With so little good racing taking place in January and February at so few tracks, it becomes relatively easy during the winter months to keep close tabs on the races and results from just about every major track racing at this time of year. This is an advantage for horseplayers and handicappers, who get a better chance to keep their fingers on the pulse of everything that’s important in the Sport of Kings simply by focusing on the few main race meets going on now, including places like Aqueduct, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn and Santa Anita, as well as Tampa Bay Downs, Laurel, Golden Gate and — last, but not least — Fair Grounds.
Fair Grounds has long been one of the best fall-winter race meets in the country, yet it is often overlooked on the winter wagering landscape that also includes more high-profile tracks. Nevertheless, Fair Grounds is a quality track with big, competitive fields that most bettors love. Plus, the track hosts quality wintertime grass races, not to mention a solid stakes line-up with a good 3-year-old stakes program leading to the meet’s premier event, the Louisiana Derby.
One of the most notable things for handicappers to discover when it comes to the aptly named Fair Grounds, is that the track is one of the fairest surfaces in the country when it comes to running styles because the Fair Grounds seems to remain one of the few tracks that legitimately does not provide a consistent edge to any one running style, or inside or outside paths. Whether your horse is a frontrunner, a pace-presser, a stalker or a closer, it has a fair chance to win at the Fair Grounds.
Even at fair race tracks, however, it is always worth looking at the long-term trends and statistics to try to determine what running styles and post positions give a horse its best chance at success. Certain prevailing biases can be arrived at by a careful look at the results from the past several years.
Based on statistics from the last full Fair Grounds meet, the track can be expected to be exceptionally formful, with favorites winning at a 42 percent clip, while finishing in the money (ITM) 78 percent of the time. Average winning odds were a shade under 5-1.
In Fair Grounds sprints, both early speed/pressers and closers can usually be depended on to run well from just about any post position. At each of the most commonly run distances, however, early speed horses win most on the main track, accounting for 34 percent wins at five furlongs and 36 percent wins at six panels. In terms of post position at those distances, the inside posts (1-4) usually produce the best win percentages.
The segment of horses at the most risk from bad trips in Fair Grounds sprints are the mid-pack stalkers, who could get caught in tough spots wide on the turn if they draw outside posts in big fields. These horses often have to be used too hard to gain position going into the turn, or else end up falling into the Fair Grounds trap of trying to make their middle moves while wide on the turn instead of using the more prudent strategy of waiting until the long straightaway before launching their late bids.
Meanwhile, in Fair Grounds route races run at 1 mile, 1 mile & 70 yards, and 1 1/16 miles, post position is a key issue due to the short run up to the first turn. Horses that break from wide posts in these races usually suffer wide, ground-losing trips — especially at a 1 mile & 70 yards where speed horses and pressers that break from the inside enjoy a huge tactical advantage. At the commonly run route distance of 1 mile, inside posts are also extremely helpful. Note, however, that early speed is much less effective at a mile than it is at any sprint distance, with frontrunners accounting for a still-good 28 percent wins.
Switching gears now to the human connections at Fair Grounds, you can bet there is always a strong crew of Midwestern and national barns wintering in New Orleans with strings of horses of various abilities. You can usually count on a few blue-chip barns to win at big percentages.
At the 2017-18 Fair Grounds meet, it is already apparent that a few barns will be dominating. Brad Cox currently leads the way in terms of wins with 28 through Feb. 1. He also leads all regular trainers with an impressive 31 percent win rate. Joe Sharp is next with 27 wins from 103 starters (26 percent).
Tom Amoss can always be counted on at the meet and he is not disappointing so far with 21 wins for a 28 percent win rate and 58 percent ITM rate. Former Fair Grounds leading trainer, Mike Stidham, is also doing well with 16 wins from 78 starters for a 21 percent win percentage, and Al Stall is also winning at 20 percent clip, with 17 wins from his first 83 starters. All from this group are good bets, especially Joe Sharp, who has rapidly expanded on the local and national scene during the last couple years and is good in all kinds of situations, particularly on grass and in turf sprints. His winners tend to pay slightly higher prices than horses from the other top barns.
Trainers off to slow starts at Fair Grounds this season include the usually much more reliable Ron Faucheux (only 5-for-55, 9 percent) and Danny Pish (just 3-for-40, 8 percent). I have singled out this pair because both figure to improve their numbers dramatically. Faucheax is always a slow starter at the meet whose horses do better in their second or third starts of the campaign, and Pish has had some bad luck to only win three races so far with 15 other in-the-money finishes and a 45 percent ITM rate. Steve Asmussen is only winning at 12 percent currently (10-for-84), but keep in mind that this is typical, since he focuses his main dirt string up at Oaklawn each winter.
Plenty of excellent stakes racing will carry the Fair Grounds meet through to its conclusion on March 31, with the highlight coming on Louisiana Derby Day on March 24, which will feature eight stakes races worth $2.3 million in purses.