Aqueduct & Churchill November Meets Are Fine Finishes to Racing Season
By Noel Michaels
The Aqueduct and Churchill Downs Fall meets are both off to great starts and both offer horseplayers great options during the month of November to help handicappers fend off the post-Breeders' Cup Blues. And for those who've had just about enough of hearing about the Breeders' Cup at this point -- and certainly have had more than their fair share of artificial track racing by now -- both Aqueduct and Churchill Downs offer high-quality traditional dirt track racing ideal for the handicapper who is tired of the constant curveballs thrown at them by synthetic racetracks. Yep, there is great betting action still going on at this time of year, and the best of it is taking place now at Aqueduct and Churchill Downs.
AQUEDUCT MAIN TRACK FALL MEET
The Aqueduct main track Fall meet is one of the most overlooked, and the most underrated -- race meet on the annual New York racing calendar, and the current Aqueduct fall meet, which is now currently in full stride, offers handicappers a great betting product at a time of year that is generally pretty lean in terms of classy racing from around the country. One great thing for horseplayers to keep in mind is that Aqueduct's main track is among the fairest racing surfaces in all or North American racing. There is usually very little track bias, and very little advantage can be gleaned by any one post position or running style versus any other. This certainly has been the case again so far this season with very few biases affecting the main track at Aqueduct so far this meet.
Aqueduct Main Track Trends
NYRA's top-class stakes program is not finished, for all-intents-and-purposes, until racing moves to the inner track, and Aqueduct's premier Fall stakes races are all still ahead of us on what is called the 'Final Stretch Weekend' over the Thanksgiving holiday with the running of the G3-Fall Highweight on Thursday, Nov. 26, the G2-Top Flight Handicap for fillies & mares on Friday, Nov. 27, and the G2-Gazelle, the G2-Remsen, the G2-Demoiselle, and of course the G1-Cigar Mile all scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 22.
When it comes to day-to-day racing on the main track, the rail (Post 1) and inside posts in general have a great reputation in dirt routes and a bad reputation in sprints, but recent statistics from Fall meets fails to back up those beliefs. All posts, including the rail, appear to be fair in one-turn miles, and if anything, the rail seems to be better at one-mile (one turn) than it is in other two-turn routes.
Overall, post positions have been more important than one would expect so far at the Aqueduct Fall meet on the main track. In sprints under one mile, the two inside posts 1-2 have had by far the most success with a total of 25 wins from 122 races between them for an average win rate of 21%. Outside posts, which you really wouldn't think would be at a disadvantage in one-turn sprints, including the seven furlong sprints, have been so far this season. Posts 10-14 are only a combined 1-for-17 (6%) in Aqueduct sprints.
On the flip side, you'd think that inside posts would be good in main track two-turn routes and that outside posts would be a disadvantage, but that had certainly not been the case so far at this Fall's meet. In main track routes, inside posts 1-3 have been underperforming so far with a 10-for-99 record for an average win rate of 10%, whereas middle outside posts have been overperforming in main track routes to the tune of an average win rate of 17% for middle posts 4-7, and average win rate of 24% for posts outside and including Post 8.
Jocks and Trainers
Todd Pletcher and Ramon Dominguez are out in front of the trainer and jockey standings, which is no surprise, but nevertheless some other trainer's and jockey's performances are worth mentioning so far at the Aqueduct Fall meet. Javier Casellano is off to a particularly hot start this season winning 14-of-61 for 23%, which is good enough for second in the standings behind Dominguez. Jose Lezcano and John Velazquez are also winning at 20% thus far, with 14 wins and 10 wins, respectively. Edgar Prado and Eddie Castro have been hot and cold so far, and jockeys David Cohen and Channing Hill have both struggled a bit, with Cohen winning 13% and Hill winning only 8% from 48 starters in his return to the New York circuit.
