Tips For Winning At Churchill

TIPS FOR WINNING AT THE CHURCHILL DOWNS FALL MEET

The Churchill Downs Fall meet, which began this current season on Sunday, Nov. 1 and continues throughout November, is obviously one of the premier race meets of the fall, and it will be prominent on the minds and in the wallets of horseplayers all month long.  As always, there are plenty of good betting opportunities 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 Del Mar, of 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 better enjoy an edge. Now is the time to turn your focus on handicapping, 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 racing 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 Churchill Downs 2015 fall meet. Good luck, and enjoy.

CHURCHILL DOWNS FALL MEET

The Breeders' Cup at Keeneland is over, but the Churchill Downs meet continues the Midwest racing season with good racing and some headline events to look forward to through the rest of November, with a daily first post of 12:40pm.  The remaining stakes features at the meet include the G2 Mrs. Revere Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles on the turf on Nov. 14, and the G3 Cardinal Handicap on Nov. 21.

The meet wraps up with a big Thanksgiving holiday weekend stakes blowout, beginning on Thursday with the G2 $200,000 Falls City Handicap and the G3, $100,000 River City Handicap. The last Grade 1 race of the year in Kentucky, the $500,000 Clark Handicap then follows on Friday, November 27, along with the G2 Commonwealth Turf Stakes. Closing weekend will be also include Stars of Tomorrow day on Saturday, November 28, including the runnings of a pair of Grade 2 two-year-old features, the $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club for colts and geldings, and the $200,000 Golden Rod for fillies.

Horses racing at Churchill Downs during the fall meet are coming from several places, and the one thing immediately apparent to handicappers this season has been the influx of horses showing Indiana Grand 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 slots revenue. In addition to just horses coming from Keeneland, many of which are now headed to Gulfstream, the Midwest's mini fall circuit now includes Hawthorne and Indiana Grand, so horses shipping-in from those tracks should no longer be downgraded or discarded as inferior. Other than that, most of the better horses running at Churchill Downs this season will invariably come in their most recent starts at Keeneland.

 

GETTING TO KNOW CHURCHILL DOWNS' MAIN TRACK PROFILE

Churchill Downs offers high-quality traditional dirt track racing ideal for handicappers. 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.

Churchill Downs' main track is susceptible to major day-to-day biases, and these biases must be noted by handicappers. For many of the several meets of the recent past, Churchill Downs featured a main track that played highly favorable to outside posts and wide trips when the rail was dead as a doornail from the 2010 fall meet until 2014 or so, when the rail and inside posts and paths were almost always disadvantages that gave outside runners a strong edge.

As a Churchill handicapper, you must make yourself acutely aware of any inside/outside biases happening at the current meet, and you must pay attention to the rail path in particular, because some handicappers still believe that the rail and inside paths at Churchill Downs on the main track are not the best best places to be.  You've been warned.

Some 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 the Churchill contenders will come from Keeneland in their last races.  Always keep in mind that artificial track form is largely irrelevant when it comes to handicapping dirt races at Churchill, so 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.

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. At 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 turns, the less likelihood there is of speed-favoring conditions or a lightning-fast track.

Now that Keeneland is a dirt surface again, the track is usually back to being its old, speed-favoring self. This speed preference is much more evident at Keeneland than it is at Churchill during the fall meet. Remember, the cooler the temperatures, the less speed-favoring Churchill becomes.  This means that horses exiting big front-running efforts at Keeneland should be downgraded a little bit at Churchill. Conversely, late-closing horses that didn't have a good chance to rally at Keeneland should be upgraded at Churchill Downs, because perhaps they will run better than in their recent running lines at Keeneland. This is especially true if you see the horse owns a prior win or wins at Churchill Downs, particularly during this or any past fall meet.

 

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 will be 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 the 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 one mile. Win percentages for outside posts drop to an extremely poor average of 3-4% winners at that 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, and many other places, which favor outside posts.

In Churchill turf sprints, use the post position angle to your advantage in order to catch some prices. Like in New York, the Keeneland turf sprints also tend to favor outside and middle posts.  When you see a horse entered in a Churchill turf sprint coming off a sub-par turf sprint effort from Keeneland, Belmont, or Saratoga, give that horse a free pass if it broke from the rail, post one, or perhaps any of the three inside posts in that last race.  Chances are, that horse's threat of winning was hurt by the inside draw, making it an overlay next time out in a turf sprint at Churchill Downs.

Beyond looking at post positions, the main thing you'll want to take into account on the Churchill Downs lawn in route races 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 4 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 includes riders like Calvin Borel, Shaun Bridgemohan, Robbie Albarado, Ricardo Santana Jr., Julien Leparoux, particularly in turf races, and of course, Corey Lanerie, who has enjoyed a breakout year, particularly this fall, and is currently leading the way atop the Churchill jockey standings with 11 wins and a 26% win percentage.

In terms of historic numbers, Calvin Borel is one of the best riders ever in the history of Churchill Downs (perhaps behind only Pat Day).  Take note, however, that due to his "Bo-Rail" riding style, Borel's numbers and win percentage took a serious hit at recent Churchill Downs meets when the rail was severely dead. Ole Calvin was a tiger who just couldn't change his stripes as he continued to ride a dead rail for several years, even in the face of all the information to the contrary that the rail was dead from 2010 to 2014. Borel again is a realistic betting option for handicappers, however, now that the Churchill rail no longer appears to be as bad as it was toward the start of this decade. If you have to bet Borel, turf races probably are your best option, nevertheless.

Shaun Bridgemohan owns more than 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 second-leading rider at this year's Churchill fall meet.  Robbie Albarado is another jockey high 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. Recently, the fall meet at Churchill Downs really hasn't been Albarado's best.

Instead of Albarado, I suggest betting Corey Lanerie, or Shaun Bridgmohan at this year's fall meet, and of course don't leave out Julien Leparoux in turf races. Leparoux is off to a slow start in the winner's circle this fall with just 3 wins with his first 34 mounts, but he's been a major player in exactas with 10 places – putting him in the exacta aboard 38% of his mounts. That number is even higher when only turf races are considered.

 

Wrap-Up

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 fall meet.  Best of luck!

By Noel Michaels

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Aug
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