This article by Rich Nilsen appeared in the April edition of Horseplayer Monthly. To read the remainder of that issue with more Keeneland previews, HANA's sixth annual track ratings, interviews and insight for free, please click here.
Gracing a picturesque stretch of Kentucky bluegrass that is surrounded by some of the country’s most beautiful farms, Keeneland Racecourse is unique in its beauty and history. Visit Keeneland once and you will quickly see that it is an incredible social event. Every day, weekend or weekday, hundreds of co-eds, mostly from the University of Kentucky, make their way to their local track for an afternoon of partying. Visitors come from all over the country. Although they all make for a very crowded atmosphere, the hundreds of inexperienced racegoers present at Keeneland contribute to large wagering pools as well as the occasional overlay.
However, as handicappers, we require more than aesthetics when choosing which tracks to invest in. We shouldn't be playing a track just because it is glamorous or popular. As handicappers looking to turn a profit, we need solid reasons to tackle a track that could easily be dubbed “the Saratoga of the Midwest.”
As Keeneland offers a unique meet, handicappers should first understand how the 16-day condition book is written. The racing cards cater to the high profile barns that ship in from out of state for the short meet. There are a few claiming races written, and the ones that are offer small purses in comparison to other tracks. The real reward to the Thoroughbred owner is winning a race at prestigious Keeneland.
The Racing Secretary does not card claiming races on the turf despite the fact that demand is high for these events. The only turf races are allowance events, maiden special weights and stakes. In addition to the winner’s purse, a pewter julep cup is given to the winning connections of all such races. To many owners, winning a race at Keeneland is equivalent to getting multiple pictures taken at another track.
Let’s look at a few of the valid reasons why we would want to tackle this oftentimes challenging meet.
1- Low Takeout
Kentucky racing offers one of the best takeout structures in the country. Straight wagers (win, place, show) are ‘taxed’ at only 16%, meaning 84% of the handle is returned to the betting public. Where it really gets good is with the exotics, especially multi-race wagers. All exotic wagers have a low 19-percent takeout, well below the national average. Compare this to the fact that many of the top tracks in the nation have takeouts of 23% or higher for wagers such as Trifectas, Superfectas, Pick-4’s and Pick-6’s. Keeneland is bargain hunting for the shrewd horseplayers who factor in the price of their wagers. This is one of the major reasons that Keeneland always ranks very highly in the annual HANA Track Ranking report.
2- Quality Racing
Keeneland offers a 15-day condition book this spring that is jam-packed with great racing. In fact there are 16 stakes races totaling $3.75 million in purses. As mentioned, the racing cards cater to the high profile barns that ship in from out of state, so the condition book and daily cards reflect this. There is a stakes race nearly every day, always part of the popular late Pick-4 wager.
The Central Bank Ashland and Toyota Blue Grass are worth a hefty 100 points each to the winners on the Road to the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Road to the Kentucky Derby (G1), respectively.
“Our number one goal is to provide the best racing program in the country,” stated Vice President of Racing W.B. Rogers Beasley. “We are exceptionally proud of this schedule and the exciting racing and wagering opportunities it offers our horsemen and fans.”
Five graded stakes, including three Grade 1 events, worth a total of $1,625,000 will rank Toyota Blue Grass Day as one of the nation’s strongest race cards. The undercard will feature the $300,000 Madison (G1), for older fillies and mares going seven furlongs; the $300,000 Jenny Wiley (G1), for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the turf; the $175,000 Commonwealth (G3), for older horses at seven furlongs; and the $100,000 Shakertown (G3), for older horses at 5½ furlongs on the turf. Racing cards don't get a whole lot better than this.
3- Turf Racing
Opened in 1984, the beautiful Keeneland turf course is one of the few sand-based turf courses in United States along with Churchill Downs, Tampa Bay Downs and Turf Paradise.
The Keeneland grass course consistently benefits closers. One must be an exceptional horse, or find the rare field with absolutely no pace, in order to wire a turf field here. Most front-runners collapse at the 1/8th pole while the winner is often seen making a sweeping, strong rally on the outside.
Always be on the lookout for runners from top turf barns such as Glen Hill Farm and Augustin Stables. It's surprising how often they will score at a price.
Finally, look for horses that have run well over this grass course in the past. These horses for courses often run well again at Keeneland, winning or finding their way into the exotics at a price.
4- The Trainers
Many barns point for this meeting and arrive loaded for bear. There are also many fine local trainers who fare exceptionally well during the short meet, and knowing who they are behooves the horseplayer. Every spring and fall, author and handicapper Art Parker updates his very comprehensive trainer database and he compiles the results in the bi-annual guide "Keeneland Winning Trainer Patterns."
Parker's digital book covers all the horsemen who have won races over the past eight Keeneland meets, and most importantly, how they did. Were the winners making class changes? Surface changes? What kind of work pattern did they have coming into the race? What jockey did they use and who were the owners? Parker details just how these horses were prepared by their winning trainer, providing players invaluable insight into the methods of these successful horsemen.
With Parker's book, for example, you'll learn not only how often trainer Tom Amoss wins with layoff horses (9 of his 17 winners), but also the workout patterns of those winning runners. Or how about local trainer Rick Hiles, whose three winners all sported the same handicapping pattern and won at odds of 9/2, 21-1, and 39-1, respectively. If a trainer has won at Keeneland, you'll gain insight into how they did it. It's a great guide for players that like to dive into the raw data.
Parker's "Keeneland Winning Trainer Patterns" is available free to members of BetPTC.com [enter promo code HANA when joining] or can purchased at my website, agameofskill.com.
5- Track Bias on the MainExploiting the Keeneland track biases used to be one of the many reasons that professional players salivated at the thought of opening day. The old dirt oval could be one of the most biased courses in the country and ‘being tuned into it’ proved to be very lucrative. Many handicappers believe that went out the window when management switched to Polytrack. That is not entirely true. The Keeneland Polytrack can oftentimes be very biased, especially when weather changes in the Bluegrass state.
One factor you can almost always rely on involves two-turn races on the dirt, specifically the 1 1/16-mile events. The starting gate for this commonly run distance is close to the first turn and the stretch run is short, ending at the first finish line, making it conducive to horses with tactical speed breaking from inside posts.
6- Focus on the Premier Jocks
At meets such as Keeneland, it is not surprising that the high-profile riders win most of the races. The best jockey agents get the best mounts for their riders, and the result is a lot of victories for a select few number of jockeys.
The first few days usually set the tone for the remainder of the meet. Stay away jockeys who start off cold. These jockeys rarely recover from a poor start at Keeneland and will subsequently burn a lot of money.
7- Wagering Menu
If there is a wager you like, Keeneland pretty much has it. With rolling Pick-3s, dime Superfectas, and early and late Pick-4 wagers with guaranteed pools, Keeneland offers a comprehensive wagering menu. It's a far cry from one of the first times I visited the track in the late 1980s. In one race I liked two horses ridden by Pat Day and Randy Romero, respectively, and both were juicy odds of 8-1. Needless to say, this was a rare occurrence at this track for either rider. There was no exacta in the race, and I had to sit there in frustration as the future Hall of Fame riders ran one-two.
Keeneland offer the best of everything, from low takeouts to just overall great racing. If you are fortunate enough to attend this track in person, you'll likely enjoy a wonderful day of horse racing. Spending an afternoon in Lexington attending live racing can remind us why we fell in love with this sport in the first place. Best of luck this spring!