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CHURCHILL DOWNS TIPS TO WIN BIG ON DERBY DAY & BEYOND

By Noel Michaels

For lovers of Kentucky horse racing, the opening of Churchill Downs is truly a time to rejoice after so many winter months on Polytrack at Turfway, and the highly-touted but only three-week long Keeneland meet that serves as an appetizer for Opening Day and Kentucky Derby week under the iconic twin spires at Churchill Downs.

The 2015 Churchill Downs Spring/Summer Meet will begin on Saturday, April 25 with a special night racing card beginning at 6:00 pm. After Opening Night, normal post time will shift to 12:45pm including Tuesday thru Thursday of Derby week and then regularly on Fridays thru Sundays. Twilight Thursdays will commence May 7, with regular Thursday twilight racing scheduled with a first post of 5:00 pm.

The centerpiece of the Churchill Spring/Summer Meet, of course, will be the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 2. The 2015 edition of the Run for the Roses is shaping up as a top-heavy race with an unusually strong crop of talented 3-year-olds.

The Kentucky Derby will conclude a very busy opening week of action at Churchill Downs. Post times for Kentucky Oaks Day on Friday, May 1, and Derby Days May 2nd will be at 10:30 am.

Derby Day is always one of the best days of racing of the year - not just for obvious reasons with the Kentucky Derby - but because the Derby headlines a whole day worth of tremendous racing on both turf and dirt. The Derby is only one of seven Graded stakes races on the May 2 full card. Other standout events that day will include the G1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, and the G1 Humana Distaff just to name a few. Also, don't forget about Friday's Kentucky Oaks, the female version of the Kentucky Derby. For my selections in the Kentucky Derby and the Derby Day full card as well, click here to sign up online

Speaking of the Kentucky Derby, the 2015 renewal will be one of the most looked-forward-to in recent memory with potential superstars American Pharoah, Dortmund, Carpe Diem, and Materiality leading the list of contenders. In any other year, any one of those four horses would be a strong favorite. This year it will be American Pharoah, but no one would be surprised certainly if either of the other three were to emerge victorious.

The Churchill Downs meet gets going quickly, with just five days of racing at the meet leading up to Kentucky Derby Day.

Kentucky's three-week boutique Keeneland spring meet comes and goes very quickly, but the meet will still nevertheless provide a bounty of valuable information for handicappers that are anxiously awaiting the annual opening of the Churchill Downs spring meet.

This time of year, it doesn't take a genius to notice that things start to change awfully quickly for the better for handicappers who understand the differences between Churchill racing and Keeneland, and how it will affect the outcomes of the races and the types of horses that tend to win at Churchill Downs.

Handicapping Churchill Downs dirt races is another matter entirely. Day-to-day biases are much more common on this dirt track (usually depending on how cuppy the track is), so you will always want to pay closer attention to how the track is playing at any given moment in terms of post position or running style biases. You will also want to start by paying close attention to the rail in dirt races, in order to see if it again is playing dead, just as it has so often in the recent past at Churchill Downs.

CHURCHILL'S TRACK BIASES - IS THE RAIL STILL DEAD?

When speaking of the day-to-day biases that can heavily affect the main track results at Churchill Downs, one needs to look no further for their proof than the Churchill Downs race meets dating all the way back to Fall 2010, when the prevailing track began to lean strongly biased toward the outside - and against the inside!

This Churchill Downs outside bias has affected pretty much everything at the track since late 2010, but did this outside bias have any effect on the runnings of the recent Kentucky Derbies? Well, not necessarily. However, the first five finishers in the 2011 Kentucky Derby were numbers 16-19-13-14-11 with Animal Kingdom winning from post 16. Then I'll Have Another won from post 20 in 2012 and Orb won from post 15 in 2013. In 2014, California Chrome didn't break from the far outside, but longshot exacta horse Commanding Curve did (post 16), and Wicked Strong also hit the superfecta from post 19. Food for thought?

Just to show you how marred by anti-rail bias so many of the recent Churchill Downs meets were, all you need to do is looking at the lack of success for Calvin "Bo-Rail", the all-time leading jockey at Churchill Downs. He's riding the rail to slightly better than a horrific 5% win percentage since the fall meet of 2010 - despite riding a truck-load of favorites. This is due in large part to him always riding the rail, even when it's dead.

Will the perpetually dead Churchill rail carry over to the current 2015 Spring/Summer meet? Keep an eye on it. I would advise making adjustments to your handicapping and betting to factor in an anti-inside bias in all main track races at Churchill Downs until you see concrete evidence that the rail is no longer dead for a sustained period of time.

Until then, keep betting the outside horses and downgrading the horses from inside posts on the main track at Churchill Downs.

