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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Monday, April 24, 2017 at 12:52 PM


The 2017 Churchill Downs Spring/Summer Meet begins on Saturday, April 29.  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. After that, the meet continues through the beginning of July as one of the best early summer race meets in the country.  Read onward for some inside tips on how to make money opening week at Churchill and build bankroll for horseracing's biggest day, and beyond.

The centerpiece of the Churchill Spring/Summer Meet, of course, will be the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 6.  The 2017 edition of the Run for the Roses is shaping up to be one of the most wide-open in years.  The early favorite, Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire, is lukewarm at best, and the winners of the Wood Memorial, Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Louisiana Derby, and especially the Blue Grass, do not seem to be particular standouts this year, either.  Handicapping the 2017 Kentucky Derby is going to be a challenge, that much is certain, but the running of the race and the watching and wagering will be as strong as ever.

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 to be run in front of a live crowd well in excess of 100,000 fans.  In fact, the Churchill Downs meet gets going up to full speed very quickly.  There are just five days of racing at the meet leading up to Kentucky Derby Day on May 6 (this includes Saturday, April 29, and then Tuesday through Friday, May 2-5).

Kentucky's three-week boutique Keeneland Spring meet comes and goes too 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. Scan the past performances closely of the horses coming from Keeneland. The PPs should provide clues as to which horses will improve based on the move to Churchill, and which might decline

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 from Keeneland. 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.


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.

Churchill Downs dirt mile races are run around one turn, and play more like sprints that routes.

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.


One thing handicappers should always do when evaluating a horse's chances is to win at Churchill Downs early in the meet is to 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 will not 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) are good in Keeneland sprints. 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.


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, 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, maybe.  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.  American Pharoah won from post 15 in 2015, and Nyquist won from post 13 in 2016. Food for thought?

Will the perpetually dead Churchill rail be affecting the CD 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 doing last year.  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, a unique race with 20 horses, the modern race always seems to favor outside runners, giving them much more room to maneuver early in the race as the inside horses get crunched.


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.


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 featured attraction, the 143rd running of 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.

By Noel Michaels


Click Here To See Noel's Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown Program

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