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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Thursday, November 17, 2016 at 3:20 PM


The second half of November is truly one of the great times of year for horseplayers and lovers of Thoroughbred handicapping. Important and high-quality racing centers around three tracks - Del Mar, Churchill Downs and Aqueduct - which makes it easy for horseplayers to effectively watch and wager on every good race simply by narrowing their focus to three signals.  All three of these main track meets are scheduled to reach their climaxes over the second half of November as they all roll out their remaining stakes and fill-up their condition books with turf races before coming to an end as these circuits all get ready to transition to winter racing.

The table is set for a big holiday weekend of horseracing this Thanksgiving, with the season's biggest and best tracks -  Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, and Del Mar - all serving up extra helpings of great racing with all the trimmings for the four-day weekend. Thanksgiving weekend has something for all racing fans, and the premier tracks all are set to offer up one last hurrah to cap-off the fall racing season.

The biggest name races taking place over the Thanksgiving weekend will be Aqueduct's running of the $500,000 G1 Cigar Mile on Saturday, Nov. 26, and the running of the $500,000 Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Friday, Nov. 25. In addition to the Clark Handicap and the Cigar Mile, there are many other stakes races scheduled for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend at Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, and Del Mar. Here is a list of the Thanksgiving weekend's top stakes races:

Key Thanksgiving Weekend Stakes Races

Thursday, Nov. 24
Churchill: Grade II, $200,000 Falls City, Hcp., 3&up, 1 1/8 M
Churchill: Grade III, $100,000 River City Hcp., 3&up, 1 1/8 M (T)
Aqueduct: Grade III, $250,000 Fall Highweight Hcp., 3&up, 6F
Del Mar: Grade III, $100,000 Red Carpet Stakes, F&M 3&up, 1 3/8 M (T)

Friday, Nov. 25
Churchill: Grade I, $500,000 Clark Handicap, 3&up, 1 1/8 M
Churchill: Grade II, $200,000 Mrs. Revere Stakes, 3yo fillies, 1 1/16 M (T)
Del Mar: Grade II, $200,000 Hollywood Turf Cup, 3&up. 1 1/2 M (T)

Saturday, Nov. 26
Aqueduct: Grade I, $500,000 Cigar Mile, 3&up, 1 M
Aqueduct: Grade II, $300,000 Remsen Stakes, 2yo, 1 1/8 M
Aqueduct: Grade II, $300,000 Demoiselle Stakes, 2yo, 1 1/8 M
Aqueduct: Grade III, $250,000 Comely Stakes, 3yo fillies, 1 1/8 M
Churchill: Grade II, $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club, 2yo, 1 1/16 M
Churchill: Grade II, $200,000 Golden Rod, 2yo fillies, 1 1/16 M
Del Mar: Grade II, $200,000 Seabiscuit Handicap, 3&up, 1 1/16 M (T)
Del Mar: Grade III, $100,000 Jimmy Durante Stakes, 2yo, 1 M (T)

Sunday, Nov. 27
Del Mar: Grade III, $100,000 Native Diver Hcp., 3&up, 1 1/16 M
Del Mar: Grade III, $100,000 Cecil B. Demille Stakes, 2yo f, 1 M (T)

The Aqueduct, Del Mar, and Churchill Downs Fall meets are in the midst of good seasons and all offer horseplayers great options during the month of November. Yep, there is great betting action still going on at this time of year, and the icing on the cake will be taking place over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

There have been some good trends for handicappers to take note of at the current fall meet.  Here is a more detailed look at some tips and factors that could help you win before the big fall meets come to an end.


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.

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, 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.

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. 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 (6F mark).



Del Mar's main track is certainly back to favoring speed a lot more now that it is dirt than it did back in the Polytrack days when speed had difficulty holding up.  However, while the slight preference on the Del Mar main track goes to speed, the track overall has played fair, and the front-end preference could not at all be termed a "bias."  In fact, most other race tracks, including the others on the SoCal circuit, favor speed more so than Del Mar.

At the most commonly run distance at 6F on dirt, Del Mar will favor horses with tactical speed, capable of leading, pressing, or stalking, but certainly not as much as at Santa Anita. Effectively, this means that come-from-behind horses will have better chances at Del Mar than at the previous Santa Anita meet.  At Del Mar, 21% of all 6F races are won wire-to-wire, as opposed to 31% at Santa Anita.

At this distance, horses definitely want to race within 3 lengths of the pace at the first call. At Del Mar, 75% of these races are won by horses within 3 lengths of the lead, versus 83% of such winners at SA.