Todd Pletcher's 8-for-26 record and 31% win rate are impressive to kick off the Aqueduct meet and have continued Pletcher's overall second-half success for 2009. The record certainly indicates that Pletcher has left most of his best stock behind in New York this season instead of taking it to Kentucky, since Pletcher is off to only a 2-for-20 start at the Churchill Downs Fall meet (see Below).
Other trainer stories that MUST be mentioned include the unbelievably good starts of trainers Chad Brown, Mike Hushion, and Tony Dutrow. Chad Brown, the former assistant to the late Bobby Frankel won with his first 5 starters at the Aqueduct main track meet and is now 5-for-8 with a pair of seconds for a 63% win percentage and a 88% ITM percentage. Tony Dutrow has been excelling with favorites and is 4-for-9 overall with 3 more ITM finishers for a win percentage of 44% and an ITM percentage of 78%. Finally, don't look now, but Mike Hushion is 6-for-8, !hello!, for a winning percentage of 75%. Other sleepers include (Smilin') Bill Badgett, who is smilin' again these days with 4 winners from his first 8 starters, and Frank Alexander, who is only 1-for-6 in the win column, but has finished in the exacta with 4 of his 6 runners so far (66%).
Aqueduct Turf Races
Many handicappers assume speed carries well on the Aqueduct turf course because of its tight turns, but that has not been the case so far at this year's Aqueduct fall meet, with only about 10% of all turf winners going wire-to-wire. In fact, not only haven't front-runners been doing well on the Aqueduct grass, pace pressers haven't been doing well either. In total, about two-thirds of all grass winners so far at the meet have come from fifth-place or further back during the early stages of the running of the race. Therefore, bet the closers on the Aqueduct lawn until further notice.
The other surprise going on in Aqueduct turf races has been the complete failure of the rail Post #1, which has blanked with an 0-for-31 record so far. Other inside posts have done well, but the rail itself has been non-existent in the Big A winner's circle. On the not-surprising side of the ledger, the far outside posts have not done well, as expected. Even with all the closers winning, posts 8 and outward have struggled on the Aqueduct turf with a combined 5 wins from 99 starters breaking from posts 8-12.
CHURCHILL DOWNS FALL MEET
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.
First, 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.
Second, Churchill Downs' turf course is also sand based, making its composition very different from most other turf courses with the exceptions of Keeneland and Fair Grounds. Chances are, if a horse as recently run well on the turf at either Keeneland or Fair Grounds, than that horse's form is much more reliable than horses shipping to the Churchill turf 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 hometrack's oval, because horses-for-the-course are such a valuable commodity.
Churchill Downs Dirt Races
Handicapping Churchill Downs dirt races is often made difficult by a lack of long-term biases and all of the locally-based horses whose form is often clouded by a large amount of Polytrack form from Keeneland and Turfway Park, which is nearly irrelevant when it comes to handicapping dirt races at Churchill. Day-to-day biases are much more common on this 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.
Track Biases at Churchill's 2009 Fall Meet
Nov. 8 -- Speed died on deep rail
Nov. 6 -- Helped to be on or close to pace
Nov. 5 -- Dead rail
Nov. 4 -- Speed bias; dead rail
Nov. 1 -- Speed was good
As mentioned above, since so much of the other main track racing on the Kentucky circuit is conducted on Polytrack courses, 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.
Current Main Track Trends
An interesting anomaly is worth noting in Churchill Downs dirt races through the first two weeks of the season that has to do with post positions. Specifically, the rail Post #1 has been death in Churchill Downs dirt races so far at the 2009 Churchill Fall meet with only 1 winner in 86 dirt races breaking from Post 1. That statistic includes 0-for-53 in sprints (0%) and 1-for-33 in routes (3%). This is not to say the rail has been bad all the time or that all the inside posts have been bad, however, you definitely do want to think twice about betting a horse to win from the rail on the Churchill main track based on this startling statistic.
