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Keeneland Spring Meet Preview

Nestled just outside of Lexington, Kentucky, Keeneland Racecourse is one of the more player friendly tracks you’ll find in anywhere in the country.  And while some players have lamented the arrival of the Polytrack surface and the fundamental change in the way races are run and won at the track, the truth of the matter is that Keeneland provides tons of fantastic racing and wagering opportunities on a daily basis.  Additionally, the track provides a wealth handicapping information free to everyone on their website in the form of Trackus charts, race replays, clocker reports, and "Polycapping" data.  Many tracks around the country pale in comparison.

Friday marks the beginning of the Keeneland spring meet, a meet that will feature an outstanding graded stakes prgram (see chart below), along with the track's usual assortment of high-class day to day racing.

2010 Keeneland Stakes Calendar

Date

Race

Grade

Condition

Distance

April 2nd

Transylvania

III

3yo

1 1/16 miles (T)

April 3rd

Ashland

I

3yo, Fillies

1 1/16miles

April 7th

Beaumont

II

3yo, Fillies

7f

April 8th

Vinery Madison

I

4yo & up

7f

April 9th

Maker’s Mark Mile

I

4yo & up

1m (T)

April 10th

Toyota Blue Grass

I

3yo

1 1/8 miles

April 10th

Commonwealth

II

3yo & up

7f

April 10th

Jenny Wiley

II

4yo & up, F&M

1 1/16 (T)

April 10th

Shakertown

III

3yo & up

5 ½ f (T)

April 15th

Appalachian

III

4yo & up, Fillies

1m (T)

April 16th

Doubledogdare

III

4yo & up, F&M

1 1/16 miles

April 17th

Coolmore Lexington

II

3yo

1 1/16 miles

April 17th

Giant’s Causeway

Listed

3yo & up, F&M

5 ½ f (T)

April 18th

Ben Ali

III

4yo & up

1 1/8miles

April 22nd

Grey Goose Bewitch

III

4yo & up, F&M

1 ½ miles (T)

April 23rd

Fifth Third Elkhorn

II

4yo & up

1 ½ miles (T)


The spring meet post times and wagering menu can be found here.

I've spent the last several weeks going through a the track data available at the Keeneland website.  What follows are trends and observations that I believe could be the key to uncovering winners during the meet.

The Track

Following the installation of Polytrack prior to the 2006 fall meet, there have been 353 spring meet races run over the main track.   Forty-four (44) of the 353 winners were first time starters in maiden races – we’ll deal with those later on.  That leaves us with 309 races over the Polytrack that were run by a horse with a race record.  Of the 309 non-first time starter races, the last race of the winning horse breaks down in this manner:

132: Last race on dirt
98: Last race on synthetic
79: Last race on turf

At first glance at those numbers it seems to suggest that horses that last ran on dirt have no problem at all switching to the Keeneland surface, and on its face that observation is true.  But if we dig a little deeper we see that there is more to it. 

Of the 132 horses to win at Keeneland that had their last race on dirt, seventy-three (73) had a prior race over a synthetic or turf surface at least once in their career.  That leaves us with only fifty-nine (59) horses with "dirt only" form to win.  Of those fifty-nine "dirt only" winners, thirty-eight (38) showed their last published work taking place at Keeneland.  That leaves us with just twenty-one (21) horses to win at Keeneland that combined "dirt only" form with their last workout at a track other than Keeneland. That works out to just 6.8% of all winners.

Overall, 250 of the 309 non-first time starter horses to win over the Polytrack the last three spring meets had at least one race over a synthetic or grass surface, or 81% of all winners.

First time on the grass

One of my favorite angles to play is a horse making his first lifetime start on the turf because many times you can catch a horse that has seen his form darkened by poor performances over the dirt.   At Keeneland, however, this strategy doesn’t work very often. 

In the last three years there have been 198 races run over the Keeneland turf course during both the fall and the spring meets.  (I looked at both meets for a large sample.)  Of those 198 races, only seven (7) have been won by horses that have never started a race on the grass and all seven of those horses had at least one previous start over a synthetic surface.  In other words, in the last three years there hasn’t been one winner on the turf course that had run exclusively on dirt. 

