By Noel Michaels
Handicapping at newly renamed Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort has its nuances, and it helps to pay attention to the daily happenings at the meet.
While the racing surface is mostly regarded as fair, the track does have some prevailing biases to watch for, in addition to some occasional track biases that tend to pop up here and there in terms of inside or outside paths, or speed or off-the-pace running style biases as the winter weather tends to change track conditions from day to day.
Top winter dirt racing is ready to return to the Midwest with the opening of the Oaklawn meet on Jan. 24. The track sometimes does not get the notoriety of other key winter meets, perhaps in some part due to the fact that Oaklawn does not have a turf course.
Nevertheless, with big fields, strong purses, and good betting races, the day-to-day racing is on par with the dirt racing anywhere at this time of year and therefore should be a point of focus for handicappers for the next few months.
The dirt course is a one-mile oval with two finish lines – the traditional finish line, and an alternate finish at the sixteenth pole which serves as the finish for one-mile races.
The second finish line has, in fact, made a big difference for Oaklawn handicappers in one-mile races, raising the overall success rate for middle posts and making outside gates nearly equal to inside posts, which in the past always had been advantageous nearly all the time in Oaklawn routes.
Inside posts at Oaklawn, and particularly the rail, are generally still good at all distances, especially at 6 furlongs. The drop-off in effectiveness from inside-to-outside is not really as dramatic as it used to be at the other distances, however, especially in mile races.
Most of the two-turn races at Oaklawn are run at either one mile or 1 1/16 miles. The rail and inside posts 1-3 tend to much more advantageous at 1 1/16 miles, where inside posts are the preferred draws. At one mile, however, the middle posts 4-7 are preferred.
Early speed horses and pressers that race on or within two lengths of the early lead have the preferred running style at each of Oaklawn’s three most commonly-run distances, 6 furlongs, 1 mile, and 1 1/16 miles.
In terms of running styles at Oaklawn, the tried-and-true prevailing running-style bias is always toward horses with early speed, or at least tactical speed, who can stay within two lengths of the early lead. Due to the one-mile Oaklawn track layout and relatively short stretch run in comparison to other tracks (with an even shorter stretch run at one mile), Oaklawn always has played this way and probably always will to some degree.
According to stats dating back to the 2018 Oaklawn meet, 6 furlongs is the kindest distance toward front-runners, who enjoy roughly a 30 percent winning percentage (the seldom-run 5 ½-furlong distance is even more speed-favoring with 38 percent of the winners going wire-to-wire). In routes meanwhile, about 23 percent of all mile races were won wire-to-wire, and about 28 percent of the races at 1 1/16 miles were won wire-to-wire.
There are more than three months of great racing ahead this season, so don’t overlook this high quality annual winter/spring meet. Factor Oaklawn’s prevailing track biases toward inside/middle posts and front-runners and pace pressers into your handicapping, and you will have a leg up on many of your fellow horseplayers.
Best of luck, and enjoy the meet.
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.