Other than the 'death rail' post, other post position trends to note are that, not surprisingly, far outside posts 10 and outward are bad in dirt routes, winning a combined 3-for-52 (6%). Also, inside posts 2-3, conversely to the rail's failure, are a combined 13-for-66 accounting for 20% of the track's overall winners in dirt routes so far.
In sprints, with the exception of the horrific 0-for-53 rail post, all post positions have played fairly including the outside gates 10-12, which have at least as good of a chance of winning, and perhaps slightly better chances, than any other posts in the inside or middle.
Therefore, when considering post positions, the rail has been universally bad, but the outside posts are either good or bad depending on whether the race is a route or a sprint. In routes the outsider posts 10-12 are bad, in sprints, however, posts 10-12 are good (14% wins).
Jocks and Trainers
Not many surprises in this category so far at this year's Churchill Downs Fall meet. Leading jockeys who are off to the hottest starts include Calvin Borel and Julien Leparoux, who have 12 and 11 wins so far, respectively. Remember that Leparoux is coming off a record-setting Churchill Fall meet in 2008, but he has so far not been able to match last year's success due to two factors, 1) He's spent a few key race days out-of-town for stakes commitments at other tracks, including the Breeders' Cup where he won three races and put himself in possible position to grab his first Eclipse Award for 2009; and, 2) As Julien Leparoux's success goes, so goes the success of trainer Mike Maker, and vice versa. Last year at this time, Maker was on a record-setting pace and the Leparoux/maker jockey/trainer combo was hitting at a 40% win rate. This year, Maker's stable is off to a 1-for-19 start at the meet (5%), and therefore there is no constant stream of winners for Leparoux to tap into.
Nevertheless, Leparoux is still winning at a good percentage, along with the other jockeys off to the best starts at the meet including the aforementioned Borel plus guys like Shaun Bridgmohan (9 wins, 19%) and Kent Desormeaux (6 wins, 20%).
The news in the trainer's ranks is topped by Mike Maker's cold streak as referenced above. However, Maker isn't the only trainer of note, good or bad, at the 2009 Fall meet so far. On the hot list, Dale Romans (9 wins, 32%) and Steve Asmussen (8 wins, 24%) are off to the best starts along with the more lower-profile Tom Proctor, who has won with 3 of his first 7 starters with 3 seconds, for a win percentage of 43% and an ITM average of 86%. The cold list, along with Maker, is topped by Todd Pletcher, who has won with only 2 of his 20 starters so far for only 10%.
On the flip side, however, you know that stables like Pletcher and Maker cannot stay cold forever, and perhaps now is the time to start playing those horses if you are banking on a rebound for these top trainers. As all horseplayers know, it is key to get ahead on these kinds of trends, and if you hope to catch any winners at bargain prices from either of these barns, them now is the time to do it because if they get hot (when they get hot), the public will jump back on the bandwagon and drive down prices to where you'd expect them to be on the morning line.
Churchill Turf Races
As far as biases go, 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. At this year's Fall meet so far, the inside has been a particular advantage with 9 wins from 66 starters for a win average of 14%. Posts outside post 8, conversely, are a combined 3-for-56 (5%). Therefore, you should probably think twice before betting an outside horse on the Churchill grass.
The main turf distance that is affected by post position draw is a flat mile, where the win percentages for outside posts drop to an extremely poor average of 3.3% winners. Therefore, generally speaking, posts outside No. 8 are not great, and can be downright disastrous in a races run at one mile. Take note also, that at a mile, middle posts 4-7 have an average win rate of nearly 20% making them clearly the best at that distance. In turf sprints at Churchill Downs, not surprisingly, the inside six posts enjoy a big advantage, and any post outside 6 is a big disadvantage. However, there have only been 3 turf sprints run so far at the Fall meet.
Beyond post positions, however, 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 speed horses have a difficult time going wire-to-wire on this turf course, and deep 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 rarely ever win. The ideal running style for best success on the Churchill turf is a stalker running 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).
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