of races and at all distances, and is especially deadly when go-to rider Julien Leparoux is named aboard his horses.  There is little value to be found on the tote board when Maker and Leparoux team up sporting a jockey/trainer combo win percentage in the range of 40 percent, but nevertheless, these horses are impossible to overlook and must be respected, even at short prices.

Trainers who can usually be counted on to invade Keeneland with live runners include Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, Kiaran McLaughlin, and Christophe Clement, who should be splitting their stock between Kee and Belmont during the month of October. This list of trainers tends to excel in turf races and routes. The local circuit of trainers generally tends to excel in sprints and claiming races. The top local barns will compete at every level, including trainers like Dallas Stewart, Dale Romans, and Eddie Kenneally.

The leading trainer at the Keeneland fall meets in both 2009 and 2010 has been Ken McPeek, and he again should be loaded for the 2011 racing season.  McPeek said he intends to have 50 starters during the 17-day Keeneland fall meet and he has 'a lot of bullets in the chamber' to come out firing early and often this season.  McPeek could be sitting on an even better meet than he had in 2010, when he won only 2 of his 26 starts with maidens. This year, McPeek's stable is loaded with 2-year-olds that are ready to break their maidens.

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 else 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.

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. The most common, and most successful, places to ship into the Keeneland fall meet from include Arlington Park, with its similar Polytrack surface, Saratoga, where many of Keeneland's best stakes, allowance, and maiden special weight runners come from in their last starts, Presque Isle Downs, which is good for finding next-out Keeneland claiming winners, and Kentucky Downs, which yields its share of next-out turf winners during the Keeneland meet. Of course, the local horses also play a huge part in the Keeneland proceedings, with over 20 percent of Keeneland's fall winners having last raced at Turfway Park, which also features a Polytrack surface.

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.  Past Polytrack success is also great to see from Arlington and Turfway.

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 the Keeneland fall meet 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. And it all starts Friday with my Opening Day Longshot.


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