Understand How to Win at Churchill Downs to Win Big on Derby Day and Beyond
By NOEL MICHAELS - OTB Learning Labs
Kentucky's three-week boutique Keeneland spring meet comes and goes very quickly, but the meet will still nevertheless provide a bounty of valuable information for handicappers that are anxiously awaiting Kentucky's return to dirt racing with the annual opening of the Churchill Downs spring meet. For dirt racing lovers, the opening of Churchill Downs is truly a time to rejoice after so many long months of Polytrack racing being conducted on the circuit at both Keeneland and Turfway.
The 2012 Churchill Downs Spring/Summer Meet will begin on Saturday, April 28 with a special night racing card beginning at 6:00 pm. After that, normal post time will shift to 12:45 Thursdays through Sundays with regular twilight racing (plus some night racing programs) scheduled on Fridays with a first post of 2:45 pm.
The centerpiece of the Churchill Spring/Summer Meet, of course, will be the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 5. The 2012 edition of the Run for the Roses is shaping up as a wide-open race with an unusually strong field.
The Kentucky Derby will conclude a very busy opening week of action at Churchill Downs, with racing scheduled Tuesday through Saturday from May 1 through 5, with the Sunday day after the Derby being a dark day. In addition to special Tuesday and Wednesday race cards, Derby week also includes the running of the Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on Friday, May 4. Post times for Oaks and Derby days at Churchill will be at 10:30 a.m. EDT.
With no clear favorite in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, horses have been scrambling to get into the field and a full gate of 20 horses is expected to run (for the first time ever in 2012, there will even be up to four also-eligible horses drawn for the Derby). Just a few of the top contenders include Florida Derby winner and third-place finisher Take Charge Indy and Union Rags, Wood Memorial first- and second-place finishers Gemologist and Alpha, Blue Grass Stakes winner and runner-up Dullahan and Hansen, Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister, and Santa Anita Derby winner and second-place finisher I'll Have Another and Creative Cause.
The Churchill Downs meet gets going quickly, with just five days of racing at the meet leading up to Kentucky Derby Day.
This time of year, it doesn't take a genius to notice that things start to change awfully quickly for the better for handicappers who understand the differences between dirt racing and Polytrack racing, and how it will affect the outcomes of the races and the types of horses that tend to win at Churchill Downs.
Handicapping Churchill Downs dirt races is another matter entirely. 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 of focusing on statistics from recent meets.
CHURCHILL'S TRACK BIASES -IS THE RAIL STILL DEAD?
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 for their proof than the Churchill Downs race meets from Fall 2010, to Spring 2011, to Fall 2011, when the track has been strongly biased toward the outside -and against the inside! -for all or most of those entire meets.
Did this outside bias have any effect on the runnings of the 2011 Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks? Well, not necessarily. However, the winning exacta in the Oaks was, in fact, 12-13, and the first five finishers in the 2011 Kentucky Derby were numbers 16-19-13-14-11. Food for thought?
Take a look at my personally compiled track bias notes for Churchill Downs for the last two race meets, the 2011 Fall Meet and the 2011 Spring/Summer Meet. It shows an overwhelming preference for outside posts on the main track, affecting all distances:
Churchill Downs Track Biases -2011
Churchill Fall Meet
Nov. 27 -Outside better than inside
Nov. 25 -Outside bias
Nov. 24 -Outside preferred
Nov. 20 -Outside bias in slop
Nov. 17 -Outside preferred
Nov. 16 -Had to be wide and on or close to the pace
Nov. 13 -Outside bias
Nov. 12 -Outside bias
Nov. 11 -Outside bias
Nov. 10 -Outside bias
Nov. 9 -Outside bias
Nov. 6 -Outside bias
Nov. 3 -Outside bias in slop
Nov. 2 -Outside advantage, dead rail
Churchill Downs Spring/Summer Meet
July 4 -Outside advantage
July 3 -Outside bias; speed and front-end advantage
July 2 -Speed bias
July 1 -Speed and close-up horses did well, 6 of 10 won w-2-w
June 26 -Rally wide bias
June 25 -Helped to be on or close to pace
June 24 -Helped to be on or close to pace
June 19 -Outside preferred races 7-10 when unsealed to "good"
June 18 -Dead rail
June 17 -Outside rally wide bias
June 16 -Outside anti-speed bias, outside stalkers/closers edge
June 12 -Helped to be on or close to the pace
June 10 -Helped to be on or close to pace and off the inside
June 9 -Speed bias; outside advantage
June 5 -Strong outside bias; dead rail
June 4 -Outside bias helped horses stalking/rallying wide, no w-2-w winners
June 3 -Helped to be outside and close to the pace
May 30 -Outside bias
May 28 -Outside better; needed to be close to the pace
May 27 -Strong speed bias
May 26 -Helped to be on or close to the pace; outside slightly better
May 22 -Anti-speed bias, outside better than inside
May 21 -Helped to be outside and close to the pace
May 15 -Dead rail; speed bias starting race 3 (slop, sealed), drying anti-speed races 1-2
May 14 -Dead rail; speed bias, especially once sealed (slop) races 6-11
May 12 -Outside preferred
May 7 -Closers did well
May 5 -Speed bias, mostly from off the inside
May 4 -Outside preferred on drying out track
May 3 -Speed bias, all winners on or close in slop
Apr. 30 -Dead rail, outside bias
Aside from just the 2011 Derby and Oaks and the results from the 2011 Spring/Summer and Fall meets at Churchill Downs, the 2010 Churchill Fall meet also was substantially marred by an anti-inside bias on nearly every racing day of the meet.Calvin "Bo-Rail", the second all-time leading jockey at Churchill Downs, for example, won at a horrific 5% win percentage in the fall meet of 2010 -despite riding a truck-load of favorites -due in large part to always riding the dead rail.
