By Noel Michaels
Desperate times call for desperate measures. With so few tracks operating and so few options available to horseplayers due to the coronavirus pandemic, handicappers have had to turn their attention to places they’ve probably never dealt with.
While tracks like Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs, and Oaklawn Park continue to run their meets mainly during Thursday-through-Sunday schedules, the first part of the week has been left mostly barren due to closures of most of the tracks bettors rely on dark days.
Thankfully, two tracks have stepped in to fill the void for horseplayers. They are two tracks that probably have not been on your handicapping radar until now. Those two Johnny-on-the-Spot tracks are Will Rogers Downs and Fonner Park. If you were not familiar with these two Midwest racetracks before March, chances are you are now. They are the only game in town for handicappers looking for some Monday and Tuesday.
If you have just begun to handicap these tracks on a weekly basis, here is a brief overview of what to look for during the “new normal” on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons.
Located in Claremore, Oklahoma at the Cherokee Casino in Cherokee Nation, Will Rogers Downs offers solid racino purses for nine- and 10-race cards three days a week through May 23, with a post time of 1:15 p.m. CT. The meet currently runs a Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday schedule, which will continue through April 22. Starting April 27, the schedule will shift to Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays through the remainder of the season.
Will Rogers conducts racing on a one-mile traditional dirt oval with one-turn sprints primarily carded at 5 ½ furlongs and 6 furlongs, plus the occasional 5-furlong dash, and two-turn routes almost always run at one-mile. If you don’t normally play Will Rogers, the purses might surprise you. Maiden claimers run for purses in the $11,000 range, and maiden special weights race for a purse of nearly $20,000. Allowances run for $20,000-$22,000, and Oklahoma-bred supplements bring those state-bred allowance purses up over $30,000.
Most of the horses racing at Will Rogers in the spring had been running at Oklahoma’s other main track, Remington Park, in the fall. This season there has been an influx of horses coming from Texas and Louisiana due to the curtailed race meets at Sam Houston and Delta Downs, and those horses generally tend to perform well at Will Rogers versus the local competition. Horses shipping from the closed down Turf Paradise meet in Arizona have performed particularly well this season and deserve extra consideration from bettors.
Since purses at Will Rogers are competitive, it may not be a surprise that the meet attracts some fairly prominent barns. Oaklawn leading trainer Robertino Diodoro is also the leading trainer at Will Rogers with 17 victories from 48 starters for a winning rate of 35 percent. Another prominent Oaklawn trainer, Karl Broberg, is third in the WRD standings with five wins from 33 starters for 15 percent. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen also has started 13 horses at the Will Rogers meet, and he actually won twice at WRD during his 43-race losing streak at Oaklawn. He now has three wins at Will Rogers for 23 percent.
Other trainers to bet at WRD include second-leading trainer Scott Young (13 wins, 25 percent), Jon Arnett (four wins, 36 percent), and a host of others with win percentages above 20, including Jody Pruitt (four wins, 17 percent), Kari Craddock (four wins, 21 percent), an Andy Gladd (six wins, 26 percent).
The jockey you definitely want aboard your WRD selection is leading rider Ty Kennedy, who has 19 wins from 55 mounts for a strong 35 percent win rate. Leandro Goncalves is matching Kennedy with 35 percent wins from fewer mounts (8-for-23), which also makes him a must-bet proposition. The other two jockeys worth focusing on are second-leading rider Floyd Wethey (15 wins, 23 percent), and David Cabrera when he shows up locally. He’s won with five of 17 mounts for 29 percent, and has been in the exacta with 11 of 17 (65 percent).
Located in Grand Island, Nebraska, Fonner Park is conducting non-spectator full cards of live horse-racing three days a week on Mondays, Tuesday, and Wednesdays through April 29. Unlike the other tracks currently racing in those days, including Will Rogers Downs plus Tampa Bay Downs on Wednesdays, post time at Fonner is at 4 p.m. CT. This means that it starts later and runs into the early evening hours, giving horseplayers a full day of racing action on the dark days.
Fonner’s track layout is a classic 5-furlong bullring. One-turn sprints on the traditional dirt main track are run at 4 furlongs, and longer sprints are run around two turns at 6 furlongs and 6 ½ furlongs out of the chute. Route races at a mile around three turns are also carded regularly.
Most of the horses racing at Fonner come from other small Midwest circuits at other times of the year, including Columbus, Prairie Meadows, Horsemen’s Park and Remington Park. This season, however, there has been an influx of horses from closed meets at places like Delta Downs, Sam Houston, and Turf Paradise, and overall those horses have done very well against the local competition especially those from Turf Paradise. Some horses don’t handle Fonner’s bullring turns, but when you see good effort(s) at Fonner or another bullring already showing in a horse’s past performances, then it’s all systems go for many of these out-of-towners.
The leading trainers to watch are Isai Gonzalez (22 wins through April 8) and Kelli Martinez (21 wins), but while that duo will battle it out to the end of the meet for the training title, Martinez is definitely the trainer to focus on for handicappers due to a dramatically higher win percentage. The Martinez barn is currently winning with 32 percent of its starters, while Martinez’s 22 wins have come from 95 starters for 23 percent. Other high-percentage trainers to look for include third-leading trainer David Anderson (14 wins, 19 percent), Marissa Black (11 wins, 22 percent), Steve Hall (seven wins, 21 percent), and Salvador Arceo (six wins, 26 percent).
The leading riders at Fonner who get most of the plumb mounts are Armando Martinez (33 wins, 22 percent), Jake Olesiak (31 wins, 20 percent), and Dakota Wood (23 wins, 16 percent). Another rider doing well lately has been Chris Feckler, who is up to 16 wins from 134 mounts.
Best of luck the rest of the season at these two Midwestern tracks that have been thrust into the forefront of horseplayers minds three days a week. When you’re looking for some Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday simulcast action, you could do a lot worse than Will Rogers Downs and Fonner Park.
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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.