10/14/2004 11:00PM

Early trends indicate rail slightly favorable

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - At most race meets, handicappers have the luxury of waiting to see the first couple of weeks of racing before committing to any opinions about the existence of, or the lack of, a track bias. That isn't the case at Keeneland's 17-day fall race meet. Wait too long to make up your mind, and the meet will be wrapping up before you make your first bet.

With five days of racing in the books through Thursday, it is a good time to compare the early trends with the results of past meets.

Last October, early speed was not as effective as it had been at most previous meets, with 23 percent of the horses who led at the first call holding on to win on the dirt. Early speed was much more powerful six months later, at the spring meet. An impressive 39 percent of the front-runners won on the main track, but the breakdown was unusual, with 47 percent wins in sprints and 23 percent wins routing. Some of the success in sprints can be attributed to the frequent wins in 4 1/2-furlong races for 2-year-olds, but that does not fully explain the difference.

So far at this meet, the results have fallen into the gap between the numbers from October and April. We have seen 33 percent winning first-call leaders overall, with a 35 percent success rate sprinting and 31 percent in routes.

Here are the details from each day:

* Friday, Oct. 8, was opening day. Front-runners swept each of the first three races, and handicappers who were clever enough to bet on them did not have to sweat out any close finishes. Tricky Devil scored by 18 3/4 lengths, and paid $12.60. Tarzan Cry won by 5 1/4, and returned $7.60. Summerly cruised by 14 lengths, with a $15.20 payoff. Six of the eight main-track races were won by horses who were located in the front half of their field at the first call.

Horses who were drawn on the rail, and were sent to the post below 20-1, outperformed expectations by showing flat-bet profits to win, place, and show.

The two turf routes were won from off the pace.

* On Saturday, Oct. 9, all seven of the winners on the main track were in the front half of their field at the first call. Two were front-runners, two were second at the first call, and the others were third, fourth, and fifth at that point. The first three races on the dirt were won by the horse drawn on the rail - two in sprints, the other in a route. They paid $5.20, $9, and $9.20.

All three of the route winners on the grass were closers who were among the last three in their field at the first call.

* Keeneland's main track played much fairer than usual on Sunday, Oct. 10. There were two front-running winners, and another from second place at the first call. But there was also a winner who rallied from last, and another from next-to-last. Four of the seven winners on the dirt were in the front-half of their field early.

Horses starting from post 1 who were below 20-1 won two of four attempts, but both of them were favorites, at $4.40 and $2.80.

* The main track was sloppy for the first five races, and then muddy for the last two dirt races, on Wednesday, Oct. 13. Horses who were positioned in the front half of their field at the first call won five of those seven races. Only one led early.

Horses drawn on the rail who were below 20-1 were mostly ineffective, with only one of six finishing in the money. That winner paid just $4.

The turf course was rated good. The first turf route was won by a closer who rallied from ninth of 10 with help from a solid pace. The other turf route was won by the first-call leader, but the slow 49.64 seconds and 1:14.78 pace helped Nannycam, the 4-5 favorite, while loose on the lead throughout.

* The main track was muddy all day on Thursday, Oct. 14. Four of the seven winners on the dirt led at the first call. Two others were third at that point.

Three horses who started from the rail were below 20-1, and two of them finished second.

The turf course was rated good. One turf route winner rallied from the rear half of the pack, and the other was second at the first call.

Since the rail has been an advantage on the dirt most of the time so far at this meet, it is tempting to guess that outside posts were a disadvantage. That has often been the case at past meets at Keeneland. But interestingly, if you set aside horses who broke from post 1, there was no specific advantage to starting from any of the other inside slots vs. the middle or outside posts.