10/07/2004 11:00PM

To conquer Keeneland, bias data essential


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Having been to a lot of national parks and nature preserves over the years, I appreciate nature's wonders about as much as anybody. But regardless of how attractive these sites are, sooner or later a design flaw becomes apparent - there are no betting windows.

Thankfully, the good people who designed Keeneland did not make that mistake. At Keeneland's 17-day fall race meet, which began Friday and runs through Oct. 30, there are almost as many betting windows as there are beautiful trees with leaves changing colors. I like to think of Keeneland as the harmonious blending of Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Elliott Walden. With 19 stakes races yielding more than $4.6 million in purse money, and some of the best horses, trainers, and jockeys in the country, there is no reason not to attend.

The only thing that can make the experience better is to win money at those betting windows. If you are going to be earnest about that pursuit, you will have to understand the usual biases of Keeneland's main track and turf course.

A year ago, horses who led at the first call won 23 percent of the main-track races at Keeneland. That was much lower than usual, and far short of the 34 percent front-running winners on the dirt at Bay Meadows during that same month. But it was a different story in April of this year. First-call leaders won 39 percent of the dirt races. The majority of those wins were earned in sprints. In route races, the speed held just 23 percent of the time. But in sprints, the number was much higher at 47 percent. Part of that can be attributed to the success of early speed in 4 1/2-furlong races, but even with those races subtracted from the mix, front-runners were still dominant.

Keeneland's turf course is entirely different. In April, closers held a small edge. Twelve percent of the front-runners held on to win, but horses located in the rear half of the pack at the first call fared better than those in the front half at 53 percent vs. 47 percent. Things were much different a year ago, when front-runners almost always caved in. Only one prevailed from 28 grass races (less than 4 percent).

Post positions don't have much of an influence on the grass, but they have a big impact on main-track races. Inside posts are usually preferred in sprints, and when a golden rail bias is in effect, they are dominant. During the spring of 2003, post 1 boasted 20 percent wins in sprint races. Horses breaking from posts 11 and 12 in main track sprints are usually at a disadvantage, especially those who have the misfortune of being stuck in post 12, which showed just two wins from a sample of 103 starts in a study of four years of Keeneland's race results. That same test showed an average of 14 percent victories from posts 1, 2, and 3. Posts 4 through 7 were clustered at 10 percent. The 8, 9, and 10 posts were a cut below at 8 percent, but that stands to reason; the horses in those posts had more opponents than horses who were in inside slots in short fields.

Keeneland always attracts a large number of casual fans who only get out to the races infrequently. Their betting behavior is fairly predictable. They tend to overbet the high-profile horses, trainers, and jockeys, while underplaying the lesser known but capable names that are considered to be a cut below the best. This is especially true when one of the famous names gets hot at the beginning or in the middle of the meet. They will be pounded hard at the windows the rest of the way, creating plenty of good betting opportunities when the all but inevitable cold streak follows. The lesser-known horses, trainers, and jockeys still win their share of races, and when they do, the payoffs can be attractive.