10/03/2002 11:00PM

Go with flow at Keeneland

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LEXINGTON - For those of you who have forgotten, and for those who are unfamiliar with Keeneland, here is the way the track bias played out during the last two race meetings: Last fall, horses who led at the first call won 21 of 79 main track sprints, a healthy 27 percent win rate. But the catch was that many of them were favorites who had been expected to win. Nine of the 21 paid prices ranging from $2.80 through $5.60. Early speed was less effective in route races where six of the 33 winners (18 percent) led after a quarter-mile. Only one of the six was a longshot, and the median payoff was $7.10.

Early speed rebounded with a vengeance during the spring meet this year.

Front runners won 33 of 71 sprints, but that is misleading since the 4 1/2-furlong races for 2-year-olds, filled mostly with first-time starters whose running styles could not confidently be predicted in advance, produced 10 front-running winners from 13 races. Subtract them from the sample and you still have 23 winners who led early from

58 sprints, a very impressive 40 percent. The payoffs on some of those winners delighted longshot players, with returns of $29.60, $37.40, $40.40, $56.60, and $185.20. Early speed was also formidable in main track routes where 12 of the 34 races, 35 percent, were won by horses who led at the first call. Half of them paid at least $11, including winners at $18.60, $19.80, and $44.

In both sprinting and routing, posts 1, 2, and 3 usually win more than their fair share of races, even after taking field size into account. During periods when a "golden rail" bias exists, post 1 can score at a 20 percent rate, or higher. Posts 10, 11, and 12 usually operate at a disadvantage, and can endure long droughts. That is especially significant when a favorite is stuck in one of those posts.

The ideal situation occurs when a favorite who has drawn wide has just enough speed to be stuck racing wide in mid-pack. Throw them out of your exotic tickets, and you can hit a few home runs.

The turf course usually favors off-the-pace runners and closers. Early-speed horses aren't throw-outs in turf sprints, but they are still vulnerable to being passed late by rivals who track them early.

As always, the most popular jockeys and trainers will be overbet. If one of them wins a lot of races during the first few days of the meeting, they will be bet even harder for the rest of the meet. Play against them when their horses don't tower above their competition.

The question handicappers must ask themselves during the first few days of this 17-day meet is whether the bias more closely resembles the one we saw a year ago, when speed didn't win as often as usual and didn't pay as much as usual, or the spring meet, in which front-runners were dominant and paid quite well.

I enjoyed a career-best Keeneland meet in the spring, mostly because there were not many late adjustments to make on race day. The bias was more consistent than usual. But if the track plays more fairly than usual, or changes more often, I plan to make late adjustments to my betting strategy on race day.

There will be no carved-in-stone bankroll bets. But I'll still have a number of strong opinions. And I will go out of my way to note which horses should be upgraded and downgraded if the bias unfolds differently than I had guessed that it might while handicapping those races two days in advance.

Also take the closing odds into account. You don't have to have a strong opinion on a race when you first handicap it to make it worth playing. Sometimes an unexpected overlaid price on a contender creates a betting opportunity you had not expected a couple of days before post time.

For example, if I give my top selection a narrow edge over my second pick, and there is a significant difference in their odds three minutes before post time, I can promise you that I will be betting my second pick at 10-1, rather than my top selection at 7-2.

I will gladly accept the credit or the blame for the results generated by my top selections when the dust settles at the end of the meet.

Nevertheless, experience has taught me that it is wise to call a few audibles at the betting window, as bias trends and odds changes dictate. You will achieve better results if you are willing to adapt to changing circumstances as they unfold at Keeneland.