One more little bit of information, of those seven horses that had only run on synthetic prior to winning on the Keeneland turf, only one had not even won on the synthetic.  So, for horses that have run and won only on dirt prior to winning on the Keeneland turf you’re looking at a 1 for 198 hit rate.  For the mathematically challenged, 0.51% of all Keeneland turf winners fit that profile.

Maiden Races

There are essentially two types of maiden races we will see at Keeneland this spring: Maiden Special Weights for two year olds at four and a half furlongs ("baby races"), and Maiden Special Weights for three year olds at distances from six to nine furlongs. 

The baby races are almost always won by a first time starter (twenty-six (26) FTS in twenty-nine (29) races over three spring meets), which is entirely logical considering that these field are filled with nothing but first time starters.  Something to take note of with the first timers that win baby races, of those twenty-six horses that won at first asking, twenty-three (23) of them had their last work over the Keeneland Polytrack surface.  Of the three that didn’t work over the Keeneland surface, two were trained by Wesley Ward (one of the best trainers with two year olds around) and the other by Dale Romans that trained over the dirt track at Churchill Downs.

While the baby races play to the speed and the firsters, the three year old Maiden Special Weights are a much more interesting group.  In the last three spring meets there have been sixty-eight (68) Maiden Special Weight races restricted to three year olds, of which only nine (9) were won by first time starters (13.24%).  Now here’s the interesting part: of the other fifty-nine (59) races not won by a FTS, thirty-one (31) of those were won by a horse that had run his last race on dirt and had never run over a synthetic OR a grass surface, a staggering 53%.  This trend is directly opposite of what we see in the other main track races where horses sporting only dirt form win at a very low clip.

Let’s go back to some of those Polytrack numbers I wrote about in the beginning.  Over the last three Keeneland spring meets we’ve only seen fifty-nine (59) horses win on the Polytrack having last raced on dirt and having never started on either synthetic or turf.  And thirty-one of those winners did so in Maiden Special Weight races restricted to three year olds. 

Why do we see this turnaround in these races?  It could be that these restricted maiden races feature many outclassed runners that will lose regardless of the surface.  It could also be just a statistical fluke.  Regardless of the reason the takeaway seems clear: horses sporting only dirt form are traditionally poor bets to win over the Polytrack at Keeneland unless they are running in a Maiden Special Weight race restricted to three year olds.  In that situation they represent over half of all historical winners.

Speed on the Polytrack

There’s a misconception that’s floated around the handicapping community that speed doesn’t win on the Keeneland Polytrack surface.  And while it’s true that the main track doesn’t favor speed to the extent of the old dirt surface, speed can and does win over the Polytrack. 

Just looking at the last three spring meets, horses leading at the half mile pole have won approximately 25% of all non-baby sprint races, or sprint races carded from 5 ½ to 7 furlongs.  That doesn’t seem like an outrageously low number to me.  Sure, there are going to be some classy early speed types that won’t take to the Polytrack and will tire badly in the stretch, but a quarter of the races being won by horses leading at the half mile mark doesn’t suggest to me that speed can’t win.  Winning from the front is much more difficult than on the old dirt track - that is absolutely true – but not all races on the main track completely fall apart in deep stretch.

The thing to pay particular attention to at Keeneland is the distance of the race.  Check out the numbers below for winners who led at the ½ mile mark for each sprint distance during the last three spring meets:

2007 – 2009 Spring Meets

Distance

Races

½ mile leader

Win %

5.5f

6

2

33.33%

6.0f

74

18

23.32%

6.5f

27

10

37.04%

7.0

90

19

21.11%


The numbers for the 6.5 furlong races stand out as somewhat odd since they suggest that more horses will win on the front than at 6.0 furlongs.  I think that’s a bit of an anomaly due to the small sample size (27 races) as compared to the other sprint distances.  And if we look at these same numbers for the fall meets we see the pattern we expect.

