Keeneland Handicapping Primer: Fall Stars Weekend and Beyond

Keeneland Racecourse is ready to open for its three-week, 17-race day, boutique meet that runs from Friday, Oct. 6, to Saturday, Oct. 28. And since Keeneland’s fall meet is front-loaded with stakes, now is the time for handicappers to start brushing up on some of the things they need to know to make money during the fall’s marquee meet.

The Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships are only about a month away and between now and then, Keeneland will feature some of the best racing in the land and attract big fields, good horses, and many top jockeys and trainers to the world epicenter of thoroughbred horseracing in Lexington, Kentucky.

It is important to focus on the racing and wagering at Keeneland, despite the fact that most of the buzz heading into this year’s fall meet has been negative. Much to the chagrin of horseplayers, Keeneland has recently raised its betting takeouts from 16 percent to 17.5 percent on straight bets, and from 19 percent to 22 percent on most other wagers.  It will be interesting to see how bettors react to this move and how it will impact the meet overall. The lone positive, perhaps, was that the takeout on the pick-5 was lowered from 19 percent to 15 percent.

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On the plus side is the racing at Keeneland.  The track’s 17 stakes races, including six Grade 1 events, will be worth more than $5 million. The meet opens with the prestigious “Fall Stars Weekend” on Oct. 6-8.

In total, Keeneland will host nine Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” stakes, each with automatic qualifying bids into the Breeders’ Cup.

Keeneland’s signature Fall Stars Weekend alone will offer nine graded stakes worth $3.7 million. Five of those races are Grade 1 affairs. Opening day on Friday, Oct. 6, will feature the $400,000 Alcibiades (G1) for 2-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles and the Phoenix (G2) for the sprinters at six furlongs.

The Saturday, Oct. 7 card includes the $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile, the $500,000 Breeders’ Futurity (G1) for 2-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles, the $400,000 First Lady (G1) for fillies and mares at a mile on the turf and the $250,000 Thoroughbred Club of America (G2), a prolific prep for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

Racing on Sunday, Oct. 8, will be highlighted by the $500,000 Spinster (G1) for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles and the $250,000 Bourbon Stakes, a prep for the Juvenile Turf.

The ninth Breeders’ Cup Challenge race is the Jessamine (G3) Stakes on Oct. 11, which awards the winner a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

BC-Preps

When looking ahead to the Breeders’ Cup, remember that the winners of more than 40 Breeders’ Cup races had their final prep at Keeneland during that track’s fall meet. down through the years. Keeneland’s most productive preps in that regard, historically, have been the Thoroughbred Cup of America, Spinster, Shadwell Turf Mile, Alcibiades and Breeders’ Futurity. So, pay closest attention to the horses exiting those races.

Keeneland Winning Main Track Profiles

Historically, Keeneland has been known as an inside-speed paved highway in terms of handicapping.  That all changed during Keeneland’s Polytrack era, but the bias has returned now that Keeneland’s main track is comprised of good old-fashioned dirt once more.

The one-post wins at 15-percent clip in dirt sprints and at a 16-percent clip in dirt routes, including routes at one mile, which were added in the fall of 2015 (with a 210-foot run up, these races are actually closer to a mile and 70 yards). Keeneland’s “one mile” races are run with a short stretch ending at the sixteenth pole.

As far as running style and post positions go, horses have their best chances by staying within two lengths of the lead at the first call in sprints, and within four lengths of the front at the first call in routes. The post positions are mostly fair in sprints, but in routes favor the inside gates, particularly 1-3.

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Statistics from 2006-17 via Keeneland Racecourse.

Keeneland Turf Trends

The other main staple of the quality day-to-day racing at Keeneland is the great turf racing, which features full fields, tons of value and loads of good overlays. Usually the most bettable racing taking place at Keeneland is happening on the grass.

One thing that differentiates Keeneland from so many other places is that they routinely run on wet turf courses that are listed as “yielding” or something other than “firm.” Don’t overlook these softer turf courses when looking for value, because they are often a source of some of the best longshot payoffs at the meet.

Handicappers in these races often make the mistake of paying too much attention to a horse’s recent form, while ignoring what really matters in many of these cases. What it often boils down to is whether or not the horse can run its best race on a softer turf course. Remember that certain horses like firm turf while others prefer a little bit of give in the ground. If you can differentiate between the two, you will have a big advantage over the general public in the races run on rain-soaked sod.

