Churchill Fall Meet Preview

CHURCHILL DOWNS 2012 FALL MEET PREVIEW

By Noel Michaels - OTB Learning Labs

The Churchill Downs Fall meet, which began this current season on Saturday, Oct. 27 and continues throughout November, is obviously one of the premier race meets of the fall and will be prominent on the minds and wallets of horseplayers all month long.  As always, there are plenty of good betting opportunities annually at this Churchill fall meet, which offers turf racing, stakes highlights, and good daily meat-and-potatoes racing to keep handicappers occupied for what is otherwise generally a lean time of the year for horseplayers.

There is great betting action still going on at this time of year at tracks such as Aqueduct and Hollywood Park, or course, but perhaps the best of it all in November will be at Churchill Downs. Therefore, 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, and watching and wagering on the races from Churchill Downs.  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 2012 fall meet. Good luck, and enjoy.

CHURCHILL DOWNS FALL MEET

The Breeders' Cup is over, but the Churchill Downs meet continues with good racing and even some headline events to look forward to through the rest of November, including the Fall meet's only twilight "Downs After Dark" race card scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 17 (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 will be highlighted on Saturday, November 24 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 from Hoosier Park should not be downgraded or discarded as inferior as they were in the past before 2011. 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. In the Fall meet, however, Churchill's main track is generally more likely to play slower than it does in the spring and summer. The cooler the weather is, the less likelihood there is of speed-favoring conditions or a lightning-fast track.

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 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 more Churchill dirt starters this time of year will be coming from other artificial tracks such as Arlington, Woodbine, 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 surface at Keeneland 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.

CHURCHILL'S TRACK BIASES -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 for the past several meets Churchill Downs has featured a main track that played highly favorable to outside posts and trips. In short, the rail has been dead as a doornail at Churchill Downs since the 2010 fall meet, when the rail and inside posts and paths began to be disadvantages that give outside runners enjoying the strong edge.

This dead rail, outside bias carried over to the spring/summer Churchill 2011 meet, then to the 2011 Fall meet, and then again to the 2012 spring/summer meet.  Now that we are already a week or two into the 2012 Churchill Fall meet, it has already become clear that the dead rail. Outside bias is back again with a vengeance this fall - perhaps more so than ever before (which is saying a lot).

Here is my exclusive list of daily track biases that have already been noted at the current Churchill Downs Fall meet. Clearly, the anti-inside bias is present, and constantly affecting the results:

CHURCHILL TRACK BIASES
2012 Fall meet
Nov. 7 - Outside bias, dead rail
Nov. 4 - Outside bias; dead rail
Nov. 3 - Outside bias on drying out track
Nov. 2 - Speed good; slow rail
Nov. 1 - Outside bias

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 angle is 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

Some local knowledge and experience on the home track oval sure can't hurt when it comes specifically to Churchill Downs, so you might want to look for guys who know the local layout the best.  At Churchill Downs, the top of the jockey colony often includes riders like Calvin Borel, Shaun Bridgemohan, Robbie Albarado, Jesus Castanon, and Corey Lanerie.

In terms of historic numbers, Calvin Borel is the No. 2 leading rider in the history of Churchill Downs (behind only Pat Day).  Take note, however, that due to his "Bo-Rail" riding style, Borel's numbers and win percentage have taken a serious hit at recent Churchill Downs meets when the rail has been dead. Ole Calvin is a tiger who just can't change his stripes, it appears, and he still tries to ride the rail to victory even in the face of all the information to the contrary that the rail remains dead. Still, Borel's horses get bet with fervor and are often favorites. This makes him an extraordinarily bad bet at Churchill Downs, at least in dirt races. If you have to bet Borel, try to do so only in turf races where his predilection toward inside paths cannot hurt his chances.

Shaun Bridgemohan owns nearly 400 career wins at Churchill Downs and often has the live mounts for the Steve Asmussen barn, among many other top trainers. He is likely to be the leading rider at this year's Churchill Fall meet, and is already off to a good start.  Robbie Albarado is fifth on the all-time Churchill Downs win list with 900+ trips to the local winner's circle, but he is off to a very slow start so far this fall.  Instead of Albarado, I suggest betting a guy like Corey Lanerie, or a resurgent Jon Court at this year's Fall meet. Other jockeys who have begun the 2012 Fall meet with high winning percentages are Joe Rocco (6 wins with his first 27 mounts, 22%), Miguel Mena (for-for-22, 23%), and the New York transplanted David Cohen (5-for-25, 20%).

As the fall season continues on through November, don't forget that there will be much more good racing to watch and wager 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!
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