If you want to bet against front runners, it is much better to do so at Del Mar at the distances of 6 1/2F and 7F. At Del Mar, front runners win only 19% and 18% respectively at 6 1/2F and 7F.  At Del Mar, it is still important to race within 3 lengths of the lead at these distances (70% wins and 87% wins, respectively), meaning it is tactical speed and not front-running speed that wins the races. Front-running speed is much more important at SA, where 23% of 6 1/2F races are won wire-to-wire and where 7F races were highly biased toward front runners (38% wins) and horses within 3 lengths (94% wins).

And so, this gives us our first big betting angle at Del Mar: Downgrade front-runners who won at SA at 6 1/2F and 7F, and upgrade horses coming from SA with tactical speed that came-up a little short.

Here is another Del Mar betting angle: At the distance of one mile (two turns), tactical speed is a money-losing disaster.  According to the stats, there are two main ways to win at Del Mar at one mile on the dirt, wire-to-wire (44% wins), or closers coming from more than 3 lengths off the pace (37% wins).  That makes this particular distance the best for closers on the Del Mar main track, and by far the worst for pace pressers and close-up stalkers, who win only at a money-burning 19% clip.


Del Mar Turf Races

Del Mar's new turf course already has two+ years under its belt and is no longer a total unknown. Del Mar cards some of the country's best turf racing of the fall. Since the new turf course was installed, Del Mar turf races are now carded for up to a maximum of 14 runners.

With more horses in the turf races, the increased field sizes have had an effect on the importance of drawing a good post position. This is particularly true in turf routes longer than 1 1/16 miles.  At the most commonly-run turf route distance of one mile, it is also worth noting the surprising post position revelation that the inside two posts, posts 1-2, can often be a disadvantage.  Therefore, in terms of post draws in turf routes overall, the best positions to break from are posts 3-8. This is particularly true at one mile and 1 1/8 miles.

In terms of running style preferences in turf routes, 16 percent of Del Mar's races are being won wire-to-wire, while 36% of these races are being won by horses that are still more than three lengths back at the quarter pole.  This means two things: 1) Turf closers do much better at Del Mar than at SA and should therefore be upgraded, and 2) The pace pressers and stalkers in these races do the best, accounting for 48% of the victories.

Turf sprints have been unpredictable in the two years of Del Mar's new turf course, shifting from year-to-year with how they favor either speed or closers, or inside posts versus middle or outside posts. Keep an eye on this as the 2016 fall season progresses.  Meanwhile, one thing does seem certain, SA turf sprint form (from the 6 1/2F downhill turf course) does not translate to Del Mar. Different horses win on these very different turf courses, so expect a lot of form reversals - both good and bad - from horses' recent turf sprints at SA. And also upgrade speed which has a much better chance to hold on in Del Mar's shorter turf sprints as opposed to Santa Anita's.



In terms of running style and post position favoritism, keep in mind that Aqueduct's main track is among the fairest there is. Nevertheless, you still will want to pay attention to any short-term track biases you happen to take note of, such as periods of changing weather conditions where the track might favor inside or outside posts and paths, or may favor speed or some other running style over all others.

There are three distinct categories of Aqueduct main track races; 1) sprints, 2) routes (two-turns), and 3) one mile (one-turn).

The rail post has a bad reputation in the main track's one-turn miles, but the statistics from most recent meets fail to back that up. All posts, including the rail, appear to be fair in one-turn miles, and if anything, based strictly on the numbers from recent main track meets under the current track superintendent, the rail seems to be better in mile races (one turn) than it is in the longer two-turn route races.

In terms of favorable running styles, raw percentages for Aqueduct's winning track profile show that you can expect about 27 percent of Aqueduct main track sprint winners to go wire-to-wire. In main track route races, the wire-to-wire percentage is similar at about 25 percent. This is less than at most racetracks.

The most likely winner on the Aqueduct main track is a horse that presses or stalks the pace, close enough to the leaders to be positioned in the front half of the field at the first call. The win percentage for deeper closers drops off steeply the further back a horse is at the first call.

There is a logical reason for this. On the main track, particularly at 7 furlongs and one mile, there is a long run down the backstretch no need to rush-up into position and immediately drop over to the rail for the turn. This is the way races are run and won on the Aqueduct inner track, but not necessarily on the main track. Saving ground, it turns out, means very little in any Aqueduct main track race run at one turn.

