Keeneland Spring Meet Preview

KEENELAND SPRING MEET HANDICAPPING PREVIEW

By Noel Michaels - OTB Learning Labs.com

Top class racing returns to Kentucky this week as Keeneland's annual Spring Meet opens for its three-week boutique race meet from Friday, April 6 to Friday, April 27. The meet will attract Polytrack fans from everywhere, and will also boast big fields, top horses, and a load of high-profile jockeys and trainers befitting the world epicenter of Thoroughbred horseracing in Lexington, Kentucky. Since Keeneland's Spring Meet is only three weeks long, handicappers better start brushing up now on some of the things they need to know to make money at the brief, blink-and-you-miss-it meet.

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

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 the stakes racing, which during the Spring Meet has direct implications on next month's Triple Crown, as well as all of the other top stakes and allowance races at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park.

The Keeneland spring stakes schedule will consist of 16 stakes including 15 graded stakes this year. Unlike the Fall Meet when most of the stakes are scrunched together early in the meet to accommodate the Breeders' Cup preps, the Spring Meet has a stakes schedule that is well distributed with premier races being run all throughout the meet.

The five Grade 1 races to be run at this year's Keeneland Spring Meet include the $500,000 Ashland Stakes on Saturday, April 7 (prep for the Kentucky Oaks), plus the Vinery Madison for grass fillies on April 12, the Maker's Mark Mile for male turf milers on April 13, and the Jenny Wiley along with the meet's signature Kentucky Derby prep race, the Blue Grass Stakes, on April 14. Keeneland's secondary Derby or Preakness prep race, the Grade 2 Lexington Stakes, will be run on April 21.

KEENELAND POLYTRACK WINNING PROFILE

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 2012 Spring Meet will be Keeneland's twelfth Polytrack meet, and sixth Spring Meet since the track switched to Polytrack back 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 an 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 has 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.

KEENELAND MAIN TRACK SPRINTS

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

The average Keeneland spring 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, 60 percent of all sprint winners during the last three Keeneland Spring Meets have been on the lead or within 2 lengths of the leader after the opening half-mile.

KEENELAND MAIN TRACK ROUTES

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 Keeneland 2011 Spring 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 (1.60 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 dirt race.

KEENELAND 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 in 2011 (and again in 2012, too) and even did well at Churchill Downs. In-between, however, Napravnik had a disastrous Keeneland Spring Meet 2011 when 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. Therefore, it is definitely not a co-incidence that Napravnik will not be back at Keeneland this spring. She instead will be riding at Aqueduct.

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 Julian Leparoux, who is highly dependable for the big stables like Mike Maker and Eddie Kenneally at this meet, and is obviously a must-use on the Keeneland grass. Calvin Borel, Kent Desormeaux, and Robbie Alvarado also are reliable That quartet will be joined occasionally during the Keeneland meet but other all stars like John Velazquez, Javier Castellano, and Rajiv Maragh. Other productive jockeys, who might offer a bit of value as the meet progresses include Corey Lanerie, and Shaun Bridgmohan, especially when he rides for Steve Asmussen.

TRAINERS

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 most 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 30-40 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 all will be splitting their stock between Keeneland and Aqueduct during April, with most of the better stock heading to Kentucky. 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, Ken McPeek, and Eddie Kenneally.

When Mike Maker has not been the leading trainer at recent Keeneland meets, that distinction often goes to Ken McPeek, and he again should be loaded for the 2012 racing season. Temper expectations just a little bit on McPeek in the spring, however, because he tends to do his best Keeneland work at the Fall Meet. This fast tends to artificially inflate McPeek's Keeneland trainer stats, which many handicappers rely on. With the better Fall Meet stats mixed into McPeek's overall numbers, it should be noted that if only his spring figures were considered, his winning percentages would be much lower.

KEENELAND GRASS RACING

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.

SHIPPERS TO KEENELAND

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, where the horse for the course angle is strong. Past Polytrack success is also great to see from Arlington and Turfway.

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. Many of the best Keeneland runners will be coming from Florida where they had their most recent starts at Gulfstream, and to a lesser extent Tampa Bay Downs. However, those tracks are both dirt and can sometimes yield questionable on Keeneland's Polytrack. Because of that, it is not surprising that Turfway Park also produces its share of next-out winners on Polytrack, particularly in the cheaper races.

A COUPLE OF WINNING KEENELAND ANGLES

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 Keeneland 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. Good luck.
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