Sep 19, 2003
Tackling the Fall Meet at Keeneland
By: Richard Nilsen
Sitting on a picturesque stretch of land surrounded by some of the country’s most beautiful farms, Keeneland racecourse is unique in its beauty and history. However, as handicappers we require more than aesthetics. We need a good reason or two to tackle a track that could easily be dubbed the “Saratoga of the Midwest.” Let’s start with four.
Kentucky racing offers one of the best takeout structures in the country. Straight wagers (win, place, show) are “taxed” at only 16 percent, meaning 84 percent of the handle is returned to the betting public. Where it really gets good is with the exotics, especially multi-race wagers. All exotic wagers have a low 19-percent takeout, well below the national average. Consider that some of the top tracks in Chicago, New York and Louisiana all have takeouts of 25 percent for wagers such as trifectas, superfectas, Pick Fours and Pick Sixes. Keeneland is a bargain for shrewd horseplayers that factor in the price of their wagers.
Keeneland offers a unique 17-day condition book. The racing cards cater to the high-profile barns that ship in from out of state. There are a few claiming races written but, surprisingly, none on the turf. The only grass races are allowance events and stakes, so the quality of these events is very high. There is a stakes event nearly every day, and several that will factor strongly in the Breeders’ Cup equation (see the end of this article).
Races are rarely taken off the grass course here, so one doesn’t have to worry about wasting time handicapping a turf race only to find out the race is “off.”
If you understand the predominant turf bias here and are familiar with the barns that point to this meet, then turf racing can be a prime reason to play Keeneland on a daily basis.
Exploiting the Keeneland track biases is the main reason many professional players salivate at the thought of opening day. The Lexington, Ky., oval can be one of the most biased courses in the country, and “being tuned into it” can prove to be very lucrative.
The first thing to keep an eye on is whether or not the “golden rail” exists. If so, speed horses that grab the rail early on will prove difficult to beat. When this bias is strong, wire-to-wire winners will take race after race, many at good prices.
In April of this year, the “golden rail” bias was very erratic and did not exist on most days. This made the meet difficult to handicap, especially for players who were used to a more reliable track bias.
One factor you can almost always rely on involves two-turn races on the dirt, namely the 1 1/16-mile events. The starting gate for this commonly run distance is close to the first turn and the stretch-run is short, making it conducive to speed horses breaking from inside posts.
Another reliable bias involves the turf course. The Keeneland grass course typically benefits runners from off the pace. Only an exceptional horse can wire a turf field here. Most front-runners collapse in the stretch-run, or sooner, while the winner is often seen making a sweeping, strong rally on the outside.
At meets such as Keeneland, the high-profile riders win most of the races. In 2002, jockeys Pat Day and Robby Albarado won 44 and 43 races, respectively, accounting for 87 of the 297 races run (29%). Also, keep an eye on names like Prado, Perret and St. Julien when they show up in the entry box this fall.
The first few days usually set the tone for the remainder of the meet. Stay away from jockeys who start off cold. They rarely recover and will burn a lot of money.
According to Thoroughbred Sports Network’s (www.tsnhorse.com) Kentucky Track Stats book (also available at www.americanturf.com), shippers from certain tracks perform poorly at Keeneland. Shippers that last raced in Ohio, West Virginia, Texas and New Jersey made 125 starts in 2002 and won only four races. Claiming races or stakes, it doesn’t matter, stay away from these shippers.
Many barns point for this meeting and arrive loaded for bear. There are also many fine local trainers that fare very well during the short meet, and knowing who they are behooves the horseplayer. We’ll take a look at a list of some sleeper trainers, who are not as well known outside the Midwest.
James Baker — From limited starters, he usually pops with a winner or two at the meet. Baker is a fine horseman who can surprise with two-year-olds, turf runners and layoff horses.
Wayne Bearden — A top claiming trainer, Bearden spots his horses well. The last couple of meets have not been as solid as in past years, but he is capable of scoring frequently and at nice prices.
Bernie Flint — The best claiming trainer in Kentucky doesn’t take a vacation in April or October. Flint has won 19 percent from 70 starts over the past three years. He often surprises with first-time starters and runners dropping in class.
Greg Foley — This sharp horseman has won 30 percent of his starts at Keeneland, with all his wins coming in dirt sprints.
John Glenney — Watch out for this small barn with turf routers.
Angel Hyland — This Ohio-based horseman likes to ship into Kentucky and score at a price. Keeneland is one of the stops he likes to make.
Forrest Kaelin — Here’s a name few outside Kentucky know. Kaelin has won 24 percent of his dirt sprint starts over the past three years. Dangerous when moving runners up in class.
Diane Perkins — Small outfit is usually loaded with turf runners but can score on any surface and at any distance. Loves to point to this meet with two-year-olds, as evidenced by a 38 percent win rate the past three years.
Dale Romans — Has won 23 percent from 112 Keeneland starts. Watch out for his shippers and runners returning from layoffs of 91 days or more. Take a pass on any of his firsters.
Jeffrey Thornbury — An 18-percent winner here over the past three years, he is especially dangerous when making distance or surface switches.
Jessie Wigginton — A local Kentucky trainer who is especially dangerous second start off a claim, distance changes (in either direction) and claiming dirt sprinters.
The KY Road to the Cup
Keeneland always has a direct influence on the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, to be held this year at Santa Anita’s Oak Tree meet. The Cup will have several contenders who made their last start at Keeneland, so watching the following stakes could pay off on Oct. 25:
October 3 - Darley Alcibiades (Grade II), $400,000, two-year-old fillies, 1 1/16 miles;
October 3 - Phoenix Breeders’ Cup (Grade III), $250,000-added, three-year-olds and up, six furlongs;
October 4 - Shadwell Turf Mile (Grade I), $600,000, three-year-olds and up, one mile (turf); Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (Grade II), $400,000, two-year-olds, 1 1/16 miles;
October 5 - Overbrook Spinster (Grade I), $500,000, three-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, 1 1/8 miles; WinStar Galaxy (Grade II), $500,000, three-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, 1 3/16 miles (turf);
October 11 - Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (Grade I), $500,000, three-year-old fillies, 1 1/8 miles (turf).
Take advantage of the great racing, low takeout and potential track bias opportunities that this select meet offers each year. It’s “racing as it was meant to be,” and Keeneland delivers on that promise.
Rich Nilsen is a handicapper and writer living in Lexington, Ky. He has qualified three times for the NTRA Championship, including winning the 2001 Keeneland contest and, most recently, the 2003 Turfway Park Handicapping Blowout.
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