Churchill Downs Fall Preview

CHURCHILL DOWNS 2011 FALL MEET PREVIEW

By Noel Michaels - OTB Learning Labs

The Churchill Downs Fall meet starts Sunday, which again this year is highlighted by the Breeders' Cup. Everyone of course is looking forward to the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships on Friday and Saturday, November 4-5 - and rightfully so, (you can get my picks right here online) but the fact is that the Churchill Downs meet has much to offer even when Breeders' Cup is over. There are plenty of good betting opportunities annually at Churchill's fall meet, which offers much of the very best racing happening in the country at this time of year.

Churchill Downs is always under the microscope 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 will now be taking place at Churchill Downs, so it behooves bettors to learn what they can about Kentucky racing so they can enjoy an edge at this time of year. Now is the time to turn your focus on handicapping, watching, and wagering on the races from Churchill Downs from opening day on Sunday, October 30 until closing day on Sunday, Nov. 27. 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 Kentucky circuit next spring.

This article is about my observations and recommendations meant to aid you in forming a winning betting strategy for the upcoming Churchill Downs 2011 fall meet. Good luck.

CHURCHILL DOWNS FALL MEET

When the Breeders' Cup is over, the Churchill Downs meet continues with good racing and even some headline events to look forward to through the rest of November, starting with the fall meet's only twilight "Downs After Dark" race card scheduled for Friday, Nov. 18 (first post 4:30 pm). 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 25. Closing weekend is highlighted on Saturday, November 26 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 will invariably come in primarily from Belmont and Keeneland.

GETTING TO KNOW CHURCHILL DOWNS

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 in Kentucky.

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.

Always keep in mind that artificial track form (i.e. Keeneland) is largely irrelevant when it comes to handicapping dirt races at Churchill. Day-to-day biases are much more common on the Churchill 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.

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.

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.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE POLYTRACK HORSES?

The number of horses shipping to Churchill Downs off of artificial track recent races will be many since Keeneland (or Turfway for that matter) is the primary place runners will be coming from when they arrive at Churchill Downs.

A few other Churchill dirt starters may have had their most recent races at other tracks such as Arlington, Woodbine, Del Mar, Turfway, or even Presque Isle Downs (Tapita), but the main thrust of this section will be Polytrack, and more specifically the Polytrack at Keeneland.

Handicapping the quality and usefulness of Keeneland races on Polytrack used to begin and end with a discussion of Keeneland's slow Polytrack surface and how it favored outside closers on what was regarded as perhaps the most anti-speed biased surface in all of North American main track racing. However, that all was before Keeneland's Polytrack finally started to "break-in" the last couple meets. This seems to be a phenomenon whereas synthetic surfaces begin to change their properties over the course of years as they age. The other Polytrack surfaces at Arlington, Woodbine, Del Mar, and Turfway have also undergone this phenomenon, especially Del Mar which started out as a horribly mercurial surface before mellowing out the last few years.

Since 2010, the Polytrack surfaces can 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 Arlington, Woodbine, Del Mar, and Turfway, too, for that matter) while at the same time increasing the value of speed horses that had their final prep races at Keeneland. 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.

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'S TRACK BIASES - IS THE RAIL STILL DEAD?

Churchill Downs' main track is susceptible to major day-to-day biases, the these biases must be noted by handicappers, because they have even affected big race days such as the Breeders' Cup and even Derby Day in the past.

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 than the 2010 Churchill Downs fall meet, when the rail and inside posts and paths were disadvantages all meet long, giving outside runners enjoying the strong edge.

Did this outside bias carry over to the spring/summer Churchill 2011 meet? The answer is yes, and not only that, the bias may have had a big effect on the runnings of the 2011 Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. After all, 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? You be the judge.

Aside from just the 2011 Derby and Oaks, the results from the rest of the 2011 spring/summer meet at Churchill were substantially marred by the same anti-inside bias that dominated the fall 2010 meet.

Has the Churchill dead rail from fall 2010 and this spring 2011 officially now carried over to the current Churchill fall 2011 meet? It will be a distinct possibility.

PREPARING FOR A WET TRACK

Sloppy and muddy track advantage: Favor rally-wide horses closing from off the pace.

