By Gary West
FRANKLIN, Ky. (Sept. 18, 2013) — The first three days at Kentucky Downs produced record numbers, standout racing and a tale of two courses. The early racing emphasized some constants – such as winning favorites and success for horses from Arlington Park and Saratoga – but also stressed the importance of observation and warned handicappers against inflexible assumptions, reminding them that circumstances can change as fast as, well, the weather. Most of all, though, the racing supported the premise that Kentucky Downs, because of the quality of its racing and the value of its wagering, has become one of America’s most bettor-friendly racetracks.
On opening day, Sept. 7, Kentucky Downs handled $2,837,897 in wagers from all sources, a record for the all-turf-all-the-time racetrack in Franklin, Ky., and an increase of 108 percent from a year ago. A week later, the track was host to what was arguably the best day of racing in its history, with more than $1.3 million offered in purses. Boji Moon sparkled in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile, stalking the pace and then popping with the suddenness of a champagne cork to win by more than five lengths in his turf debut. It was his third win in as many starts, with his margins of victory totaling, with the help of a calculator, nearly 30 lengths.
And in his first ride around the unique 1 5/16-mile course, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens won the $400,000 Kentucky Turf Cup, sending Temeraine through a narrow opening along the rail to get up by a neck over Olympic Thunder, with Suntracer right there in third. And once again the handle topped $2.8 million.
From a betting perspective, some factual outcroppings stood out and a few trends emerged, all of which might prove valuable over the final two days of racing. For example, from the 24 races run over the first three days, 15 winners had just raced at either Arlington Park (nine) or Saratoga (six). The lucrative purses ($900,000 a day), the calendar, the location, the course and the brevity of the season all combine to attract horses to Kentucky Downs from all over the country. In the track’s first three days, the horses racing here had made their immediate prior starts at 20 different racetracks, including one in France. Another 23 horses made their debuts here. And yet two racetracks, Arlington and Saratoga, produced 62.5 percent of the winners. The obvious reason for their dominance is the quality of racing, of course, at Arlington and Saratoga. But could there possibly be more at work here? Could the courses at Arlington and Saratoga better prepare horses for Kentucky Downs’ unique course? Quite possibly.
Another salient fact from the first three days: The betting favorites won 50 percent of the races, including nine of 10 on Saturday. When the favorites start rolling in at such a high rate, anything above 33 percent really, it usually means the fields are small and the payoffs smaller. But that hasn’t been the case here. The races are averaging more than nine starters (actually 9.79). And because of the large fields and the low takeout, payoffs have been generous. In fact, just betting on the favorite to win would have yielded a 50.83 percent profit.
So what does the high rate of winning favorites mean? They won 37 percent of the races last year, by the way. With their continued success, are the favorites suggesting that bettors here are well informed and astute? Well, yes. But most of all, the winning favorites are arguing that the racing here is formful. If you can identify the best horse that fits the race and the circumstances, well, you can probably cash a ticket. It probably would be unreasonable to expect favorites to continue winning half the races, but don’t routinely toss them out of the betting mix because of some dedication to swinging for the fences: 18 of the first 24 favorites, or 75 percent, have hit the board, or finished in the top three.
Some patterns emerged among the people here, too. Trainer Wayne Catalano won with five of his first six starters, and Wesley Ward with three of his first seven. And don’t overlook Luis Jurado, whose five starters have all “hit the board,” winning two. Among the jockeys, Channing Hill (who’s four for four), David Flores, Jon Court, Rosie Napravnik and Antonio Castanon all had multiple wins.
But this might be the most useful lesson from the first three days of racing: Bettors shouldn’t neglect their most valuable asset, their observation. Weather and circumstances can abruptly change any racetrack, any turf course. Wind and water can move the surface material around on a dirt track, possibly creating favorable circumstances, often called a “track bias,” for a certain running style or position. Turf courses can change suddenly, too, largely depending on the amount moisture in the ground.
Through the first two days of racing, while temperatures soared and the sun beamed down on the course like a benevolent aunt, the Kentucky Downs turf was unabashedly kind to speed. In races run at distances less than a mile, the typical winner was within three-quarters of a length of the lead after the opening half-mile. And, horses leading virtually from the start won half those races. Early leaders also won two of the three races at distances of one mile and a mile and 70 yards. In two-turn races (1 1/2 miles and 1 5/16 miles), the typical winner attended the early pace, 1 3/4 lengths back after a half-mile.
Then a rainstorm that carried lightning bolts in its holster suddenly descended on the track, unfortunately if spectacularly, and forced the cancellation of the final six races on Wednesday, Sept. 11. And then, on the following Saturday, after the rain, which didn’t confine itself to Wednesday’s appearance, the turf course became much kinder to horses with late-running styles. With more moisture in the ground, speed no longer dominated.
The typical winner at the shorter distances raced 3.2 lengths back after the opening half-mile. Lien On Kitten rallied from nine lengths back to win the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Fillies Stakes. And at a mile, the typical winner rallied from 9.31 lengths back. Temeraine won after being 3.5 lengths behind during the early stages of the 1 1/2-mile Kentucky Turf Cup. So at every distance, early speed became less effective than it had been during the first two days of racing, and late runners more effective. A few horses even rallied in dazzling style to win.
So what will the course be like for the final two days of racing this Kentucky Downs season? Well, speed is always dangerous at the shorter distances, but don’t expect it to dominate. The late-runners might actually have an advantage in longer races. And, as Mark Hamill once said in a documentary film of the same title, Watch the Skies.