2006 – 2009 Fall Meets

Distance

Races

½ mile leader

Win %

5.5f

5

1

20.00%

6.0f

127

34

26.77%

6.5f

58

12

20.69%

7.0

149

28

18.79%


That chart looks a little more normal: leaders at the half mile pole win more frequently in 6 furlong races than they do in 6.5 furlong races.  And leaders at the ½ mile pole in 6.5 furlong races win more frequently than those in 7 furlong races. 

If we combine the fall and spring meets together we get the following data:

All Poly Meets

Distance

Races

½ mile leader

Win %

5.5f

11

3

27.27%

6.0f

201

52

25.87%

6.5f

85

22

25.88%

7.0

239

47

19.67%


The different between the 6 furlong and the 6.5 furlong races now looks much more reasonable, as does the indication that as the distances get longer, the effectiveness of early speed in minimized.

Speed on the Turf

The level of turf racing at Keeneland is some of the highest around as every race is run under allowance or stakes conditions; there aren’t any claiming or maiden races run over the lawn. 

Not surprisingly, speed is relatively ineffective on the Keeneland turf course.  During the last three spring meets, only 14.6% of turf winners led at the half mile pole (12-for-82), which is pretty much the same number we see during the fall meet (14-for-116, 10.5%). 

Looking at average beaten lengths at the half mile mark tells us essentially the same thing as turf winners are approximately 3+ lengths behind the leaders at the half mile point in the race.  The chart below breaks out all spring turf races by distance with the average beaten lengths of the winner at the half mile marker.

Distance

# of Races

½ Mile Avg. Beaten Lengths

5.5 f

6

-1.98

8.0 f

20

-2.22

8.5 f

22

-2.81

9.0 f

18

-3.55

9.5 f

4

-3.75

12.0 f

10

-4.48

20.0 f

2

-8.75

Total

82

-3.16

 

The longer the race, the more likely we’ll see horses winning from the back of the pack on the grass. That’s not an earth shattering statistic but it’s a good fact to remember. 

Where are the Big Prices?

If you want to know which races during the Keeneland spring meet have historically produced the largest prices during the past three spring meets, look no further than the graded stakes events.  No other race at the track come close to giving out as many box car prices as does the highest level of racing.  Below are the median odds for each class level at the Keeneland spring meets on the Polytrack over the past three years.

Race Condition

Median Odds

Stakes (Listed and Graded)

8.40

Maiden Claiming

5.25

Allowance/Optional Claiming

4.50

Claiming (all non-maiden levels)

4.40

Maiden Special Weight (3 YOs, 4&up)

3.90

Allowance

3.60

Maiden Special Weight (2 YOs)

2.70

Starter Allowance

2.50


A couple of really good pieces of information in that chart the first of which is the fact that the stakes races at the spring meet have produced the largest prices over the last three years.  Second, the baby races (Maiden Special Weights for two year olds) produce some of the absolute worst payouts at the track.  Let’s tackle the stakes races first.

I think the reason why stakes races have produced the largest median payouts at the Keeneland spring meet is due to the complexion of the fields themselves.  The graded stakes races, because they are the top level of racing, attract a very diverse group of horses.  Many of these horses look great when running on dirt, sporting gaudy speed figures and beaten lengths.  Then they try the Polytrack and flop after receiving a ton of cash from the crowd.  Just like the North American bettors that ignore the classy European horses on the grass in order to bet the familiar American horses, there is a significant percentage of the betting public that will put good money on dirt horses running in stakes races on synthetic tracks thinking the form will magically transfer. 

Now, about those low payouts on the baby races: when you crack open the Form for this Friday’s start of the spring meet you’ll be presented with at least a couple races for two year olds that are comprised almost entirely of horses making their first lifetime start.  At first glance it may seem that the race is impossible to decipher and that it’s likely that a bomb will come in due to nobody knowing how any of the horse will run at first asking.  That’s a false assumption to have due to the fact that low priced horses do exceptionally well in these races.  If you are playing a Pick 3 or a Pick 4, you need to really think hard about going deep in a baby race because more times than not you’re going to end up spending a lot of money just to get the favorite.