On most dirt tracks, water drains away from the "crown" in the center of the track down towards the inner rail. When it rains, excess water drains toward the inside rail. As a result, the rail tends to be the last part of the course to dry completely. This can create an advantage for the speed horses that use the rail. Think of it like running on the sand at the beach. You are much more likely to run fast on the wet, packed-down part of the sand closest to the water, but you will run much slower on the dry part of the beach away from the water.

Drying out track rated "good" or "fast" advantage: Favor horses with inside posts, especially if they have the speed to get to the rail.

CHURCHILL DOWNS 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 turf form is much more reliable than horses shipping to Churchill 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.

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. Win percentages for outside posts drop to an extremely poor average of 3-4% winners at this distance. 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.

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).

JOCKEYS AT CHURCHILL DOWNS

Of course, some local knowledge and experience sure can't hurt when it comes specifically to Churchill Downs, so you might want to look for guys who know that oval the best. At Churchill Downs, the top of the jockey colony often includes riders you might see prominently in the Breeders' Cup like Julien Leparoux, Calvin Borel, Shaun Bridgemohan, Robbie Albarado and Jamie Theriot.

In terms of historic numbers, Calvin Borel is the No. 2 leading rider in the history of Churchill Downs (behind only Pat Day) with 1,034 local victories. Julien Leparoux, who often teams up with trainers like Mike Maker, owns several recent meet riding totals and is already 12th on the Churchill all-time wins list with 450 wins there. Shaun Bridgemohan owns 350 wins at Churchill Downs and may have live Breeders' Cup mounts for Steve Asmussen and possibly others. Robbie Albarado is fifth on the all-time Churchill Downs win list with 913 local trips to the winner's circle.

The Breeders' Cup is coming to Churchill Downs, and it should be bigger and better than ever this year, so enjoy the upcoming two-day spectacle at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4-5 as the best horses in the world compete in a total of 15 races including the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. My picks are available online, 24 hours in advance both days. When the Breeders' Cup is over, however, don't forget that there will be much more good racing to try to capitalize on under the famous twin spires at Churchill Downs. Hopefully the handicapping tips in this article will help you enjoy a successful meet. Best of luck!

CHURCHILL DOWNS 2011 FALL MEET PREVIEW

By Noel Michaels

The Churchill Downs Fall meet starts Sunday, which again this year is highlighted by the Breeders' Cup. Everyone of course is looking forward to the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships on Friday and Saturday, November 4-5 - and rightfully so, (you can get my picks right here online) but the fact is that the Churchill Downs meet has much to offer even when Breeders' Cup is over. There are plenty of good betting opportunities annually at Churchill's fall meet, which offers much of the very best racing happening in the country at this time of year.

Churchill Downs is always under the microscope 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 will now be taking place at Churchill Downs, so it behooves bettors to learn what they can about Kentucky racing so they can enjoy an edge at this time of year. Now is the time to turn your focus on handicapping, watching, and wagering on the races from Churchill Downs from opening day on Sunday, October 30 until closing day on Sunday, Nov. 27. 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 Kentucky circuit next spring.

This article is about my observations and recommendations meant to aid you in forming a winning betting strategy for the upcoming Churchill Downs 2011 fall meet. Good luck.

CHURCHILL DOWNS FALL MEET

When the Breeders' Cup is over, the Churchill Downs meet continues with good racing and even some headline events to look forward to through the rest of November, starting with the fall meet's only twilight "Downs After Dark" race card scheduled for Friday, Nov. 18 (first post 4:30 pm). 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 25. Closing weekend is highlighted on Saturday, November 26 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 will invariably come in primarily from Belmont and Keeneland.

GETTING TO KNOW CHURCHILL DOWNS

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 in Kentucky.

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.

Always keep in mind that artificial track form (i.e. Keeneland) is largely irrelevant when it comes to handicapping dirt races at Churchill. Day-to-day biases are much more common on the Churchill 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.

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.

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.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE POLYTRACK HORSES?

The number of horses shipping to Churchill Downs off of artificial track recent races will be many since Keeneland (or Turfway for that matter) is the primary place runners will be coming from when they arrive at Churchill Downs.