Post position and ground-saving trips in dirt routes are another story. At Aqueduct in two-turn routes, the percentages favor horses breaking from inner or middle post positions. Running style definitely plays into this, as well. When a horse that needs the lead draws outside and must be used early, this is a big disadvantage as opposed to a speed horse that can draw inside.  Post position is also important for stalkers in these races. Since saving ground is not as important, stalkers do better when they draw out in the middle of the gate as opposed to down inside, where they can get buried down on the rail behind front-runners that drop over from the outside, thereby potentially causing traffic problems or bad trips that may compromise their chances.

Aqueduct Turf Racing

As far as running styles are concerned on the Aqueduct grass course, many handicappers assume speed carries well on the Aqueduct turf because of its tight turns. Take note, however, that has often not been the case at recent Aqueduct fall meets with only about 15% of all turf winners going wire-to-wire.  In fact, not only aren't front runners always good bets on the Aqueduct grass - but even the pace pressers sometimes don't do well.  The average profile of an Aqueduct turf route winner indicates that mid-pack and off-the-pace horses do the best. In total, about two-thirds of all grass winners can be expected to 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 you see proof that this trend is reversing.

Not surprisingly, the far outside posts generally do not do well on the Aqueduct lawn. Even when short-term stats show that closers tend to win more than their share, the long-term stats show that posts 8 and outward struggle on the grass at Aqueduct.  This seems to suggest the importance of saving ground early in Aqueduct turf races, especially around the first turn. As a handicapper, if you think a horse cannot save ground on the first turn, either because of post position or running style or a combination of both, then you must bet against that horse because saving ground on the first turn on the Aqueduct turf is crucial.

Weather plays a giant role in the Aqueduct turf results at the fall meet.  During the fall meet, the days continually get shorter and shorter, daylight fades and temperatures decrease.  This all leads to consistently softer course conditions at Aqueduct than at Belmont - especially the very firm September portion of the Belmont meet. This favors horses that can handle less-than-firm turf at Aqueduct.

The truth of the matter is that Aqueduct turf course in the fall is almost always less-than-firm, even when racing is conducted under so-called "firm" conditions.  Aqueduct's "firm" is different from Belmont's firm during September, but not so different from Belmont's turf course conditions in October. That is why you see a lot of turf repeat winners at Aqueduct in November from horses that won their previous starts at Belmont in October.

Therefore, when handicapping Aqueduct turf routes, you must be willing and able to primarily seek-out three types of horses; 1) horses that benefit from less-than-firm turf (scan PPs for wins or high-placings in good-yielding-soft, 2) horses with past turf wins during Aqueduct's fall meet, and 3) New York-based horses that won or improved at Belmont during the month of October.

The reason I specify looking for a horse's past performances at Aqueduct's fall meets only is because the course plays very differently in spring than it does in fall. It should be noted the spring meets have been more favorable to early speed on grass, while the fall meets tend to be much more beneficial to closers on the grass. This is because, as mentioned above, decreasing temps and lack of sunlight make the Aqueduct turf softer in fall than in spring.

Also in cooler, sometimes wet, fall weather conditions, handicappers must take note that the turf rail is often the last place to fully dry out, making the inside a disadvantage when the track is being upgraded from good-yielding-soft to firm.  This plays into the lower win percentage for the far inside posts on the Aqueduct turf course. The rail dries-out slowest. Therefore, downgrade the rail post when the track has recently gone from less-than-firm, to firm.

One final handicapping note about running-style preferences on the Aqueduct turf. Horseplayers must note that the Aqueduct course, just like many other courses, is more speed-favoring when the temporary rails are up and placed away from the hedge.  This narrowing of the turf course saves the inside lanes from wear-and-tear, but also decreases the width the course and makes the turns tighter.  This helps the chances of front runners and hurts the chances of closers versus at other times when the turf rails are at '0 (the hedge).

There are scores and scores of turf sprint horses still stabled in New York in November due to the extensive turf sprint program over at Belmont. These turf sprinters have only three options at Aqueduct . . .  switch to the dirt, get out of town, or stretch out to a mile. With the exception of the "get out of town" option, these choices for these horsemen are all bad, and rarely lead to any success. Most of these turf sprint horses do get out of town, but many try at least one turf stretchout race, or one dirt sprint before making their way out of town. Both types are strong bet-againsts.  Turf sprinters are overbet based on meaningless good form in turf sprints, either when they switch to the dirt (usually not their forte) or when they stretch out on turf, which at Aqueduct means two turns (also not their forte).

Whether you will be concentrating on Aqueduct, or Churchill, or Del Mar, or all three tracks this fall, you will be in store for some great horseracing and wagering action throughout the second half of November.  It is fall racing's last hurrah, so don't miss it.  Best of luck, and have a happy Thanksgiving!

By Noel Michaels

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