Post positions and horses for the course are very important handicapping factors on the Keeneland grass course too, and this factor will play-out all throughout the meet.

In Keeneland turf routes, inside posts are good, but middle posts — up to post seven — are fine too.  The far outside posts (11-up), however, are not great at most distances on the Keeneland grass. In two-turn grass races run at Keeneland since 2006, posts 1-7 have an impact value of 1.06, while posts 8-14 have a 0.85 IV. The worst races for outside posts will definitely be at the one-mile distance, and the absolute worst posts for all turf routes are posts 11 and outward.

Turf Sprints

Keeneland really doesn’t card very many turf sprints — just 31 since 2014. However, with stats in these races going back to 2006, Keeneland’s turf sprints definitely favor two things:

1) Outside posts.
2) Off-the-pace runners that rally from between 2-6 engths behind with a half-mile to run.

Just like in New York at Saratoga and Belmont, the main angle in Keeneland’s turf sprints involves betting against horses with inside draws. The rail post has an abysmal 0.46 IV and posts 2-7 have an IV of 0.90. Meanwhile, posts 8-14 have a 1.42 IV, so upgrade outside runners in those races, especially if the betting public mistakenly ignores this disadvantage.

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Statistics from 2006-17 via Keeneland Racecourse.

Jockeys and Trainers

The fall meet in 2016 was all about jockeys Julien Leparoux and Florent Geroux finished in the top two spots in the jockey standings. They were followed by Robby Albarado and Corey Lanerie. Similar results should be expected to prevail at the 2017 Keeneland Fall Meet.

However, one jockey to key on in particular might be Lanerie, based on results from the brief Churchill September meet. As of Oct. 1, Lanerie was running away with the meet riding title with 25 wins from 94 starters (27 percent). The next-closest winning jockeys were Geroux and Brian Hernandez, each with 10 victories.

The discussion of Keeneland trainers must begin with Mike Maker, who has been winning at a spectacular clip at the recent major Kentucky meets, including Keeneland and Churchill Downs.  There is little value to be found with Maker on the tote board, but, nevertheless, his horses are impossible to overlook and must be respected, even at short prices.

This is also the case with Wesley Ward and with the Todd Pletcher string of horses, mostly allowance and stakes types, which will run at the meet. With Ward, however, be aware that his overall meet statistics include spring meet numbers, which are much better for Ward than his numbers at fall meets, when the competition has caught up with this 2-year-olds and turf sprinters that he does so well with at the spring meet.

Other trainers who can usually be counted on to invade Keeneland with live runners include Bill Mott, Graham Motion, Shug McGaughey, Kiaran McLaughlin and Christophe Clement, who should be splitting their stock between Keeneland and Belmont during the month of October. This list of trainers tends to excel in turf races and routes. The local circuit of trainers generally tends to excel in sprints and claiming races. The top local barns will compete at every level, including trainers like Ken McPeek, Dale Romans and Eddie Kenneally.

The multiple-year leading trainer at past recent Keeneland fall meets was Ken McPeek — and he should again be loaded for the 2017 fall racing season, with plenty of starters lined-up during the 17-day Keeneland fall meet. McPeek’s weakness at this meet tends to be with maidens, but he should be strong in all other categories.

Mark Casse was very prominent at the 2016 Keeneland fall meet and is expected to vie for the 2017 title. Casse is having a good Churchill September meet with six winners from only 19 starters for a big 32-percent win rate. McPeek had seven winners at Churchill from many more starters to tie for the Churchill lead as of Oct. 1 with Brad Cox, who was 7-for-29 for 24 percent.  Cox does great work in all categories, particularly on the turf.

Final Thoughts

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Statistics from 2006-17 via Keeneland Racecourse.

Another good handicapping angle at the Keeneland fall meet involves distance cutbacks. Horses shortening from a race at a mile or longer last time into sprints during the Keeneland fall meet are customarily very good bets at this meet.  Particular trainers to watch with this angle include Dallas Stewart, Graham Motion and Ian Wilkes.

Some of the best fall racing in the country will be held during the 17-day Keeneland meet from Oct. 6 through Oct. 28.  I wish you all an enjoyable and successful meet.

Noel Michaels
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
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