Has the perpetually dead Churchill rail carried over to the current 2012 Spring/Summer meet? Keep an eye on it. I would advise making adjustments to your handicapping and betting to factor in an anti-inside bias in all main track races at Churchill Downs until you see concrete evidence that the rail is no longer dead for a sustained period of time.
Until then, keep betting the outside horses and downgrading the horses from inside posts on the main track at Churchill Downs.
CHURCHILL DOWNS WINNING PROFILES
Both of Churchill Downs' racing surfaces, the main track and the turf course, are rather unique surfaces that each have their own respective quirks that are important for handicappers to understand.
First, the Churchill Downs dirt course is often regarded as a very "cuppy" surface, meaning 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 home track's oval.
Finally, 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.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO ABOUT ALL THE POLYTRACK HORSES?
Handicapping at Keeneland used to begin and end with a discussion of the track'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. Now, however, the days of the Keeneland speed bias are long gone because of the Polytrack there, which started off as the most anti-speed biased surfaces in all of North American main track racing before finally starting to "break-in" the last couple meets. 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 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 Turfway, too, for that matter) while at the same time increasing the value of speed horses coming from Keeneland or Turfway. 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.
EVALUATING HORSES COMING FROM GULFSTREAM AND KEENELAND
The next thing handicappers should do when evaluating a horse's chances is to win at Churchill is pay special attention to the post positions that the horse broke from in its recent races at either Keeneland or Gulfstream (many of the horses running at Churchill will have made their last starts at one of these two tracks).
At Gulfstream, horses that drew outside posts in 1-1/8-mile dirt races were at an enormous disadvantage, and horses who drew far inside in one mile dirt races were at a huge disadvantage. Therefore, if you see a Churchill starter exiting a bad effort in one of those kinds of races at Gulfstream, you should remember to give that horse an excuse for the loss if it broke from anywhere outside Post 6 at 1-1/8-miles, and give that horse an excuse if it broke from Posts 1-2 in a recent loss at one mile.
As for the horses coming to Churchill from Keeneland, keep in mind that the inside three post positions were dominant in Keeneland two-turn routes at some recent meets, and the rail did very well in route races at the 2012 Keeneland Spring Meet. If you see a horse coming out of a big Keeneland route effort from Post 1, 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. Through April 17, 2012, starters in Keeneland route races breaking from Post 8 and outward were a combined 1-for-39 (2.5% wins).
In sprint races at the 2012 Keeneland Spring Meet through April 17, the inside posts 1-5 were by far the best, with the winners of 25 of the first 36 sprint races coming from those posts. In contrast, runners from posts 6 thru 12 were only a combined 11-for-160 for a low win percentage of just 6.9% wins.
CHURCHILL DOWNS TURF RACES
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).
Finally, on the turf, keep in mind that horses coming from Keeneland this year raced mainly on less-than-firm turf due to an extremely rainy month of April. Many horses will be exiting bad efforts due to soft turf conditions and will be able to quickly reverse that form on firm turf, and vice-versa. . . many horses that benefited from soft and yielding turf at Keeneland will not run as well if and when the turf ever gets back to firm at Churchill. This goes particularly for front-running turf horses who have a better chance to go wire-to-wire on firm turf than when the turf is soft, yielding, or good.
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. 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 3-4% winners. 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.
The Churchill Downs Spring/Summer meet is always one of the best race meets at this time of year, and there is plenty of money to be made by handicappers who stay on top of the winning trends. Best of luck, and enjoy the season at Churchill Downs.
Best of luck, and enjoy Kentucky Derby Day and beyond from Churchill Downs.
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