CHURCHILL DOWNS WINNING PROFILE

Both of Churchill Downs' racing surfaces, the main track and the turf course, are rather unique surfaces that each have their own respective quirks that are important for handicappers to understand.

First, the Churchill Downs dirt course is often regarded as a very "cuppy" surface, meaning the track does not retain enough moisture in it to hold the sand together. This causes the track to break away from under horse's feet resulting in footing that some horses love and others hate. This factor makes a horse's past performances at Churchill Downs very important, and makes Churchill Downs one of the tracks where the horses-for-the-course angle means the most.

Second, Churchill Downs' turf course is also sand-based, making its composition very different from most other turf courses with the exceptions of Keeneland and Fair Grounds. Chances are, if a horse as recently run well on the turf at either Keeneland or Fair Grounds, than that horse's form is much more reliable than horses shipping to the Churchill turf from other places. The Churchill turf, just like the dirt, is another place where you'll want to heavily weight a horse's past performances specifically on the home track's oval.

Finally, due to the cuppiness of Churchill's dirt surface, the track is more likely to be faster and more conducive to speed in the summer when temperatures and humidity are higher. Early in the spring meet, the track is likely to play slow when the weather is cool.

ANGLES FOR HORSES COMING FROM GULFSTREAM AND KEENELAND

The next thing handicappers should do when evaluating a horse's chances is to win at Churchill is pay special attention to the post positions that the horse broke from in its recent races at either Keeneland or Gulfstream (many of the horses running at Churchill will have made their last starts at one of these two tracks).

At Gulfstream, horses that drew outside posts in two-turn dirt races (1-1/16 miles to 1-1/8 miles) were at an enormous disadvantage, and horses who drew far inside in one mile dirt races were at a huge disadvantage. Therefore, if you see a Churchill starter exiting a bad effort in one of those kinds of races at Gulfstream, you should remember to give that horse an excuse for the loss if it broke from anywhere outside Post 6 at 1-1/16-miles or 1-1/8-miles.

As for the horses coming to Churchill from Keeneland, keep in mind that the inside six post positions (posts 1-6) were dominant in Keeneland sprints at the 2015 Spring Meet. If you see a horse coming out of a big Keeneland sprint effort from an outside post, you might want to upgrade the horse slightly at Churchill based on the fact it was at a post disadvantage at Keeneland.

In route races at the 2015 Keeneland Spring Meet, there was very little bias or favoritism for any post position or group of post positions versus any other.

CHURCHILL DOWNS TURF RACES

Beyond looking at post positions, the main thing you'll want to take into account on the Churchill Downs lawn is a horse's running style. Churchill's turf course favors mid-pack pace-pressers and stalkers strongly over all other running styles. Early leaders generally have a difficult time going wire-to-wire on this turf course, and the deepest of closers have a tough time getting up in time to win.

This analysis is especially true in one mile turf races, where early speed horses win less than nine percent of the time, and closers coming from further than 10 lengths out of it rarely ever win. The ideal winning profile in Churchill turf routes is a stalker that runs about four lengths off the pace at the first call (half-mile), and 2-1/2 lengths behind at the second call (6 furlong mark).

Finally, on the turf, keep in mind that horses coming from Keeneland race more often on less-than-firm turf than anywhere else. Many horses will be exiting bad efforts due to soft turf conditions and will be able to quickly reverse that form on firm turf at Churchill, and vice-versa. . . many horses that benefited from soft and yielding turf at Keeneland will not run as well if and when the turf ever gets back to firm at Churchill. This goes particularly for front-running turf horses who have a better chance to go wire-to-wire on firm turf than when the turf is soft, yielding, or good.

As far as biases go, Churchill Downs' turf course is generally fair to horses breaking from all post positions no further out than post 8. Posts further out than post 8 are at a bit of a disadvantage. The main turf distance that is affected by post position draw is a flat mile, where the win percentages for outside posts drop to an extremely poor average of 3-4% winners. Therefore, generally speaking, posts outside No. 8 are not great, and can be downright disastrous in turf races run at one mile. Take note also, that at a mile, middle posts 4-7 have, in the past, had an average win rate of nearly 20% making them clearly the best at that distance.

In turf sprints at Churchill Downs, the inside six posts seem to enjoy an advantage, and any post outside 6 is a disadvantage. This is in stark contrast to the turf sprint races run in New York at Belmont and Saratoga, which favor outside posts and where the rail and post 2 are both disadvantages.

WRAP-UP

The Churchill Downs Spring/Summer meet is always one of the best race meets at this time of year, and there is plenty of money to be made by handicappers who stay on top of the winning trends.  Best of luck, and enjoy the season at Churchill Downs.

Best of luck, and enjoy Kentucky Derby Day and beyond from Churchill Downs.

For my selections in the Kentucky Derby and the Derby Day full card as well, click here to sign up online


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