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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Saturday, April 30, 2016 at 12:45 PM

CHURCHILL OPENING PREVIEW: THROUGH DERBY DAY & BEYOND

For lovers of Kentucky horse racing, the opening of Churchill Downs is truly a time to rejoice after so many winter months on Polytrack at Turfway. The highly-touted but only three-week long Keeneland meet is good, but it is only an appetizer for what is to come at Churchill for a tremendous week of racing leading up to the Kentucky Derby under the iconic twin spires in Louisville.

The 2016 Churchill Downs Spring/Summer Meet begins on Saturday, April 30. What follows after opening Night, is one of the best weeks of racing of the year, Tuesday through Saturday of Kentucky Derby week at Churchill Downs.

The centerpiece of the Churchill Spring/Summer Meet, of course, will be the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 7.  The 2016 edition of the Run for the Roses is shaping up to be one of the most wide-open in years, with undefeated Nyquist leading the way in a field that will otherwise be tough to separate from top to bottom.

Derby Day is always one of the best days of racing of the year - not just for obvious reasons with the Kentucky Derby - but because the Derby headlines a whole day worth of tremendous racing on both turf and dirt. The Derby is only one of seven Graded stakes races on the May 7 full card. Other standout events will include the G1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, and the G1 Humana Distaff just to name a few.

Also, don't forget about Friday's increasingly important Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs. The Kentucky Oaks - the fillies' version of the Derby - headlines a stakes-heavy card of its own in front of a live crowd well in excess of 100,000 fans.  The 2016 Kentucky Oaks, once thought to be a virtual walkover for the exceptional 3-year-old filly Songbird, now shapes up as a great betting race due to Songbird's scratch with a fever.

The Churchill Downs meet gets going quickly, with just five days of racing at the meet leading up to Kentucky Derby Day on May 7 (Saturday, April 30, and then Tuesday through Friday, May 3-6).

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 the annual opening of the Churchill Downs spring meet.

This time of year, it doesn't take a genius to notice that things start to change very quickly for the better for handicappers who understand the differences between Churchill and Keeneland, and how those 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 (usually depending on how cuppy it 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. You will also want to start by paying close attention to the rail in dirt races, in order to see if it again is playing dead this season, just as it has so often at Churchill Downs meets of the recent past.

CHURCHILL DOWNS WINNING PROFILE

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, the 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 has recently run well on the turf at either Keeneland or Fair Grounds, that horse's form is much more reliable at Churchill than turf horses shipping from other places, including Gulfstream.  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, including opening week, the track is likely to play slower when the weather is cool.

CHURCHILL'S TRACK BIASES - WILL THE RAIL BE 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 proof than the Churchill Downs race meets dating all the way back to Fall 2010, when the prevailing track began to lean strongly biased toward the outside - and against the inside - until arguably 2014 or 2015. This Churchill Downs outside bias affected pretty much everything at the track during that period of time.

Did this outside bias have any effect on the runnings of the recent Kentucky Derbies?  Well, not necessarily.  However, the first five finishers in the 2011 Kentucky Derby were numbers 16-19-13-14-11 with Animal Kingdom winning from post 16. Then I'll Have Another won from post 20 in 2012 and Orb won from post 15 in 2013. In 2014, California Chrome didn't break from the far outside, but longshot exacta horse Commanding Curve did (post 16), and Wicked Strong also hit the superfecta from post 19.  Food for thought? Outside horses again were strong in the Derby in 2016 as well.

Just to show you how marred by anti-rail bias so many of the recent Churchill Downs meets were, all you need to do is looking at the lack of success for Calvin "Bo-Rail", the all-time leading jockey at Churchill Downs. He rode out his career by continuing to ride the rail at Churchill Downs to slightly better than a horrific 5% win percentage in the twilight seasons of his career - despite riding a truck-load of favorites. This is due in large part to him always riding the rail, even when it was dead.

Will the perpetually dead Churchill rail carry over to the new 2016 Spring/Summer meet?  Keep an eye on it.  Hopefully the track superintendent will be on top of the situation, just like it appeared he was during 2015 at Churchill.  However, you have to keep an eye open so you can jump on any potential bias before everyone else does. I would advise making adjustments to your handicapping and betting to factor-in at least the possibility of 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, especially in the Kentucky Derby. In the Derby, with 20 horses, the modern race always seems to favor outside runners with more room to maneuver early in the race.

ANGLES FOR 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 two-turn dirt races (1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles) were at an enormous 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 1/16-miles or 1 1/8-miles.

In turf sprints, Gulfstream's 5F turf sprint races enormously favor horses with early speed. It is difficult to rally and win those races at Gulfstream, but Churchill's short turf races are much kinder to horses coming from off the pace.  Keep this in mind, because early speed turf sprinters from Gulfstream that did well might not be as good as they look, while late runners from those races who lost might now be nearly as bad as they look on paper.

As for the horses coming to Churchill from Keeneland, keep in mind that the inside six post positions (posts 1-6) were good in Keeneland sprints at the spring meet. If you see a horse coming out of a big Keeneland sprint effort from an outside post, you might want to upgrade the horse slightly at Churchill based on the fact it was at a post disadvantage at Keeneland.

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.

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 in Churchill turf routes 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 race more often on less-than-firm turf than anywhere else.  Many horses will be exiting bad efforts due to soft turf conditions and will be able to quickly reverse that form on firm turf at Churchill, 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 outside 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 have disadvantages for posts 1-3.

WRAP-UP

The Churchill Downs Spring/Summer meet is always one of the best race meets at this time of year, and it all gets off to a great start on Kentucky Derby week, where you can use these handicapping tips to build bankroll leading up to the star attraction, the Kentucky Derby.  There is plenty of money to be made by handicappers who stay on top of the winning trends, so best of luck and enjoy the Derby week and the rest of the season at Churchill Downs.

Be sure to check out my Kentucky Derby Program and more right here online.

By Noel Michaels

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