A few other Churchill dirt starters may have had their most recent races at other tracks such as Arlington, Woodbine, Del Mar, Turfway, or even Presque Isle Downs (Tapita), but the main thrust of this section will be Polytrack, and more specifically the Polytrack at Keeneland.

Handicapping the quality and usefulness of Keeneland races on Polytrack used to begin and end with a discussion of Keeneland's slow Polytrack surface and how it favored outside closers on what was regarded as perhaps the most anti-speed biased surface in all of North American main track racing. However, that all was before Keeneland's Polytrack finally started to "break-in" the last couple meets. This seems to be a phenomenon whereas synthetic surfaces begin to change their properties over the course of years as they age. The other Polytrack surfaces at Arlington, Woodbine, Del Mar, and Turfway have also undergone this phenomenon, especially Del Mar which started out as a horribly mercurial surface before mellowing out the last few years.

Since 2010, the Polytrack surfaces can 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 Arlington, Woodbine, Del Mar, and Turfway, too, for that matter) while at the same time increasing the value of speed horses that had their final prep races at Keeneland. 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.

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'S TRACK BIASES - IS THE RAIL STILL DEAD?

Churchill Downs' main track is susceptible to major day-to-day biases, the these biases must be noted by handicappers, because they have even affected big race days such as the Breeders' Cup and even Derby Day in the past.

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 than the 2010 Churchill Downs fall meet, when the rail and inside posts and paths were disadvantages all meet long, giving outside runners enjoying the strong edge.

Did this outside bias carry over to the spring/summer Churchill 2011 meet? The answer is yes, and not only that, the bias may have had a big effect on the runnings of the 2011 Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. After all, 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? You be the judge.

Aside from just the 2011 Derby and Oaks, the results from the rest of the 2011 spring/summer meet at Churchill were substantially marred by the same anti-inside bias that dominated the fall 2010 meet.

Has the Churchill dead rail from fall 2010 and this spring 2011 officially now carried over to the current Churchill fall 2011 meet? It will be a distinct possibility.

PREPARING FOR A WET TRACK

Sloppy and muddy track advantage: Favor rally-wide horses closing from off the pace.

On most dirt tracks, water drains away from the "crown" in the center of the track down towards the inner rail. When it rains, excess water drains toward the inside rail. As a result, the rail tends to be the last part of the course to dry completely. This can create an advantage for the speed horses that use the rail. Think of it like running on the sand at the beach. You are much more likely to run fast on the wet, packed-down part of the sand closest to the water, but you will run much slower on the dry part of the beach away from the water.

Drying out track rated "good" or "fast" advantage: Favor horses with inside posts, especially if they have the speed to get to the rail.

CHURCHILL DOWNS 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 turf form is much more reliable than horses shipping to Churchill 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.

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. Win percentages for outside posts drop to an extremely poor average of 3-4% winners at this distance. 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.

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).

JOCKEYS AT CHURCHILL DOWNS

Of course, some local knowledge and experience sure can't hurt when it comes specifically to Churchill Downs, so you might want to look for guys who know that oval the best. At Churchill Downs, the top of the jockey colony often includes riders you might see prominently in the Breeders' Cup like Julien Leparoux, Calvin Borel, Shaun Bridgemohan, Robbie Albarado and Jamie Theriot.

In terms of historic numbers, Calvin Borel is the No. 2 leading rider in the history of Churchill Downs (behind only Pat Day) with 1,034 local victories. Julien Leparoux, who often teams up with trainers like Mike Maker, owns several recent meet riding totals and is already 12th on the Churchill all-time wins list with 450 wins there. Shaun Bridgemohan owns 350 wins at Churchill Downs and may have live Breeders' Cup mounts for Steve Asmussen and possibly others. Robbie Albarado is fifth on the all-time Churchill Downs win list with 913 local trips to the winner's circle.

The Breeders' Cup is coming to Churchill Downs, and it should be bigger and better than ever this year, so enjoy the upcoming two-day spectacle at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4-5 as the best horses in the world compete in a total of 15 races including the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. My picks are available online, 24 hours in advance both days. When the Breeders' Cup is over, however, don't forget that there will be much more good racing to try to capitalize on under the famous twin spires at Churchill Downs. Hopefully the handicapping tips in this article will help you enjoy a successful meet. Best of luck!

21
Aug

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