By Noel Michaels
You know the Kentucky Derby is close now that racing has returned to Keeneland for the Spring Meet, which opened last weekend and runs through April 23 before shifting to Churchill Downs and the countdown to the Derby on May 1.
The Keeneland meet features 18 stakes, 15 of them graded. The first weekend was a blockbuster, highlighted by unbeaten Essential Quality’s narrow victory in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) that likely stamped him as the horse to beat on the first Saturday in May.
Our handicapping approach will not address the stakes specifically, but rather the day-to-day action that makes Keeneland a must-bet racing season for racing fans and horseplayers.
It’s a relief for racing fans to again attend the spring meet at Keeneland – opened to a limited number of spectators — after last year’s meet was canceled due to COVID-19. In its place, Keeneland ran a brief one-week summer meet in 2020, in addition to its traditional October fall meet.
From a handicapping perspective, Keeneland was always known as an inside speed paved highway. The old, good rail has returned on the main track. The 1 post can be expected to win at around 20% in dirt sprints and up to 25% in dirt routes. Horses seem to have a fair chance in sprints all the way out to post 11, with inside, middle, and outside posts all offering fair win percentages. In two-turn dirt route races at a mile or more, horses can also win from any part of the starting gate, but overall, the inside posts 1-5 give a horse the best chance.
As for the preferred Keeneland main track running styles, horses have their best chances to win by staying within two lengths of the lead at the first call in sprints, and within four lengths of the lead at the first call in routes. Frontrunners do best at 6 furlongs (20% wire-to-wire and 33% of the winners on or close), and at 1 1/16 miles, also with about 20% wire-to-wire winners.
One great angle to look for involves cutbacks in distance. Horses cutting back in distance from a race at a mile or longer last time out into a sprint during Keeneland are better bets than they are almost anywhere else. Some trainers to watch for with this angle include Dallas Stewart, Graham Motion, and Ian Wilkes.
If opening week was any indication of what to expect from the top human connections at the 2021 spring meet, it is safe to assume that Joel Rosario and Luiz Saez will be dominant in the jock’s room. On Saturday, April 3 – the second day of the season and a day loaded with stakes – Rosario and Saez combined to win nine of the 11 races on the card. The riders won all nine of Keeneland’s opening weekend stakes races, and currently sit atop the standings with seven wins for Rosario and six wins for Saez through the first two days (21 races).
Rosario will leave Keeneland for various upcoming stakes opportunities but will mainly ride day-to-day at Keeneland for the rest of the spring season. Saez is likely to follow suit.
Other top jockeys at the meet include Tyler Gaffalione, who swept all of Kentucky’s major meets last year and comes off a solid winter at Gulfstream. At the most recent Keeneland meet in fall 2020, Gaffalione ran away with the jockey title with 24 wins to Florent Geroux’s 16 wins.
Steve Asmussen, currently battling for the meet training title at Oaklawn, will be right near the top of the trainer’s standings, but the one to beat this spring should be Brad Cox, who won the Keeneland fall meet 2020 with 15 victories to 12 for second-place Mike Maker. Other top trainers will be Chad Brown, Todd Pletcher, Shug McGaughey, and Wesley Ward, who will excel in turf sprints and send out some of the season’s earliest 2-year-old winners.
At the most recently completed Keeneland spring meet, which was in 2019, Ward was the leading trainer with 11 wins, followed by Cox with 10 and Brown with nine. Pletcher won five of 14 starts (36%).
The other main staple of the quality day-to-day racing is the great turf racing, which features full fields, tons of value, and loads of good overlays. Post positions and horses for the course are very important handicapping factors on the Keeneland grass course, and this factor will play out all throughout the meet. In Keeneland turf routes, inside posts are good, but middle posts are also fine all the way out to post 7.
The far outside posts, however, are not great at most distances on the Keeneland grass. Based on a large sample size in turf routes run at Keeneland since the fall of 2014, various posts 1-7 all yield between 10-14% win rates, but the outside posts average far worse winning percentages. The worst turf races for outside posts will be at 1-mile, and the absolute worst posts for all turf routes at Keeneland are posts 10 and outward. At one meet a few years ago, those posts combined to go 0-for-47. They have been only slightly better ever since.
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.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.