Unlike the stakes races over the Polytrack, you won’t see a lot of huge prices coming out of Keeneland’s spring turf races, but there are opportunities to bring home a $10 horse.  Over the past three spring meets, the median odds for the winner of a stakes race on the Keeneland turf course is 3.50.  Allowances races run on the grass, however, sport median odds of 4.20.  The chart below provides a breakout of the turf events the last three meets.

Condition

Total Races

Median Odds

≥4/1

% ≥4/1

≤2/1

% ≤2/1

Allowance

57

4.20

30

53%

10

19%

Stakes

25

3.50

11

44%

5

20%

Totals

82

4.05

41

50%

15

18%


The sample sizes here aren’t huge due to the relatively smaller number of turf races taking place on a daily basis, but I think they suggest a couple of points.  First, about half the time a turf race during the Keeneland spring meet is going to produce a $10 winner.  And second, the allowance races seem the more likely spot for a larger price. 

Post Positions

There is not a lot of earth shattering information to be gleaned from an analysis of Keeneland spring meet post position winners with the exception of one point: horses breaking from outside posts in sprint races win their fair share of races.  For example, horses breaking from the 10 hole account for only 5% of all starters in sprint races at the last three spring meets, yet those same horses account for 6% of all winners.  Good horses breaking from the outside posts in sprint races aren’t compromised at all by their position. 

While outside posts might be beneficial when sprinting on the Polytrack, they are not a good place to be when routing on the turf.  In the last three years, seventy-one (71) horses have broken from the 10 hole or higher in a turf route, and only two have won.  The outside three posts have produced 10% of the starters in turf routes but only 3% of the winners.  

Jockeys

I wanted to make just one note about jockeys at the recent Keeneland spring meets, in particular a point about Julien Leparoux, winner of the riding title at last year’s spring meet.  In 2009, Leparoux was 8-for-19 in races run on a turf, an astonishing 42% clip.  What’s even more astonishing is that in the previous two Keeneland spring meets Leparoux was a horrid 2-for-40 on the turf with his only two winners being the classy Danzon and Lady of Venice (FR).  That’s a remarkable turnaround for Leparoux, and it’s something to watch for early on in the meet.

Last spring, the best place to bring home a horse at inflated odds with Leparoux in the irons is on the Polytrack where the average odds for his winners were 5.47 with the median odds of 3.80.  On the turf his average odds falls to 2.49 with median odds of 2.15.

Trainers

The top three trainers of two year olds during last year’s spring meet were Steve Asmussen (5/12, 42%), Todd Pletcher (2/4, 50%), and Wesley Ward (3/11, 27%).  Over the past three years, those three trainers have accounted for twenty-four winners in baby races (10: Asmussen, 7: Pletcher, Ward).

Speaking of Steven Asmussen, only seven two year old horses have won a Madien Special Weight during the last three Keeneland spring meets and paid off at odds of greater than 4/1.  Amazingly, four of those seven were trained by Steve Asmussen.  I say "amazingly" because it’s rare that we find Asmussen two year olds going off at decent prices due to his traditionally high hit rate.

I pulled the results charts for Asmussen’s four baby winners at odds of 4/1 or higher from the Brisnet Chart Archives and then followed that up by pulling the past performances for the Asmussen horses and the PPs for the beaten favorite in each of those races.  All of the Asmussen winners show prior works over the Keeneland surface but so did three of the four beaten favorites, the lone exception being the Wesley Ward trained Foot the Bill on April 14th of last year.  Of the four beaten favorites, two were first time starters trained by Todd Pletcher, one was a first time starter trained by Wesley Ward, and the third was a second time starter trained by Trudy Veinot Feliciano.  There doesn’t appear to any appreciable difference as to why the Asmussen babies won these races and the favorites didn’t and perhaps the only take away from these examples is that a first time starter from any trainer that performs well with two year old horses should be respected. 

Final Thoughts

Big pools, big fields, high class racing on the grass, and graded stakes races almost every day of the meet…there’s just something about Keeneland that gets the handicapping blood pumping. 

It’s time for Keeneland!